“The Equestrian Versailles”: Inside the Horsey History of Haras du Pin

It’s all about horses at Hara du Pin. Photo courtesy of Haras du Pin.

Next week, all our eyes will be on a tiny village in the north of France, where the 2023 FEI European Championships are set to run from August 9–13, bringing together fourteen nations and 58 competitors for a fierce battle for medals, glory – and Olympic places. But what, exactly, is so special about the venue, which was meant to host the Championships in 2021, but was replaced by Switzerland’s Avenches after their Covid cancellation and subsequent reinstatement, which came about thanks, in part, to a social media petition started by Michael Jung? We decided to do some digging in find out – and what we uncovered was an extraordinary history that helped pave the way for modern-day horse sport.

Alternately known as Haras du Pin or Le Pin au Haras (the village it’s set in) — or, indeed, its diminutive, ‘Le Pin’ — the venue is, at its heart, the oldest of France’s national studs, dating back to the 1700s. (The name itself is a clue, if you’ve got any high school French behind you: ‘Haras’ means stud, as in ‘Haras nationaux’, or national studs, and ‘du Pin’ means ‘of the pines’, referring to the abundant flora of the area. Oh, and it’s pronounced much more like ‘arah duh pan’, never the very English ‘harass’.)

Haras du Pin. Photo by Frédéric Bisson/Creative Commons.

The history of the area, though, spans back much further. Cave paintings discovered in the area prove that people have called the Normandy region home since prehistoric times; indeed, even the name ‘Normandy’ points to the Viking invasion of the 9th century that ultimately ended up inextricably linking the region its northern neighbour, England – a link that was largely friendly until the thirteenth century, at which point Normandy was reclaimed for France. In the centuries after that, turmoil often reigned over the area as it found itself embroiled in battles with the English, who did rather a lot of unpleasant things — like, for example, burning Joan of Arc at the stake in Rouen, some 130 kilometres from Haras du Pin.

All systems go at the nation’s foremost stud. Photo courtesy of Haras du Pin.

It was wars, ultimately, that prompted the founding of Haras du Pin. In the 1660s, Louis XIV’s First Minister of State, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, realised that wars in the Low Countries were depleting the French military of horses, leading to a nationwide shortage and expensive, but necessary, import jobs. Not only did he want to be able to fill the need for horses both within the country and on the frontlines, he also wanted to ensure that the horses were of top quality, and so he pulled together an administration to govern over the royal breeding programme. At first, this was largely focused on the approval of high-quality stallions; as time went on, though, it became clear that the administration would require its own bases to work from. They set up shop at Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines, west of Paris, but the results were disappointing: the infertile ground meant that they struggled to provide much grazing for their horses, who then suffered poor health as a result.

The area that we now know as Haras du Pin, which covers nearly 2,500 acres, was originally a much smaller 600 hectare section of pastureland, selected for its easy proximity to industry hub Argentan, its prevalent fresh water, and its high-quality ground and grass – the perfect conditions, the administration reckoned, to raise healthy horses upon. But getting the stud off the ground wasn’t a quick job: the first stables weren’t build until 1715, when the monarch had moved on to Louis XV, and ‘move-in day’ for those 200 carefully selected stallions and mares was still another two years away at that point. In 1736, the Royal Stud — in its first iteration, anyway — was complete, including the chateau and the main stabling.

The beautiful, formidable front gates of the Chateau. Photo courtesy of Haras du Pin.

If you’re a keen Francophile, you’ll notice that there’s something familiar about Haras du Pin: its architecture. That’s because its castle and stables were built in the same style as the École de Versailles, using plans drawn up by Robert de Cotte, the successor of the designer behind Versaille’s Grand Trianon, and himself a contributor to the chapel at Versailles. That lead to the French novelist Jean de la Varende dubbing it ‘the equestrian Versailles’ in the nineteenth century.

Still, though, even with all this prestige behind it, the stud was very nearly a short-lived thing. In 1790, it was voted that the stud should be decommissioned and torn down, though a last-minute decision to use it to house the Kingdom’s best stallions helped it avoid that grisly fate. In 1810, the First French Empire helped it reestablish full functionality, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, it had expanded to include a training academy, with building completed on many of the other buildings and amenities now present, including the arena.

The French Revolution, though, had meant that the priorities of the stud had shifted. Where once it had been used to provide horses to Versailles and the army, it had shifted into private ownership through the Revolution, and many of the stallions sold on. Private studs — using approved stallions only — were beginning to pop up around France, and so when the stud was re-secured in the early 19th century, its focus shifted to creating an ideal stamp of French horse, using Norman mares from around the region, some Norfolk Trotter stallions, and excellent English Thoroughbreds, who were deemed to have more pleasant faces and superior legs. That, of course, was the foundation of the Selle Français breed, now one of the dominant sporting studbooks in the world. Back then, though, they were often known as ‘demi-sang’ (half-blood) or Anglo-Norman horses. In 1958, the breed – which varied slightly throughout France thanks to the influence of various bloodlines, including Anglo-Arabs and Trotters – was finally recognised and collated into the modern day Selle Français, or French saddle horse, studbook.

The beautiful ‘bowl’ of Haras du Pin, which hosts Le Grand Complet each August. Photo by Christophe Tanière.

Next week’s competition will, fittingly, feature a number of Selle Français horses, several of which will be piloted by French riders fighting for glory on home soil. That they’ll be riding horses who are quite literally on something of a homecoming is particularly poignant – but many other types of horses are also celebrated at Haras du Pin, which remained in French governmental control and under national funding until 2013, when it was privatised and funded by IFCE, the French governing body for equestrian sport. These days, you can still tour the historic stables, with antique saddlery remaining well-maintained in the tack room, gleaming carriages on display in the outbuildings, and plenty of horses – most notably Percherons, the area’s much-loved working horse, and Norman Cobs, as well as Selle Français horses – to gaze at. It also hosts equestrian ‘artistes’, including high school dressage riders, Cossack vaulters, and liberty trainers; competitions throughout the year; and, of course, a continued commitment to breeding. In 2014, a Welsh pony foal was born at the stud who made headlines for being Europe’s first embryo transfer foal.

Furioso at Haras du Pin.

While you’re there, you might also stop to pay your respects at the grave of Furioso, perhaps Haras du Pin’s most famous stallion. Though he died in 1967, his is still a name that’s revered among the breeding nerds amongst us: in his 22 breeding seasons, the English Thoroughbred fathered some 303 offspring, and he’s considered one of the ‘founding fathers’ of both the modern Selle Français and of the showjumping sport horse as we know it. He was imported to the stud in 1946, making him a bright spark of hope after the tumultuous years of the War, which saw Haras du Pin occupied by the Germans. Though he didn’t initially impress the team sent from the stud to view him – he’d raced 21 times, and had ‘come close to winning’ on just three occasions — Jean Delannoy of Annuaire d’Étalon Sport Français wrote that “his dignity, harmonious length and general conformation were enough to seduce. [Stud farm officer] Mr O’Neill, who had never ridden such a well balanced horse, forgave him his slightly knock kneed forelegs, his somewhat tight hock and his long legged conformation. He was purchased for 800 pounds from Mr Blunt.”

The stallion, who “walked like a lord”, went on to sire Olympic gold medallist jumper Lutteur B, who won at Tokyo in 1964, and 1956 World Champion jumper Pomone B. Several of next week’s competitors are directly related to Furioso: Stéphane Landois’ mount, Ride For Thaïs Chamant Dumontceau, is a great-great-great grandson; his dam, Cocagne des Pins, is by Narcos II, whose sire, Fair Play III, is out of a Furioso daughter. Karim Laghouag’s Triton Fontaine also has Furioso lines; his sire, Gentleman IV, is out of a Fair Play III daughter. Gireg le Coz’s Aisprit de la Loge has Furioso top and bottom, thanks to third-generation line-breeding to Jalisco B, a maternal grandson of Furioso. Even the British-bred, Anglo-European Studbook registered Zaragoza, ridden by Gaspard Maksud, is a relative: her sire, Cevin Z, is a grandson of the Selle Français Cor de la Bryère, a maternal great-grandson of Furioso. That’s two-thirds of the French squad – and that’s without even touching the pedigrees of horses from other nations.

Delannoy’s assessment of Furioso’s direct offspring reads like a summary of the clever, often quirky, but preternaturally talented Selle Français across the board. “These horses, full of personality, were sometimes difficult, particularly the mares, but were wonderful as soon as they felt confident. Slightly soft, they did not enjoy pain, they were very respectful and would sometimes misbehave or even stop if not ridden in a firm and friendly manner. Some good riders complained of them being amoral but they were not belligerent. Galloping with great balance, swinging on each big rounded stride… they hardly ever needed to be corrected, although they did not mind it (except for a few hot blooded mares). The jump was often rounded, the horse locked onto the trajectory.”

William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning. Photo by Jenni Autry.

In eventing circles, these days Le Pin is best known for its competitions – notably, Le Grand Complet, which hosts classes through CCI4*-S each August, and which we covered extensively last season as the continent’s most popular prep event for the World Championships. But it also hosted one of those, back in 2014, when miserable weather plagued Normandy and the world’s best horses and riders were forced to splash their way through some seriously sloppy ground, just months after a Badminton that’s remembered mostly for its relentless, hugely influential rain. Does all this sound a bit familiar? If so, and if you’re rather keen on patterns, here’s how that played out: Sandra Auffarth (competing next week) won gold, Michael Jung (also competing next week) won silver, and William Fox-Pitt (alas, not competing next week) won bronze; on the team front, Germany were victorious, the Brits won silver, and in a particularly memorable moment, the oft-beleaguered Dutch stepped up to bronze – something they’d be delighted to do again next week.

Whether you’re watching from home or within the beautiful grounds of Haras du Pin itself, take a moment next week to appreciate its extraordinary history – and the way that its contribution still plays a part in equestrian sport, both at home and afar.

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