Monthly Archives: August 2017

Meet the Mérens, a horse with a unique place in French history

French riding holidays
Our Mérens horse Mollie.

If you’re looking to ride a sure-footed, hardy, and docile horse, look no further than a Mérens.

Also known as Ariégeois ponies or Cheval de Mérens, the small horses are native to the Ariégeois and Pyrenees mountains of the south of France.

Always black, the Mérens can either be a small and traditional mountain horse, or a taller, more modern horse.

They were often used for farming and as pack horses because of their superior endurance, and were traditionally taken on a summer migration higher into the mountains – a practice which is being revived in the area.

Now, Mérens horses are used primarily for riding and carriage driving.

The breed standard says a Mérens should have an ideal height of 14.1 to 15.1 hands and a weigh 400kg to 500kg.

Their black coats can take on a ruddy tinge in the winter and foals can be born silver-grey, black, or coffee-coloured. Their coats become black as they grow.

Some may have small, white markings on their face.

 

Thousands of years of Mérens history

The Mérens breed is thought to have originated in prehistoric times, either from Iberian horses or Oriental horses brought to the area by settlers coming from the east.

There are records of small black horses in the area which go back to the time of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.

They have been associated with famous historic figures include Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte. They pulled the artillery used by Napoleon’s Grand Army in its Russian campaign.

Smugglers used these horses to haul their ill-gotten gains through the Pyrenees, they were used by miners, and at the end of the 19th Century they had become known as light cavalry horses.

Widespread cross-breeding had led to decline in the pure-bred population. So, in 1908 a local agricultural society too charge of the breed, creating a registry in 1933 and a stud book in 1948 under the control of the French National Stud.

As machines replaced horses in French agriculture, the population declined disastrously, putting the breed on the verge of extinction in the 1970s.

Then, there were just 40 pure-breed Mérens horses registered with the stud book and a reported 2,000 animals of Mérens descent.

 

How hippies saved the breed

Hippies looking to escape the rat race and become self-sufficient discovered the breed when they moved to the Ariège mountains.

They resettled areas which had become depopulated and brought a welcome boost to the local economy.

They also started Mérens breeding programmes, just at the time there was a resurgence in interest in riding during the mid-1970s.

Many Mérens horses are descended from a semi-feral horse called Bonbon who was orphaned by an accident and raised on goat milk, returning later in life to his herd in the mountains as a prize stallion.

Numbers recovered to a reported 4,000 animals in 1985 and there are 600 pure-bred horses now in the stud book. There are now around 500 births every year.

One genetic study in 2008 however, still considered the traditional Mérens an at-risk breed.

The breed has become more and more popular. In fact, French magazine Cheval Pratique ranked the Mérens one of the 23 most beautiful horse breeds.

There are now Mérens horses registered in Italy and Belgium, and some are reported in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, India, and Tunisia.

In 1998, the French National Stud reclassified the Mérens as horses rather than ponies.

 

Our Mérens horses, half-sisters Nao and Mollie, are beautiful examples of the breed.

Both are docile and sure-footed – and ready to meet you!

Find out more about our horses here.

Are you ready to book your next French riding holiday? Book here.

 

Visit prehistoric wonders during your horse riding holiday in France

CAVEPAINTINGHANDCDLA painting of an ancient hand in the caves at Pech Merle.

Have you ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of our prehistoric ancestors?

During your holiday in the Lot department, you can do just that – and you can see paintings they created between 16,000 and 25,000 BC.

Take a trip to one of the most awe-inspiring attractions near Château de Laumière, the Pech Merle caves.

The site is one of the few in France with prehistoric cave paintings which remain open to the public.

The cave system extends over 1.5km from the entrance, down into an area where a river once carved deep channels and where prehistoric people lived.

The cave entrance had been covered by a landslip until the 20th Century, giving the system an airtight seal.

Then, two teenage boys discovered the paintings in the deeper areas of the caves in 1922.

Henri and Andre David Dutetre had spent two years exploring the cave system, encouraged by local curate and amateur archaeologist Father Amédée Lemozi.

The caves opened to the public in 1926 and were classed as a historic monument in 1952.

In the seven chambers of the cave system, the walls show hundreds of breath-taking paintings of reindeer, woolly mammoths, bison, horses, and humans.

Some of the most touching images are those created when our prehistoric ancestors blew ‘paint’ over their hands using a delicate spitting technique, creating outlines on the wall which we see to this day.

Fossilised footprints of children, who once ran through the then clay floors, have been discovered more than a half a mile underground.

It’s believed the cave system was used for shelter during the Ice Age.

The area would have had a climate similar to that of the Arctic now, and its animal species were very different to those found in modern-day France.

The geology of the caves is also fascinating.

Visitors can see how they were formed and eroded by water over many thousands of years.

You’ll also marvel at the stalactites and calcite pearls in this amazing cave complex.

The number visiting the system is capped to ensure there is as little erosion as possible and that changes in gases underground caused by people breathing out carbon dioxide do not harm the beautiful cave paintings.

Visitors are advised to wear appropriate clothing and shoes for the conditions underground. The temperature is 12 degrees Celsius. There is also a discovery centre at the site. Find out more here.

 

Visit spectacular caves and drift along on an underground river

You’ll see more of France’s geological heritage at the Gouffre de Padirac, considered the most spectacular cave system in France.

There, a steep descent takes you 103m below ground to a boat trip on a turquoise underground river with spectacular views.

You’ll also discover a 60m high stalactite hanging ‘by a string’, and walk to find the most impressive cave ceiling in France in the Salle du Grand Dôme.

The awe-inspiring ceiling is 94m high.

Visitors are advised to book tickets in advance because it can become very busy and to be prepared for stairs and lifts. Discover more here.

 

Step into a lost world in an old mine

A former phosphorous mine is another underground wonder in Lot.

The Phosphatiere du Cloup d’Aural, Bach, has been colonised by some surprising vegetation since the miners left the site in the 19th Century.

There are giant ferns and up to 13 different orchid species. It feels like walking through lush jungle.

The site’s fossils have provided a rich insight into the area’s prehistoric past.

Researchers have found more than 500 animal fossils dating back up to 34 million years. Visitors will learn about the prehistoric mammal the caducothère, which resembled a rhinoceros.

Visitors are encouraged to take a 50-minute tour of the site.

Find out more here.

 

Is it time for your next riding holiday in the South of France? Contact us today about availability http://www.chateau-de-laumiere.com/enquire.php. There’s so much to see and do on your trip.