Phil proved to be a very likeable chap and didn’t seem to mind at all when I came over a bit blonde and forgot that to make a shower work you have to turn it on. The husband donated a bottle of Dandelion and Burdock from his stash to round off memories of Blighty and ‘when I was a lad’ and to repay the bottles of local brew that welcomed us when we arrived.
The alluvial Plains of Caen and Falaise (formed from prehistoric flood waters) are extremely fertile and Normandy is famous for growing sugar beet and apples and brewing Calvados (apple brandy) and cider. It is renowned for its dairy cattle and is the home of some famous cheeses such as Boursin, Camambert and Petit-Suisse. More excitingly for me it’s Frances leading horse breeding region.
We all know of the fairytale knight on a white steed and may even have secretly hoped for one to appear. It is in fact not a myth. The Percheron, historically an exclusively grey draft horse whose origins are a bit misty, was the French knight in full armours favoured warhorse.
The first horses in Normandy are thought to be the small Bidet brought in by the Celts. The Romans then cross bred them with larger mares and created the Norman horse. Both breeds are strong and warm blooded; good natured and hard working.
In the centuries that followed Normandy breeders became equestrian alchemists, cross breeding the warm blooded mares with stallions from hot blooded breeds to meet the needs of the day. In the process some breeds were created only to become extinct, not only lost in translation during the breeding process, but also with the rise of mechanisation. To say the matter of Normandy horse bloodlines is complicated is an understatement, even the breeders openly admit there is little they can say is pure.
In 1806 Napoleon opened the national stud at Saint- Lo (48 miles West of Caen ) Around the same time the Kings Stud (the Versailles for horses) dating back to 1715 was revitalised as the Le Pin national stud (30 miles South of Falaise) Today, both are open to the public.
The initial purpose of the stud farms was to produce war horses which went on to serve in civilian life in agriculture, industry and transport and, due to their success, horse breeding became an industry in its own right. The down sized Percheron draft horse was exported in the thousand to the Wild West frontiersmen in the early 19th Century, some of them returned to France to serve in WW1. Both Percherons and the Norman horse were cross bred with Arab and English Thoroughbred stallions and went onto to serve in the Napoleonic and both World Wars as artillery, cavalry, infantry and supply column horses where they suffered devastating losses. 47,000 horses served in the Waterloo Campaign alone and France mobilised over 500,000 horses in the Light Cavalry Division in WW2.
Today the Calvados region in Lower Normandy has one stud farm every 42 km, producing the descendants of the original Percheron and the two lines descending from the Norman horse; the Norman Cob and French Trotter. We actually only saw the one stud farm on our travels, me cooing at the leggy mares and nuzzling foals, but then we did miss a mountain
The Norman Cob with the short-legged and stocky characteristics of its Norman heritage, is around today as carriage and
farm horses. Refined by the leggy English Thoroughbred and hot blooded Arab, the Norman Cob provides for the pleasure and leisure industries as well as the military and police and more lucrative Equestrian Sports.
The region has eight racecourses including Saint-Pierre-sur Dive and Lisieux, also Clairefontaine and Deauville –La Tuoques near the up market coastal resort of Deauville where the famous Vente de Deauville yearling sales are held. As well as Thoroughbred racing the French are keen on harness racing, the flimsy carriages pulled by the French Trotter, a cross bred descendant of the horse version of a marathon runner the, Norfolk Trotter and descendants of the Norman Horse.
Sadly both the Percheron and Normandy Cob are today bred for meat. As a typical emotionally conflicted Brit when it comes to animals, I will happily munch on Thumper, Bambi and Skippy, but my eclectic tastes screech to a halt when it comes to Dobbin.