Receiving over 80 million foreign visitors each year, France wins the prize as the most visited country on the planet. Many come to experience the art, the cuisine and the culture. Some come for romance or inspiration; others for business (France's economy is the 6th largest in the world). Others still to retrace the steps their fathers made on Omaha or Utah Beach in Normandy, during that famous invasion on June 6, 1944. I recently retraced steps made by both my sire and dam in northern France, but it had nothing to do with WW II or those windswept beachheads, and their "invasion" took place 40 years ago, not 67. My parents and I were in search of the former province known as Le Perche, origin of the Percheron horse.
"Former" province, as it was divided during the French Revolution–into modern-day Orne, Eure, Eure-et-Loir and Sarthe. To be honest, I can't keep it all straight. All the name changing is just history, but then history is what brought us to the region. In 1971, my parents organized and led a tour to France, Belgium and England to visit the origins of four of our draft breeds. I, on the other hand, was part of a tour group to attend the 2011 World Percheron Congress, hosted by the Société Hippique Percheronne de France (SHPF) and held at Haras du Pin, the national stud.
Which calls for a bit more history ...
Of the 59 state (owned and run) stud farms in Europe, 20 are located in France. Their purpose, of course, is to improve and promote French horse breeding, and their means of doing so is by providing the public with access to top sires. Service to the "national stallions" is offered at discounted rates (from as little as €50 up to €165 [$69 to $230 U.S.], plus associated veterinary and technical fees). It is usually accomplished via artificial insemination, either on-site or shipped. Stallions may also, in some cases, be leased out to private breeders. The most famous and most spectacular stud, Haras du Pin, is one of only two whose buildings are also listed on the French National Monuments Register (the other, incidentally, is Compiègne). Besides ancient stables, Haras du Pin includes on its more than 2,471 acres an 18th Century château and is, understandably, a source of national pride. Shows, exhibitions and displays are presented there year-round. And, it served as the site of the 2011 World Percheron Congress (the 1989 & 2001 Congresses were held there as well).
Haras du Pin's story begins with the establishment of the royal stud farm, Haras d’Exmes, created to both fulfill a desire and to meet the remount needs of the Army. Its best animals were set aside for reproduction. The rest were sent to the Great Stable at Versailles and for the King's use.
The stud farm's history was sordid and involved dispersing the stock and properties during the French Revolution, per order of the constitutive Assembly (January 20, 1790). After a period of uncertainty, the state-run stud institution and the associated stallion farms were reinstated by Imperial Decree on July 4, 1806, and much of the land was bought back two years later.
The Haras d’Exmes then became the Haras du Pin, named after its locality rather than the surrounding woods, and was promoted to the primary establishment of the area. To reinvigorate the stables, Norman mares and English Thoroughbreds, as well as the horses repatriated in January 1814 from Borculo Stud, situated on former Dutch land, commandeered by the Empire and annihilated by the Napoleonic campaigns, were brought in to replace the old or sick horses.
The Haras du Pin reacquired its stature and readily accepted the role it would play in the breeding of French horses for more than a century.
WW I changed everything; the cavalry fell by the wayside as warfare became mechanized and horse racing was temporarily suspended in 1915. In 1921, Le Pin shifted production towards draft horse breeds that had proven their mettle on the front. The number of Percherons doubled in 20 years, reaching 123 head, while the crossbred population fell by one-third between 1923 and 1933.
More change was soon to follow. When German troops arrived in June 1940, management tried to evacuate the horses to the stud farm in Hennebont, some 240 miles to the southwest. The exodus proved disastrous with the accidental loss of some stallions, so the convoy turned back, only to find Le Pin already occupied by the general staff of the 10th German Army.
Today, the historic, 300-year-old Le Pin Stud Farm is home to over 200 horses including 40 national stallions of ten different breeds–primarily Percheron, Trotteur Français, Selle Français and English Thoroughbreds–made available to area breeders each year. Headquarters of the National Stud Farm Professional Training Center and home to an impressive collection of horse-drawn vehicles, Le Pin draws over 70,000 visitors annually.
Method of Judging
Besides being approved by a vet, stallions must "qualify" in order to be exhibited at the annual French National Breed Championships, which doubled as the World Congress this year. Qualification itself is a two-step process. First, all candidates must be presented at one of three (for stallions) local/regional competitions that usually take place in late July or early August, where they are evaluated by a panel of three judges
The judges evaluate each horse using a special grid divided into five categories: 1) head & neck; 2) topline; 3) limbs; 4) gait & sturdiness, and; 5) overall impression. Within each category, there are lists of qualities and defects that the judges may address if they wish. Each category is scored out of ten, for a total of 50 possible points.
To achieve the right to attend the Nationals, a stallion must receive a minimum score, determined by the French Percheron Stud Book Commission ... which begs the question: What is the "Stud Book Commission?"
The Stud Book Commission is made up of seven representatives appointed (not elected) by the governing council of the SHPF (including the president), and two representatives appointed by the Director General of the National Stud, one of whom will be secretary of the Commission. Commission members serve for one year, however, their term is renewed automatically unless they choose to step down. The Commission meets whenever the president deems it necessary or when a majority of Commission members asks for a meeting. Four SHPF members plus one National Stud member constitutes a quorum.
That covers the who. Now for the what. Until recently, a "trait" or draft-type horse needed 27 points and a coach-type horse needed 28 to "qualify" for the Nationals. This year, those minimums were lowered to 26 and 27 respectively. That's the first part.
The next step is to bring the horse to the Nationals for presentation before what is oftentimes the exact same judges. The score assigned the horse this time, however, determines whether or not he is "approved" as a breeding stallion and, hence, the only way his offspring can be registered. While this minimum score used to be the same as for the qualifier, it was raised to 28 and 29, respectively, for the Nationals this year.
Mares, too, have a minimum score they have to reach in order to show at the Nationals, however, there's no approval required for them in reference to registering their offspring. That all falls on the sire.
Now, let's get down to the show itself. Geldings, foals and yearlings are not shown (at least not at the Nationals), so the conformation classes pertain only to stallions and mares. All are categorized into one of three types:
a) the "Trait Petite Taille" are small-sized drafts, measuring under 165 cm (16.2-1/4 hh);
b) the "Trait Grande Taille" are large-sized, measuring 165 cm and over, and;
c) the "Diligencier" which refers to "light" horses, but the exact translation is "coach horses."
Interestingly, horses can and are "shifted from 'Trait' to 'Diligencier' and back again from one year (or one competition) to the next," according to Virginia Kouyoumdjiam, of the SHPF, and our translator.
Once the categorization is established, horses are then further sub-divided by age. For the stallions, that means 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds and 4 years and over. For the mares, there were classes for 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4 & 5-year-olds with a foal at their side,
6-year-olds with a foal, mares 7 & 8 with a foal, mares 9 and over with a foal, light mares with foals and yeld mares (all mares over the age of three, including yelds, are required to be in foal). If you think this equates to a lot of classes, you are on to something.
The methods of showing are also quite different. Unlike in North America, where we tend to relish a lengthy show season and the opportunity to present our animals to different judges, the French breeders do not make a career out of exhibiting their stock. They bring horses in from the pasture for the National Show, with very little fitting and shoeing done prior, then present them in their traditional manner.
The panel of three judges was stationed under an EZ Up tent and animals were brought before them one at a time. They begin by setting the horse up for a profile inspection. Sometimes the judges came out and walked around the horse; other times, they stayed in their tent. When the three of them were satisfied, they'd instruct the exhibitor to move the horse, whereby he'd walk straight away, then walk back. At that point, the judges would give the go-ahead to trot. For this, they follow a triangular pattern around barriers, returning once again to front and center where the judges would dismiss them and call for the next entry.
After the final entrant was evaluated, the entire class would be called back onto the perimeter of the ring, placed in order of highest to lowest points and the judges would take one last look. As you can imagine, it's very time-consuming.
Broodmares are shown with their foals ... loose foals of around five or six months of age. This made for some interesting entertainment, at least for those of us from this side of the pond. Sometimes the foals would run into the handler; sometimes the whip person. And when all of the entrants were brought into the ring for final placing, foals were tearing around in all directions.
Certainly a significant part of the Congress, the conformation classes were but one of many events. There were driving competitions, prestige carriage hitches, obstacle courses, sport driving, races, dressage, vaulting, horse pulls, Roman-riding, drill teams, tilling and logging demonstrations.
Marketing is definitely a big part of this event, and not via an auction. Several stallions shown were sold at the show, including five going to the National Stud, at least one to Japan, one to South Africa, a few others going abroad, and another 15 to 20 were sold to local breeders.
In addition, show officials estimated that 55,000 visitors were at Haras du Pin throughout the three days of the Congress–a staggering number for a heavy horse event, yet a tad easier to swallow when you realize there's no admission, and once you experience the beauty of the area.
Ecurie Biget, the farm owned by Patrice and Sylvie Biget, of Mesnil-Erreux, served as our introduction to French breeding farms. The Bigets have been breeding Percherons for 25 years and were the first in their country to infuse North American genetics into their breeding program. Their current herd consists of 22 head and Patrice says they target the breeding and show market. They bred both the Grand Champion Diligencier and the "International" Grand Champion Stallions at the Congress. Patrice also served as one of the judges, which he has been doing for many years, in addition to exhibiting their "English-type" team of mares.
Our second stop was to a farm known as Earl Gesbert, owned by Davy and Valerie Gesbert of St. Fulgent des Ormes. This young couple (Davy, 36 and Valerie, 31) has a dozen broodmares, raising around ten foals each spring. They recently lost their herd sire. Davy started about 15 years ago, initially with his parents. Gesberts' stock is 100% small-size French breeding. Davy believes that 25% of American blood is "just the right amount," with his ideal combination being a horse with American genetics crossed on one of pure French breeding. One of Davy's goals is to resurrect the "old" lighter horses of pure French breeding. He remains adamant about maintaining the old lines.
Not unlike here in the U.S., some of Gesberts' stock sells as riding horses. The majority of their marketing is done via their web site and through past customers.
Our next visit was a horseless one, yet the place oozed with Percheron history. Four generations of the Aveline Family have occupied La Crochetière, all of them breeders of Percheron horses since 1817. You can even find a photo of the place in Alvin Sanders' and Wayne Dinsmore's A History of the Percheron Horse, published in 1917. The current resident is Monseur Guy Aveline, who's pedigree is a veritable who's who of Percheron personalities. His great-uncle, Charles Aveline, was the founder of the French Percheron Society. And Guy's grandfather, Louis Aveline, was sent to the U.S. and Canada during WW I to buy horses for the military. Louis' 1915 stops included the Bar U and Namaka Ranches in Alberta, headed by George Lane, after which Louis stated that the Percherons being produced on these ranches were equal to any produced in France, and added that he did not believe that at the present time, it would be possible to select from any one establishment in France three stallions equal to the three stallions at these ranches in service.
Guy, his wife and his sister were gracious and congenial hosts. Although there hasn't been a Percheron on the farm since around 1976 (when the grey stallion Farman was exported to Bill Lucas of High River, Alberta, Canada), it wasn't difficult to look out on the pastures and into the barns and imagine them full of horses.
Elevage du Grand Prainville, the farm owned by Sylvie Martz and Eric Albert, near St. Jean-Pierre-Fixte, was our next stop. The first attraction at this farm was the château built in 1496. Sylvie says their ecological approach to everything led them to the use of Percherons. She had contacted the SHPF in 1995 to learn about the breed. Today she stands a couple of stallions, breeds for the type of horse she wants, logs with horses and also breaks horses. A gelding in their care won the single horse pull at the World Congress.
Sylvie is an ardent proponent of infusing more North American genetics and appears to be happy with the direction she is taking her breeding program. "I don't know if I am on the right track, but I think I'm on the way," she concluded.
Elevage de Vanoise, owned by Guy Merel, Margon, was our last farm visit and involved the greatest number of stock. Guy has around 20 broodmares, raises 14 to 18 foals annually and owns 30 to 40 head at any one time. By a conscious decision to breed for lighter bone and black coloration, Guy had independently imported the Pleasant View King son, Donamerr's Titan, years ago, which has made a lasting impact on his breeding program. Though Titan is no longer alive, a 4-year-old son was present. Guy had actually sold the horse previously, but was boarding it for the new owner.
Guy's foals were consistently more modern and included a few blacks, which he finds a great demand for from German buyers. The subject of breeding for color was intriguing, in part because we North Americans have pursued blacks, while 90% of the Percherons in France today are grey. The remaining 10% are black–chestnuts and sorrels, however rare, cannot be registered. The overwhelming proliferation of greys is evident in the coloration of the foals. Some that were at the Congress–just five or six months of age–were already white. Black horses are actually frowned upon by some breeders, as they consider grey to be the true French Percheron. Guy Merel is clearly not of that mindset.
In Good Taste
Unlike here in North America, demand for broke teams and/or geldings is quite meager in France. The primary demand is, and has been, for breeding horses. Of course, the supposition that most horses in France are bred for the meat market exists, yet we learned that both the number that go to slaughter, and the number of French that eat it is on the decline. "I think that younger people view the horse as a 'noble' animal rather than one bred for food," speculates Virginia Kouyoumdjian.
With this abatement in the meat market, demand from elsewhere will have to pick up the slack and Virginia believes that may be starting to happen. "Very few people both breed and use their horses," she explains. That may be changing. It also appears to be connected to the type of horse being bred. There are clearly proponents of several types of horses wherever horses exist, including here in North America. Yet, the Percheron remains the most exported French breed of horse.
When asked how French breeders look upon what we in North America do, and what we highlighted at our most recent Congress in Des Moines, she said, "There are people interested in how things happen in America. Two of the people who came along to Iowa last year are young men in their 20s, sons of major breeders, and I think they were really awed by some of the things they saw."
It was a fascinating and enlightening experience to visit the area where the Percheron horse was created. It was also satisfying to tread where my parents had tread for the same purpose. The Le Perche area is as proud of, and devoted and loyal to its heritage with Percheron horses as is Kentucky with its history of Thoroughbreds. And the Percheron breeders that we visited could not have been more pleasant, hospitable and accommodating.
Attending a World Congress so far from home, however, was the apex. I have been involved in past Congresses as an exhibitor, a vendor and as an organizer. I now add spectator to my rap sheet. From all of those contexts, what was most striking to me was the fact that this was truly an international affair, not just in name. Horses were brought from Britain, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Germany to take part. Delegations from fifteen countries were present and involved, as was evident at the international conference that kicked it off. With Percherons resident on five continents, would I then label it a "worldwide community?" After witnessing the event in France firsthand ... absolutely.
History long ago elevated Le Perche to a place of prominence with breeders and admirers of the Percheron Horse. It not only remains as such today, but it certainly appears to have a future as one as well.
Grateful thanks to Virginia Kouyoumdjian for all of her help with both our tour and this editorial.