French-bred event horses are definitely having a moment. Actually … longer than a moment. They’ve been setting up shop on podiums around the world, including but not limited to last month’s Longines FEI European Eventing Championships at Blair Castle, where the top three individual horses were born in the land of awesome mustaches, indigenous champagne and, increasingly, rock-star eventers.
Michael Jung took team and individual gold on fischerTakinou, a French-bred Anglo Arab cross gelding by the Selle Français stallion Jaguar Mail. At 8 years old he was the youngest horse in the field with only one CCI3* on his resume, yet Michael and fischerTakinou won by nearly 10 points.
To what, other than having Michael Jung in the tack (even if he did have a broken leg at the Europeans), does fischerTakinou owe that winning margin? He has a higher percentage of Thoroughbred blood (90.43%) than that of either of his star German-bred barnmates, La Biosthetique Sam FBW (76.17%) and fischerRocana FST (63.67%), which surely went a long way on a cross country day that saw only three double clear rounds out of 64 starters. (Percentages attributed to HorseTelex, which calculates the number based on nine generations.)
Thoroughbred blood tends to run thick in French sporthorses, another example being 2015 European team gold and individual silver medalist Sandra Auffarth’s Opgun Louvo. This horse, with whom Sandra also won individual gold at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, is a Selle Français by Shogun II, bred in France by Yves Berlioz, and rings in at 83.98% blood.
This year’s European individual bronze medal went to Lt Col. Thibaut Vallette’s Qing du Briot ENE HN, another Selle Français by Eolien II with 71.48% blood.
But enough about Europe. Here in the states, the French connection is emerging as well. Sinead Halpin’s WEG partner Manoir de Carneville, AKA “The French Princess,” is an obvious Francophile ambassador (with 73.83% blood), as are a list of other top horses I’d be foolish to start reciting as I would surely leave someone off.
Most recently, Will Coleman and the French Thoroughbred Tight Lines, owned by the Conair Syndicate, cleaned up in the Dutta Corp Fair Hill CCI2* last week. Sired by Turgeon, “Phish” was bred for steeplechase and raced at age 4. He jumped too well to be fast enough, and the trainer contacted Nicolas and Theirry Touzaint to broaden his future horizons.
Phish wound up under the tutelage of Paul Gatien, who was working for the Touzaints at the time, and produced him up to the CCI* and Intermediate levels. He thought a lot of the horse but was in the process of building a business for himself. In need of a new sand ring and more stalls, he had a choice to make.
Along came Will Coleman, vis- à-vis he and his wife Katie’s connection with French-based Canadian eventer Lindsay Traisnel and her husband Xavier. Lindsay is a lovely, talented rider whom we were all cheering for at Boekelo a couple weeks back; together, she and Xavier operate Traisnel Equestrian. (Another French-Canadian fun fact to further shrink degrees of separation/confuse you: fischerTakinou was actually bred by a Canadian rider in France, Mathieu Boisselier.)
“Katie Coleman and I go way back, and she first introduced us to Will when they came over for our wedding two years ago. He was looking at some horses in France before meeting Katie at the wedding. I know he found it difficult not being able to speak French and not really having any contacts he could trust,” Lindsay said.
“Xavier and Will got talking, we started sending him some videos when they got home, and Will planned his first trip over. Phish is the second horse that Will purchased through us. Xavier had got a feel for the type of horse Will liked, and when he saw Phish competing, he told him to jump on a plane.”
Lindsay and Xavier have helped five horses in total make the trip to the U.S. to join Will’s program. In addition to Phish, Will’s French string includes another lovely 8-year-old, Soupçon du Brunet (who’s recovering from a bone bruise but should be back next year), as well as a 5-year-old AQPS (French for “Autre que Pur Sang,” or “other than Thoroughbred”) ex-steeplechaser named War Begun (by the Thoroughbred stallion Network), and a stunning 4-year-old Selle Français gelding named Tropics (by Diarado, another son of Diamant de Semilly).
“The truth is that good horses are everywhere, but finding them takes a lot of time,” Will said. “We also get horses from Ireland, England, Spain, Canada, Germany and America. You cannot limit yourself in any way when looking for top quality, but looking in all these places takes lots of time. Myself and Katie probably spend a month total every year looking for horses. And the real secret with finding horses is that it is more about who you know than what you know.”
But France isn’t the easiest country to navigate for horse shopping, Lindsay said. It’s generally easier to look for horses in England or Ireland, both due to the simplicity of getting around and being able to speak the same language.
“I think with the language barrier it is much more popular for people to go horse shopping in England or Ireland, but we are starting to have more and more people from North America ask us to find them horses,” Lindsay said.
Will jokes, “Not a lot of people go to France, and we’d like to keep it that way!” — but there is something to be said for shopping in a less saturated market.
“The traffic through England, Ireland and Germany is often so high, it’s difficult to get first stab at the real talent,” Will said. “Event horse shopping is often very fashionable. People go to where the results are saying the horses are coming from, and in recent years, Ireland and Germany have probably put the most top horses on the map, so those countries get the most foreign shoppers. The French horses were the rage a few years ago, with the success of Touzaint and others, but they went out of fashion more recently.”
France’s breeding and young horse development program, however, speaks to a system that is in the business of producing top international contenders. The dominant breed for eventing is the Selle Fançais, with Anglo Arabs next and Thoroughbreds after that.
Lindsay says, “Selle Fançais horses tend to be good jumpers that are very generous. They try their best and forgive your mistakes.” On Anglo-Arabs: “They can be great, and they are really blood horses, but they can have a difficult temperament. The good ones can be great but the difficult ones can be very tough to get on your side.”
Much like the U.S., there aren’t many French Thoroughbreds that are purpose-bred for sport, Lindsay says. “People do retrain Thoroughbreds off the track (case in point — Phish!), but when you have the choice between something that is purpose-bred for the job that you want to do or something on its second career, you usually go for purpose bred if you can afford to.”
Even in purpose-bred horses, however, the racing influence is tangible, Will says: “The truth is their breeding has probably always been a bit bloodier than the rest of continental Europe, with the added presence of Anglo Arab blood and the heavy racing heritage in France. So it makes sense that good horses for our sport could be bred there, even though 80 percent of the breeding in France is for pure jumping.”
The French young horse/talent spotting program also deserves credit, Lindsay notes. “Like fischerTakinou and Qing du Briot, Phish came up through the Société Hippique Française (SHF) competitions, which are competitions for 4- through 6-year-olds. The French have a good system for discovering young talent, which in comparison to the young horse classes in the U.S. are much less expensive and you in fact win money,” she said.
“The 6-year-olds this year won 406 Euros every time they finished in the top third of a class, with the winner of the championships winning just under 2,000 Euros. With the entries also a lot less expensive, it is much more affordable for breeders and owners to get their horses out competing.”
With Phish making a name for himself as one of the U.S.’s most promising up-and-comers after the Fair Hill CCI2* win, and French-bred horses bogarting international championship titles left and right, it’s a corner of the world worth keeping an eye on!
Speaking of which, Eventing Nation is reporting live from southern France at Les Etoiles de Pau CCI4* this week, where we have an exciting group of North Americans competing, so keep it locked here! The first horse inspection takes place tomorrow at 8 a.m. (2 a.m. EST), with dressage taking place between 1 and 4 p.m. (7 and 10 a.m. EST).