L’hippodrome

I was one of those girls who wanted a horse growing up. I was lucky enough that my grandmother took me horseback riding at a local farm when I was young, until the farm was sold. My horse friend was named Sneakers. That was as close as I ever got to a horse for many more years, but I still dream I will have a horse one day. Some dreams never die!

I have a few favorite horse stories from my travels that I will share with you.

One of my favorite stories is about l’hippodrome. It turns out, hippo is the Greek word for horse. Hippopotamus actually translates to “river horse” in Greek, although, I’m not sure how much they look like horses. I’ll file this into the drunk sailor category, the same guys who thought manatees were mermaids. So in French, l’hippodrome is the horse track, like a velodrome is a bike track (velo = bike). My friend asked one spring Sunday if a group of us wanted to go to Durtal and check out the horse races. I was super excited for a variety of reasons. Obviously, I was excited because I love horses. I had never been to a horse race, and I always love experiencing something new. Sundays were notoriously uneventful in France, as everything but terrible Kebab shops and McDonald’s, is closed. I also happen to like gambling.

durtal
Château de Durtal on the Loir, France

Durtal is a small village, if you blinked while driving through it, you might miss it completely. It does have one of my favorite castles, and it is on my life bucket list to spend a night in the castle. It is located about a 30 minute drive from Angers, as is Saumur. Saumur is home to the National Riding School of France, as well as the Cavalry School. The whole region has a long history of equestrianism, and as such, there are also quite a few Hippodromes in the area and riding schools.

Saumur-Ecole-de-cavalerie_JS-Evrard
L’École de cavalerie, Saumur, France

My friends had dressed nice, and I felt a bit underdressed, as I didn’t realize this was an event to dress nice for. Now, I always spruce up before going to watch the ponies. We arrived in a muddy field that doubled as a parking lot, we paid to get in, and there was even a group discount! When we walked into the small Durtal Hippodrome, you find yourself under the stands in a large room. There was a long bar serving 2.50 euro rose and red wine from the Loire region on one side of the room, and the other side was where you placed your bets. We decided to check out the paddock first (where you can get a look at the horses before they race), as they were currently parading the horses for the next race. We pulled out our programs, check our watches and figured out what was the next scheduled race and the names of the horses. We decided to all just pick a horse for fun, and go watch this race before placing any bets. My friend Edouard had picked the largest, black horse, and the rest of us settled on different horses. I tried to tell him that just because a horse was big, did not mean he would be fast.

paddock
An illustration of a paddock at a horse track

We decided to watch the first race right from the finish line. After the horses came out of the gates, and began rounding the track, Edouard’s horse was in dead last. Then, it jumped the fence, and the jockey hopped off! Next, the horse began bucking and running all over the place in the center of the track. We could not stop laughing. The other horses came around the final turn, and as they came closer, you could feel the entire ground rumble under your feet as they came charging closer. My heart was pounding with excitement, and then the race was over. It didn’t even matter to me what horse won. It was breathtaking just to watch them run so close and so fast.

durtal-hippo
The track at Durtal, during a race in which the horses pull a sulky (two-wheeled cart)

We decided it was time to place some bets, and most importantly get some wine. Now, I don’t like to spend a lot of money when I gamble, and I have met many people who thinking gambling is a complete waste of money. To that, I say, the movies can cost almost $50 these days, for two people, with popcorn and a soda, and that is just two hours of entertainment. You can easily spend less than that, placing a minimum $2 or 2 euro bet on a few races in an afternoon. And the races last more than two hours! Imagine how much fun it is when you win, even if you only win a little bit. That first day, I did win, and I would have won more, but one of my friends placed a bet for me incorrectly. An important lesson, always place your own bets. How to bet on horses is complicated to explain and much better done in person. Just know that the people taking bets are happy to explain how it works, but won’t have any tips for you. I recommend just starting with picking one horse to win for fun.

Story Number Two:

One of my roommates in Angers had a horse. When I first moved in, she offered to take me riding with her horse sometime. Now, in some cultures, people offer to do things, and it never happens. I learned in France if someone offered to do something for you, they always meant it, and you should always take them up on it. I wore some old clothes and went with Anne to the stables where her horse was. She was an older stubborn mare, but was spotted, gray and magnificent. We ran her a bit, Anne teaching me the French words to get her to run faster and slower. Then, it was time to saddle her up. I was surprised how much I remembered from when I was younger, but I still followed Anne’s instructions.

As Anne, the horse, and I all got more comfortable, we decided to trot the horse, and no one is sure what happened next, but the horse ran off the path, into a ditch, I was flung off, and luckily just landed in some mud. Anne’s face was mortified as she got her horse under control, and she was worried I was hurt. By the time she got to me, I was laughing so hard, she realized I was fine, started laughing herself. The horse was probably the most shook up, asking itself, “Who is this strange lady riding me?” When we were done, we took the horse in, cleaned her hooves, brushed her, and I enjoyed this part just as much as everything else we had done.

iceland-horse
Beautiful Icelandic horse and pony, in summer coats, in their natural habitat

Story Three:

My last tale about horses for today has to do with a unique kind of horse only found in Iceland. I spent a week in Iceland, and will be sharing a post about my time there soon, but I just want to mention the horses, because they are incredible. I also regret not getting to ride the horses while I was there, as there are many tours offered that will take you horseback riding. Bucket listed. So what makes the Icelandic horses so special?

First of all, as with many islands, you cannot bring other plants or animals to the island. Islands have unique ecosystems, that can be devastated by the introduction of a new species. The horses in Iceland developed alone, so they have no immune systems to speak of. In order to protect them, once a horse is taken off the island, it cannot return. No outside horses may come, and all horse equipment has to be sterilized upon return. These horses also developed a special canter. The horses do not bob up and down while you ride them. They are smaller than most other horse breeds, which is interesting when you try to imagine large Vikings riding them. They were so prized and respected by the warrior Vikings, that they would be buried alongside them. They have been bred on the Island for over 1,000 years.

In summary, equestrianism has some shared similarities across countries and cultures, and in other places, they are as original and unique as the culture itself. I will always be fascinated by this animal and enjoy hearing all the different stories that surround them. I most enjoy being anywhere near them, especially with a bag of carrots in hand. That is universal horse speak for, “I would like to be your friend”.

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