Years ago, the German photographer Jaroslav Poncar told me about running into the legendary French anthropologist Dr. Michel Peissel in Himalaya in the seventies. “People were saying, ‘Peissel is coming! It’s Peissel.’ So I went out to meet them—Peissel and his nice blonde companion,” Poncar added with a grin. Later, in Paris, Peissel and Poncar ended up living on the same street, and Peissel would hang around Poncar’s studio. He was, Poncar said, “a braggart.” Peissel would do things like forget to mention the two mathematicians he met during his seminal travels on the steppes—as if he were the only European to venture so far afield. “And! Michel did not discover that horse,” Poncar had sniffed, referring to an archaic Tibetan breed called the Nangchen, which Peissel is credited with bringing to light. “But the French love horses,” Poncar offered by way of explanation. I didn’t quite absorb his meaning. What he seemed to suggest was that Peissel could be forgiven because the French simply love horses so much. Recently, I attended the ninth edition of the equestrian competition Saut Hermès in Paris. There, people again and again recounted this fact: “The French love horses.”
In France, riding is the top outdoor sport, one enjoyed, according to the French Equestrian Federation, by two million men, women, and children. I had heard there are some five thousand equestrian centers here, a remarkable figure, but when I reached the federation to confirm, I was told, “In fact, we have 9,351.” A preponderance of France’s competitive horsemen and horsewomen came out of the pony clubs—France hosts more international equestrian competitions than any other nation and is home to Equidia, Europe’s only television channel dedicated to horse sports. (Not to mention, here in the capital, beyond carousels, all the major parks from the Luxembourg Gardens to Buttes-Chaumont tender pony rides.) Horse country is up in Normandy. It is where, for example, most of France’s national stud farms, created in 1665 for the benefit of the nation’s cavalry, are located, including le Pin, the very best one, and where Thierry Hermès, a half-French, half-German orphan, went to learn the harness-making trade before founding a workshop in 1837 in the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris.
In its earliest days, the Hermès brand was well known for its saddlery. The luxury leather-goods house, heralded by its orange Pantone, is now popular for the Birkin bag, but Hermès still makes saddles, starting at six grand—for puissance, polo, dressage, or all-purpose—as well as other accoutrements for your horse, including stirrups, ear nets, bits, and brushes. These products are advertised as “doubly bespoke,” crafted for the rider as well as for the ride. Hermès’s partner riders (whom you could—but shouldn’t—call sponsored athletes) consult with a staff veterinary surgeon to develop products that keep all parties happy in the saddle. Saddles are the only thing still manufactured on-site at the Hermès HQ, on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in a small atelier of twenty artisans. On-site, too, is a museum, closed to the public, of horse-related artifacts. Often, these items inspire the designers. There’s a leather-bound volume dating to the early seventeenth century,—which includes life-size illustrations of bridles and horses pulling ornate sleds with bears, ostriches, or mermen for coachmen—that’s influenced more than one scarf print.
The brand DNA is basically equine. Because of this, where the Louis Vuitton Cup and Rolex 24 at Daytona play as naked advertising opportunities, the puissance competition mounted annually by Hermès feels realer.
On the morning of the first day, we took seats in one of the two stadiums that flanked the main arena. It was bedded with damp sand and laid with jumps modeled on the facade of Hermès HQ, a rocking horse, chess knights, horseshoes, orange h’s, Gothic church windows, and flower trellises.
Edwina Tops-Alexander, an athletic blonde from Australia and last year’s titleholder, rode in on a reddish-brown mare with a scarlet ribbon tied in her tail named Lintea Tequila. They placed eleventh, for reasons beyond me. Like watching Olympic ice skating with nil knowledge of the sport, watching showjumping as a novice means you default to the obvious issue of grace. Not all horses who clear jumps are equal—that I could tell. Sometimes their legs looked rickety. Sometimes, in puissance speak, they “jumped clear”: charging and tucking, soaring something fierce through the course, and an announcer would declare, “Oh, parfait! C’est magnifique!” as speakers bleated a James Brown lyric (“So good / so good”).
Around the arena, the Grand Palais was set with an Hermès boutique, a library dedicated to books about horses, a club for the riders, a photo studio, an interactive station where you could mount and learn about the models of saddles, and an outpost of the saddle workshop itself. Marco, one of the artisans, showed off the stencils he uses to pattern the saddles from three types of exquisitely graded French leather. Each saddle takes him four hours to cut out—and another thirty hours of work for the rest of the atelier team to finish. An expert named Juliette demonstrated the EQUIscan, a spidery blue device that measures ninety-eight different points on the horse’s back, and with which she and colleagues travel across Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Australia, fitting the animals for saddles. “We watch them moving too,” she explained. “That’s very important.”
During the halftime for the show, the French horse trainer Bartabas, who is behind the popular Théâtre Équestre Zingaro, released some seventy Welsh ponies and one kicking donkey into the arena. They were unsaddled and unbridled. Their handlers kept to the sidelines, communicating only with rattles and whistles while the glass-domed exhibition hall swelled under the effect of classical music. It is hard not to like the sight of a horse herd. Semiloose, swirling sheens of muscle under coats the colors of nuts and river stones: the horses recalled the walls of Chauvet and Lascaux Caves, upon which ancients sketched and painted their portraits. (Yesterday, in Paris, I trotted by an entire window display of books about these horse-art grottos.) As John Jeremiah Sullivan notes in Blood Horses, historic zoologists who catalogued the artwork in prehistoric caves found that “horses outnumbered every other group of animals.” Sullivan adds, “Our awe in their presence—who has not felt it, just standing across the fence from one?—is as old as anything we can call ours.”
Afterward, I went to browse the pop-up library. Among the titles were Le carrousel du roi-soleil, about the two days of horseplay that Louis XIV organized at Tuileries Palace to celebrate the birth of his first son, and Western Camarguais, on the very first Westerns, filmed in France’s rugged marshlands south of Arles. (“Bouillabaisse Westerns,” those silent movies were dubbed.) The Rhône delta there is inhabited by the Camargues, a wild stock of gray-white horse bred by the Phoenicians and Romans, who brought them over, and recruited by Napoléon Bonaparte, who lived to ride as much as to rule. The emperor restored the national breeders that were shut down after the Revolution and boosted the cavalry into a fantastic force; usually, he is depicted atop a silvery mount called Marengo. (The warhorse was captured at Waterloo and brought to England, where he eventually died of advanced age; last year, his skeleton was put on exhibit at London’s National Army Museum.) If you ask the French why they so love horses, many respond, “Because of Napoléon.” An architect—who self-identified as “end-of-race aristocracy”—explained how horse culture further embodies apparat: formality, prestige, pomp. A tired colleague answered, only half-joking, “Because we love lasagna!” She was referencing the 2013 scandal when horsemeat was found in ready-made beef lasagna sold in the UK. The revelation dominated headlines in Europe, and in a fun turn of national pride, French consumption of the horse steaks and horse sausages (still sold at boucherie counters) rose by fifteen percent.
I picked a digestion of Albert Lamorisse’s Palme d’Or-winning, Camargue-starring short film Crin Blanc (1953), handed back to me by the clerk in a signature orange shopping bag. If any one cultural product points up the French zoolatry, it’s Crin Blanc. White Mane, as the name translates, is the Gauls’ equivalent of The Black Stallion (1979). In it, a herd leader—a white stallion—is collared by ranchers. White Mane escapes them only to be approached by the young grandson of a fisherman, whom he nearly drowns, then befriends, and ultimately chooses over his herd. A horse and a human are better together.
Chantel Tattoli is a freelance journalist. She’s contributed to the New York Times Magazine, VanityFair.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Orion and is at work on a cultural biography of Copenhagen’s statue of the Little Mermaid.