France: A History in Horse Breeds

A new arrival at the Haras de Vulsain in France. | Photo by Elisabeth Lévy

The French have a very long history with horses. Some of their ancient breeds, like the Camargue from the Provence region, date back to the time of Julius Caesar and later were recruited by Napoléon for the army. They and were even used in the construction of the Suez Canal. The Cheval de Merens, native to southwest France, traces its origins back to prehistoric times. A mountain pony with a black coat and no markings, there are over 90 registered sires and its temperament makes it extremely well suited for equestrian tourism in the mountains.

The haras of France, the National Studs or breeding farms, are one of the country’s oldest administrations. They were created under Louis XIV by his financial advisor Colbert in 1665. During the French Revolution when everything that smacked of royalty was destroyed or ransacked, the haras were abolished and not re-established until 1806 by Napoléon, who favored Arabs as his mount of choice. The early role of the haras was essentially military and now has evolved to coordinate the various activities of the French horse industry.

This federal body’s mission is to promote and develop equine breeding, working with professional unions, local administrations and non-profit organizations. In addition, they are active in equine identification and maintain a central file of registered horses, register and keep surveillance on horse-dedicated premises open to the public, collect and process economical and financial data on markets, trades and equine professions and promote sporting techniques, practices and products.

There are 23 stud farms in France with independent breeding farms concentrated around National Studs in particular regions. The heart of the French Thoroughbred world–Pur Sang, pure blood–for example, is found within a 100-mile area, concentrated around the Haras de Pin, located in Normandy, some two hours northwest of Paris. Its great, brick stables were built in the 17th century to house 400 stallions. The first horse race here dates back to 1765 after French Anglophiles imported British racehorses and then welcomed challengers.

The two main Thoroughbred training centers, Chantilly and Maisons-Laffitte, are within a 20-mile radius of Paris. Chantilly has a Living Horse Museum located in the immense, 18th century stables, reputed to be the most beautiful in the world and once accommodating 240 horses and 500 hounds. There is a horse show there in the spring, and I’ve mentioned to Monsieur François Lévy that I’d like to show at Chantilly–so that I can get a picture with the magnificent château in the background. M. Lévy is the owner of the Haras de Vulsain, the breeding farm in Burgundy where I ride and occasionally teach.

Racing on turf at Deauville, a picturesque town on the English Channel, is a summer highlight in August, drawing such large numbers of Parisians the area is called the 21st arrondissement. (Paris is divided into 20 sections.) The famous yearling sales of Deauville attract all the high rollers in the industry. I had a chance to ride along the beach of Deauville in the early morning when it’s open to lads galloping their sets of racehorses, as the tracks are closed to workouts so as to preserve the grass. The two jumpers Julie Ulrich and I were on were on their toes when we began and eventually settled after a good trot through the waves on the hard, wet sand.

Selle Français

The Selle Français is the breed Americans most associate with France. It was given its official title as late as 1958. Its origins are a cross breeding of Normandy mares with English Thoroughbreds with its sources primarily situated in western Normandy’s Manche area near the Saint Lô national stud, in lower Normandy and around Cluny, in France’s eastern central region. For more than half a century in Burgundy, a specific branch has been actively selected for steeplechasing.

| © Cynthia Hankins

With such diverse lineage, conformation can vary, but the horses tend to be large, good-boned and attractive. Since 1995, a Selle Français has to have at least one SF parent. In the whole of France, the privately-owned sires represent more than half of all the sires, numbering 574. There were 8201 births of Selle Français in 2002.

It is this breed that is found most frequently in the French show jumping ring and known the world over by some of its performers on the international scene such as: Dollar du Murier (by Jalisco), ridden by Eric Navet, the show jumping individual silver and team gold at the World Equestrian Games at Jerez in 2002; Baloubet (by Galoubet), ridden by Rodrigo Pessoa for Brazil, the “three-peat” World Cup winner in 1998, 1999 and 2000; and Espoir de la Mare (by What a Joy), with rider Jean Teulere who captured the individual gold and team silver in jerez in eventing.

The Selle Français studbook has influenced other European sport horse studbooks with horses such as Cor de la Bryere, a leading Holstein sire with offspring in German, Dutch and Belgian breeds, and Almé, with progeny in Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.

Garde Républicaine

The Garde Républicaine, a prestigious mounted division of the French police, traces its origins back to protecting the kings of France. The Garde rides Selle Français, known for their good temperament. Today, its duties include honor guards in parades and preserving the peace in the woods and parks of Île de la Cité (Paris and its surrounds). A spectacular display of the Garde’s horses and riders in breathtaking uniform occurs during the 14th of July parade down the Champs Elysées. While living in Paris, I was bicycling along a quai when I came upon a mounted Garde unit trotting toward Invalides near the Pont Alexandre III, stopping traffic in all directions. All the horses were chestnut, the uniforms and tack–double bridles–were spotless.


The Anglo-Arab is a cross, as its name indicates, between the Thoroughbred and the Arab. In the late 1800s Limousin, in southwest France, around the town of Limoges–like the dishes–got serious about breeding programs, although these sires exist throughout France. Its Arab qualities of beauty, elegance and endurance, and the added Thoroughbred aspects of height, strength and speed make it as widely reputed under saddle as a Selle Français. While the Anglo-Arab is seen in the show ring and dressage arenas–show jumper Olisco has Anglo-Arab blood, as did Atlanta double gold medal winner, Jus de Pomme–it is also a particularly good three-day horse.


The Arabian, one of the most ancient breeds, was introduced to France in the 8th century during the Crusades. As a warhorse, it took part in the development of several other breeds, most notably Thoroughbreds in England. Napoléon was one of its biggest promoters and imposed purebred breeding. Most of the breeding today is centered in the southern half of France and, as in the United States, the Arab is often seen in endurance competition and leisure riding.

French Trotters

French Trotters have undergone selection in their breeding program since the mid-19th century, a result of crossing more Normandy mares with Thoroughbreds and particularly Norfolk trotters from England. Norfolk trotters were bred for their elegant style and speed. Hackney horses and ponies have their blood. With the success of French horses on native and foreign soil, the interest in trotting races has continued to increase. Their breeding region is found in the whole of northwest France, that is to say, Normandy. Most breeders have no more than two or three mares and they often breed, school, train and race their horses themselves. This explains why one so often sees little Renaults pulling one-horse trailers with sulkies strapped to them.

All trotters must participate in qualifying tests, doing a kilometer in a given time, which in turn, eliminates 50% of the horses presented. But the breeding numbers are remarkable: with 579 sires, there were 11,049 births in 2002. The other interesting facet of trotters here is that some are destined for mounted races. I’ve never seen anything quite so unbelievable as watching a trotter race on TV where the jockeys, with long stirrups, are posting so rapidly as their horses peel around the track that it looks as if the film speed has been comically increased.

Draught Horses

France also has a number of draught horses. The most well known is the Percheron, native to the Normandy region of La Perche, from which it derives its name. Percherons have been used for army cavalry horses and farm horses, and have even pulled trolley cars in Paris in the 1800s. The world record holder for the largest horse is a Percheron called Dr. Le Gear, which stood at 21 hands. One of the oldest draught breeds, the Ardennais, dating back to the Romans, is still used for work in vineyards and logging areas where all-terrain vehicles can’t get in.

For Cynthia’s comparisons of French and US riding styles and her experience judging a French hunter division, see her “Riding in France” article in the February 2005 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!