Monday June 25 2007
I woke up... in France!
Caroline brought me coffee (merci!!) and breakfast out on the patio overlooking La Masselle, and I sat like a princess sipping and eating, surveying the farm of horses, stone houses and barns , and remains of old stone walls, beneath me.
Caroline is from Germany. She came from the show world, met Stephane in a show 9 years ago, and he got her into endurance. She's never done showing since. She doesn't care for that world anymore; endurance people are much more friendly and down to earth, and it can be such a family oriented sport.
Stephane joined me on the patio for breakfast. He's been riding since he was little; it was his mother that got this family's endurance sport going. They had horses when he was growing up, but it wasn't until his mother went to a ride in Florac in 1977 to watch, that she decided to convert to endurance. They sold all their horses, and bought 2 Arabian mares and an Arabian stallion.
Stephane's mother had a serious injury in 1980, and so Stephane took the endurance riding reins. The family bred horses for endurance and show, and they bought and sold horses. One of Stephane's first horses he bought and trained was one of his best: Oumzil Tobiha. In the same season, Oumzil was Reserve National Champion in show and winner and Best Condition in a 120 km endurance ride. Stephane sold him to the French National stud in 1993, and he is still a top sire.
Stephane's place now is bringing endurance horses along. He breeds a few of his own , though he's cut back on the breeding because it's too much work. He partners with several breeders, taking the horses and training them and developing them into good qualified prospects for sale. Rarely does he have 1 or 2 of his own top level competitors, because his clients buy them when or before they get to that stage.
In his paddocks Stephane has horses with many generations of pure endurance breeding. And he says when he rides them, he can often feel those different bloodlines in them – this family line has the same type of recoveries, or the same way of going – you can feel it on their backs and through the reins.
So, what is the secret to the success of the French in endurance? “It's two things,” says Stephane. “First, you have the breeding.” Two of the best stallions to come from France were Persik in the 1970's and 80's, and Siroco Sky. In 1974 the National Park of Cevennes set up a breeding scheme to produce pleasure and show horses, and Persik – a purebred Arabian born in Tersk in the Caucasus in 1969, was bought. He was a great endurance horse, and a superstar sire. He won the first major endurance ride created in France – the Florac 100 miles, which he won in 1975 and 1976. He was the world's best producer in 2000, the year before his death at age 32. His great lines carry on: roughly 50% of his offspring qualify on worldwide 120 km and over rides. Through 2004 he'd produced 2 World Champions, 2 Reserve World Champions, 1 Reserve European Champion, 1 ELDRIC Champion, and 8 National Champions... and the legacy continues through this day.
Siroco Sky (Crabbett and Polish breeding) did not compete in endurance, and while his offspring were strong, had good bones and good feet, they were maybe not so good in their metabolics. The second generation of Sirocco Sky, however, were very good.
Gosse d'Avril was another National Park of Cevennes stallion that contributed to the successful breeding program.
There's also the fact that for 100 years in France, the solid foundation under the endurance horse breeding is that they were flat racing horses – in other words, working horses, not the fragile spindly legged ornamental show horses you sometimes find. Breed a horse that can't work as an athlete to another like horse, and you're not going to get a good endurance horse out of it.
“The second secret of the French endurance success,” says Stephane, “is its big base of endurance riders.” There are some 4-5000 endurance riders in France, old to young. More young people are being brought into the sport, learning endurance, so as your base of riders grows and improves along with the breeding, the entire sport can only improve.