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.

 

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