You’ll see these semi-feral horses in Southern France, specifically within the Camargue region. The history of this breed is somewhat unknown, though it is believed to be one of the oldest horse breeds in the world today. For several hundred years, the harsh environments of the wetlands and marshes in Camargue have worked to create a breed of horse that is incredibly hardy, has a unique agility, and a stamina that is virtually beyond compare.
Although these horses are known for roaming through the wetlands in a semi-feral state, they have been captured and tamed over the years as well. It is the traditional mount for those who are bullfighters in the region and have been used for agricultural and recreational purposes as well.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of a herd of white horses, though technically they are gray, galloping through wetlands, then this romantic image was likely the Camargue horse herds from France. It is one of the most popular images that has come out of this part of France and has been displayed on film numerous times.
The Camargue horse was exported to Italy in the 1970s. There it is called the Cavallo del Delta and is treated as an indigenous breed. About 200 horses are currently registered under this format. The current global population for the Camargue horse is believed to be several thousand.
What Is the Origin of the Camargue Horse?
The Camargue horse is native to the Iberian Peninsula. When the Celts and Romans would make their way into the region, one of their first points of emphasis was to find the horses in the region because of their hardiness, appearance, and general willingness. Archaeological evidence points to the Camargue being in the region for more than 2,000 years.
The genetics of the Camargue is like other Iberian horses, though the closest relations tend to be those from the north. Some older breeds, such as the Jaca, are believed to have come about through ancient breeding programs that involved the Camargue.
Then, as various ruling entities came into and eventually left the region, the bloodlines of the Camargue were passed along to other breeds. Even South American horse breeds show characteristics that are consistent with the Camargue horse.
The work ethic and strength of the Camargue horse led to it being exported for specific job opportunities that were being conducted in the late 19th century. This breed was instrumental, for example, in the building of the Suez Canal. The exporting process created problems globally with the breed as the lineage was being crossbred indiscriminately because of a need to have work horses more than purebred horses.
It was a practice that would continue for nearly 100 years. It wouldn’t be until 1976 when the government of France would set specific breed standards for the Camargue horse. At the same time, the government began to register the main breeders and horses in their region. In just 2 years, a formal breed stud book would be created.
Breeding farms outside of France are uncommon. In the UK, there is just one herd. In the United States, it is almost impossible to secure a domestically-raised Camargue horse.
The Expected Characteristics of the Camargue Horse
A Camargue horse is always gray. Their skin is black, though the coat hairs tend to be a white color when the horse reaches adulthood. When this breed is a foal, it may have a coat that trends toward a dark brown or black color, but these dark hairs typically fade and become replaced with the lighter coat over time.
Most Camargue horses are smaller than the average horse, with many standing less than 14 hands high. Although stallions can weigh up to 1,100 pounds, most within this breed weigh between 700-900 pounds.
They may be smaller in size compared to other breeds, but they are quite strong. Adult horses have the strength to carry a grown adult.
This breed is quite like the Barb from a pure appearance standpoint. They have a square-shaped body type that looks a bit heavy, but they are also quite expressive with their stance and reactions. Their eyes should be set wide and be bright, complementing a flat profile and forehead. The cheekbones look to be almost chiseled, creating a contrast that brings the eyes to the expressive ears.
Camargue horses have withers that are defined, but not in a way that is exaggerated. Their shoulders are powerful and their hindquarters are quite muscled. This creates a horse that looks to be well-proportioned, with supportive knees and firm hooves that can withstand the marshy environments of its home. The soles of the hoof are wide and large to create more stability as well.
Camargue horses may be thought of as a rugged horse, but their intelligence is incredibly high. They rely on their strength and stamina, but can learn new skills quickly and are willing workers once they adapt to less of a wild lifestyle. Three registration categories currently exist for this breed.
Although this horse typically exists in a semi-feral state, they are remarkably calm in temperament. They are easy keepers, but retain their independent spirit even if they are no longer in the wild wetlands of France. Their background has given rise to a breed with unique abilities and stamina that makes them useful for long-distance riding events.
The Camargue registry is exclusive for foals that were born or identified in the home region. They are branded before being weaned and are part of the semi-feral herd structure. A second registry features horses that are foaled and identified in Camargue, but do not come from the semi-feral herds. The third registry is for Camargue horses that are foaled and identified outside of the home region.
Terminology for the Camargue Horse
The local dialect offers several specific terms for the Camargue horse that are often used when discussing individual horses, programs, or characteristics. Here is a complete list of the terms that may be found in the description of a specific horse.
- Cavalot: This is a horse breeding program for Camargue horses in the identified region.
- Court: This is a Camargue yearling.
- Doublen: This is a Camargue horse or bull that is 2 years old.
- Ferrade: This refers to livestock branding that occurs in the Camargue region.
- Gardian: This is a Camargue herder.
- Gardianou: This is a Camargue herder apprentice.
- Grignon/Grignoun: This is a stallion from the Camargue Breed.
- Manade: This is a Camargue herd of horses, though it may also be used interchangeably with a herd of cattle in the region.
- Quatren: This is a 4-year-old Camargue horse or bull.
- Rosso: This is a feral horse that has a proven Camargue lineage.
- Ternen: This is a 3-year-old Camargue horse or bull.
How the Camargue Horse is Used Today
Camargue horses are the traditional mount of herders in the southern regions of France. Herders will typically ride the horses, even today, for their livestock management duties. They have a useful “horse sense” when it comes to working with cattle from the region.
Camargue horses perform well in equitation events as well. They do well in parading events, traditional activities, and local gaming events that involve horses.
They are also a popular tourist attraction for those who visit the Camargue region. Guided tours that take people out to the wetlands and marshes to see the horses in the wild is a major economic force for the area.
This breed has also been used for movies and shows over the years and has been portrayed in several different books. Although the 1950s was the most popular time for this breed in Hollywood, photographic opportunities for these horses are a good draw for the region.
The Future of the Camargue Horse
Although the Camargue horse is thought to be a rare breed, its population numbers continue to rise. With strict standards in place, overseen by the French government, and global breeding programs establishing themselves, these horses will continue to have an influence on the equine world, just as they have had for potentially thousands of years.
These horses enjoy being social, but thrive in structure that is hierarchal in design. They follow the leader. You can see this when the horses run. When the lead stallion gets tired of an activity, the rest of the herd follows suit.
Assuming that conditions remain relatively constant, the Camargue will be able to thrive. Although herds living in the wild are less common today than in generations past, ranchers that work with these animals still let them run free from time to time. Whether you see them on the Rhone River or you visit a breeding farm to get to know this horse, meeting one will change your life.
That is a guarantee.