The Camargue horse is an ancient, semi-feral breed of horse native to the wetlands at the mouth of the Rhone River region of France. They are named for this area of France also known as the Camargue. These horses are extremely hardy and have been making their way in the wild for thousands of years. Their coarse square heads and unkempt manes and tails make them look primitive but they are full of life and spirit. It is these characteristics, together with a little human intervention, which has ensured their survival and won the hearts of many riders.
There is a bit of controversy over the exact history of the Camargue horse because it has been around for so long and there is no long standing record of breeding. Many believe that they descended from an ancient horse called the “Sotutre.” These horses lived in the Paleolithic era about 17,000 years ago. Evidence of this connection can be traced to the presence of ancient horse remains found in the Burgundy region of France.
Certainly they have more recent bloodlines impacting their overall genetics such as the Iberian horse. The ancient Roman and Celtic invaders were impressed by the little horse and were thought to have bred the Camargue to some of their war horses. This mix led to the creation of the Spanish war horse. This crossbred horse was found to be hardy and flexible in tasks they needed to perform to include the use of the Camargue in the construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860’s. Napoleon used them as war horses in his crusades in Europe.
In 1976 the French Government became involved in preserving the Camargue breed by defining its standards. They opened the studbook in 1978 and began registering. According to these standards, a horse can be registered only if it is born outdoors and was seen suckling from the mother in order to prove parentage.
There are two groups of horses that are registered: those born in the region called sous berceau, and those born out of the region, or hors berceau. The breeding of these horses is not very complex. All the breeder does is choose a Camargue stallion and allow nature to take its course on the open range with no human intervention. The foals are born from April to July in the pasture. These horses are never stabled. At age one are brought up to begin the taming process which includes branding. Each gardian has its own brand, hence they can be culled easily from the herd. Training begins at the age of 3 years and they are handled in a methodical and progressive manner to build confidence.
As noted, the Camargue horse is small, sturdy and not very refined. They are always gray with black skin although the untrained eye may refer to them as being white. They are often born black or dark brown and lighten to their mature color around four. They stand approximately 13.1 to 14.3 hands tall and weigh 700 to 1100 pounds. They have long manes and tails, wide chests, thick necks, and sturdy legs with broad hooves. Their feet are adapted to the marshy area in which they live. They have a calm and willing nature. They are very playful and love to swim.
The main job of the Camargue today is as the mount of the French cowboy who is called a “gardian”. These cowboys tend the herd of Camargue bulls which are used for bullfights. The gardians and their Camargue’s form close bonds despite the fact that they live a semi-feral life. One reason for this is their high level of intelligence. These cowboy-horse relationships are known in France to be “marriage-like.” The gardians still live in the small huts near their mounts as they have done for hundreds of years.
People also use them for pleasure riding. Notably, they are offered up to tourists who wish to explore this area of France. The Carmargue has noteworthy endurance and covers a lot of ground in a day’s trip for the adventurous visitor. Herds of Carmargues standing in mane high grasses surrounded by pink flamingos have proved memorable for many tourists to the region
With government protection ensuring purity of bloodlines, these horses continue to adapt to their tough environment. They live in marshy grassland and are able to withstand extreme weather conditions and famine much as their primitive ancestors lived. Also as a result of this human intervention, they do receive preventive health care and maintenance to include gelding studs which appear to be inadequate for breeding.
Just as champagne can only be grown in champagne Camargue horses may only be bred in Camargue so there are no breeders and no individual Camargue horses in Australia though it is entirely possible that the DNA of these horses was present in the early horses arrived in Australia in the 19th century and traces of that DNA could still be found in the wild horses of central Australia or the snowy mountains of New South Wales