Anyone who was a fan of Robert Vavra’s books will be intimately aware of the Camargue horse breed of the marshlands of France. Although Vavra photographed any and all breeds of horses, the Camargue is front and center in his landmark book, Such is the Real Nature of Horses (William Morrow & Co.; 1979.) Since they live so close to water, they are sometimes nicknamed the horses of the sea.
The Camargue is a semi-feral breed that was developed in the marshlands of southern France. They are most often born dark and then gradually lighten to a white-grey when they mature at around four or five years old. This region of France is also known for its feisty black bulls, and Camargues broken to saddle have remarkable cow sense. They would have to, because bullfighting in southern France is done on horseback.
Camargues show a large influence on Spanish-bred horses, such as the Andalusian, not only with their cow-sense, but their ability to use their hindquarters well under them for propulsion. They have large heads, wide eyes, deep chests, short backs and a low-set tail. They are usually called ponies because they rarely grow over 14 hands in height, but have the body shape of a horse rather than a pony.
It is unknown just how old of a breed this is. It is thought to be one of the oldest breeds in France and perhaps second only to the Pyrenean Tarpan in age. Another theory is that the Camargue is the descendant of the now-extinct breed, the Soutre. Camargues have undoubtedly been influenced by any horse that managed to wander away from camp or were turned loose in the marshes to fend for itself.
However, Camargues breed remarkably true to type, almost making clones of themselves, which is something that does not happen to the feral herds of Mustangs in North America. Currently, the breeding is supervised by just one group – the Biological research Station at Tour de Valat.
This is a breed that has stayed close to home, although there are Camargue breeding societies in many European counties, including Germany and Great Britain. When feral-born colts turn four, they are caught, selected and only the best are allowed to return to the marshes. The rest are gelded and become excellent riding horses for the local bullfighters as well as for pleasure and endurance riding.
Camargues are excellent swimmers and tend to have a pretty steady temperament. Perhaps living out in the marshes has helped them quickly adapt to many situations. Camargues have been used in many television shows and films where a horse needs to swim. One such movie was The Black Stallion (1980). Five in all portrayed the Black, including two Arabians, one Thoroughbred and a Camargue dyed black for all of the swimming scenes.
- International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds Bonnie Hendricks. University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
- Storey’s Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America. Judith Dutson. Storey Publishing, 2005.
- The Official Horse Breeds Standard Book. Fran Lynghaug. Voyageur; 2009.