Camargue Stories and Tips

Exploring on Horseback: Promenade à Cheval

Some of the Camargue's famous black cattle Photo, Camargue, France

I confess that ever since I’d seen the movie Friends, which is set in the Camargue, I knew I’d have to come here one day and go horseback riding to get out into the uncultivated areas and see the local animal life in its typical habitat. The experience did not disappoint.

You’ll see many stables along the main roads of the Camargue: a long open shed signed "Promenade à Cheval" shading a rank of saddled horses, most if not all of them white. According to my chat with the tourist information office, rates at the various stables are about the same. The main consideration in making your choice is where you want to ride: the closer the stable is to Stes-Maries, the more likely your ride will take you to the beach. I particularly wanted to ride in the marshes, so I had driven to a stable a few miles out of town the day before and arranged for a three-hour ride beginning at 10:00, emphasizing that I wanted to see "les taureaux et les flamants roses, pas la plage" – the bulls and the flamingoes, not the beach.

The next morning I presented myself at the stable and waited at a picnic table in a long, low rustic structure that resembled the Christmas stables one often sees, with one wall left open. The three-year-old daughter of a couple who worked at the stable was going on a ride of her own on a wooden rocking horse, her teddy bear propped in front of her. Another couple arrived who were going on the ride, and soon we had each been assigned a horse – of course, the white Camargue horses. The tack was a hybrid of English and Western: the saddles had a prominent pommel and cantle but no horn, while stirrups were English style and English length. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to bring my backpack or my camera – bad luck indeed, because I could have taken plenty of great photos.

Our group of three headed off into the marshes behind our young female guide, where the horses often had to slog through shallows of brackish water – perhaps a foot to 18 inches deep, which required tucking your legs up to avoid being splashed. Much of the time there was no indication of a track or trail we were following, and due to the flatness of the terrain, there was feeling of being in the middle of nowhere except for the odd fence. We passed a few flamingos as well as a number of other marsh birds, including egrets and herons. The terrain varied from the marshes to salt pans to pastures, and the views were often wonderful.

Riding along some high bushes, we came upon a gardian, a Camargue cowboy, leaning against a large rock, his white horse beside him and a herd of horned black cattle grazing behind him. He was slim, dark-eyed, dark-haired, dressed in dark pants and a white shirt open at the collar, with a wide-brimmed hat set on his dark hair, giving the air of an insouciant gypsy, well enough dressed to have cut a sharp figure on a city street. He and our guide clearly had more than a nodding acquaintance and had a brief conversation before we rode on.

Inevitably, we ended up on a patch of sand, and after the guide made sure I was willing to gallop, off we all went for 200 or 300 yards. I had the slowest horse (always my luck), but he was a very mellow and willing horse and easy to ride, so I can’t complain.

Tips for riders:
You won’t need boots, but sturdy shoes are recommended, as are jeans or sturdy slacks (no shorts or capris). This might not be the best place to ride for the first time, but you don’t need to be an experienced rider, since the horses were very gentle. The saddles are easy to hold on to if you need to, and the guide will help you mount if that’s hard for you. If you don’t want to gallop, here’s the phrase you want: "Je ne veux pas galoper". Sunscreen and a broad-brimmed hat if you have one are heartily recommended, and mosquito repellant would also be a very good idea. If you haven’t ridden before or haven’t ridden lately, you might want to keep your ride to one or two hours – I was quite sore from my excursion.

1 hour, €14-16
2 hours, €26-30
1/2 day, €35-40
1 day, €50-80

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