Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Black Princes of the Ariège

Brilliant news - the article below featured in the November issue of Ireland's Horse and Pony    The magazine (Ireland's only monthly journal for the horsey world) is available at Eason and Tesco outlets. 

The piece is about the Mérens, the beautiful breed of black horse native to this region of France; the glorious Ariège-Pyrénées

Two of the Savignol families magnificent ponies
Where I live now, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, southern France, the hilly, rocky landscape sometimes reminds me of the west of Ireland, if on a much larger scale.

Just like Connemara, a special breed of horses, native to the region exists; the beautiful, jet black Mérens, known as the Black Princes of the Ariège.
Their origins can be traced back to prehistoric times, through thousands of years of evolution. In the famous cave of Niaux there is a drawing of a horse which is said to represent a Celtic pony and it does look extraordinarily like one of the splendid, Black Princes.

In Oughterard, a long time ago, I was lucky to meet the Geoghegan family, who, with passion and years of knowledge, bred wonderful Connemara ponies.

Here in the Ariège a very special family dedicates their whole existence to the breeding and conservation of the Mérens. The Savignol family own the stunning Haras Picard Du Sant, the only Mérens horse breeding farm in France to be classed AB (Agriculture Biologique).

They are the first Mérens breeders in France to use organic farming practices; the entire philosophy of the Savignol family is based on preserving the race and original characteristics of the breed. Everything is done in harmony with nature and is to the advantage of the horse, not the owners. No chemical intervention whatsoever is used; the horses are treated with osteopathy and homeopathy and raised following the principles of the Pat Parelli method.

During winter this area gets heavy snowfalls and temperatures drop, but because of their general sturdiness and heavy coats, whatever the weather the Mérens remain outdoors all year round, with foals being born in spring. Just hours after birth each foal is handled, so it grows accustomed to a human presence and touch, resulting in a healthy, gentle and docile horse.

Jean Louis with one of his foals
As they are growing, they are handled for about four hours each day. Such close, regular human presence ensures that the human becomes like a familiar animal to the horse. 

High summer, when the grass dries up with the heat, is a time of great adventure. In early June, the Mérens are brought right up to the high mountains for summer grazing. This is called the Transhumance and it takes three days to walk them up to the mountain pastures. It is a spectacular sight to see the Black Princes, walking mostly in single file through the countryside, using ancient paths, old roman roads and high mountain trails, headed for five months when they live in complete liberty in the mountains.

Now a natural hierarchy develops within the herd, as the dominant horses teach the younger animals the basis of how to behave in their society. Once each week the breeders make the trip up to check that all is well.
The Savignol horse farm sits in a pure picture postcard, hilltop village in the Ariège region, in the heart of the Midi-Pyrénées and on a sweltering afternoon just before the Transhumance, Jean Louis Savignol took me on a tour of the surrounding countryside to see their horses. I first met one of their stallions, some mares and foals and on our arrival in the field, most of the horses immediately headed for Jean Louis.

After a bit, I too handled the foals, was playfully nipped by them and nudged by the mothers, and all the time the Stallion stood, quietly grazing, hardly taking any notice of us. Pure serenity at high levels.

Just a few kilometres away, we found the bulk of the herd - no foals or stallions here – in a massive field, standing under some enormous oak trees, finding shade from the intense heat. 

Once again, most of them came straight over to nuzzle up to Jean Louis, who explained to me that the horses choose to be with humans, not the other way round. They are not afraid, nor are they looking for treats; neither he nor I carried any ‘rewards’ I our pockets. I was obviously accepted too and suddenly I was in the middle of the herd; the feeling was pure magic.

I was ecstatic with delight; I might have been seventeen again and I was catapulted back to a day, in Connemara, having climbed into a field, when a pony suddenly appeared, crashing through jungle-like green and gold high ferns. The shiny coat, the strong, muscled body, the striking head held high, with long black mane and tail flying made an awesome sight. This wasn’t your usual, ordinary pony; but a pure star, still unbroken, the stuff of dreams and, even in those days, worth a fortune. He had the magic; it seemed as if he possessed the spirit of all that had gone before.

Now, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, daft as it sounds, I felt the same spirits, the same magic, surrounded as I was by thousands of years of history.

Having witnessed, over the years, so many different ways of getting a horse to do what we want, it was extraordinary to me, to hear Jean Louis explain the Savignol family’s approach, and indeed their success. Nothing, he assured me, absolutely nothing is done to interfere with the natural life of their herd of Mérens horses.

The Haras Picard Du Sant sells ponies for riding and driving; each one is entered in professional competitions to validate its potential as a leisure horse. They already have the characteristics of being dependable, loyal and trustworthy, with solid strong bodies and big generous hearts. They possess a quiet assurance and a calm approach, are sure footed and patient.

How thrilling to find these beautiful, magical animals here, linking me with a memory of a wild landscape and another ancient breed of horse; a special, fairy-taleConnemara pony.

I thank the Savignol family for allowing me to use the stunning pictures of their horses. They, and their herd of Mérens can be found at:

09230 Lasserre 

Tel : (33) 05 61 66 65 34

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