The oldest living breed of horses in all the world, with their characteristic grey color and love of salt water, the Camargue wild horses in Southern France are beautiful creatures that offer a wildlife watching experience that can be the highlight of any vacation in France. Not only are these horses strong and able to withstand extreme elements, they are even-tempered — suitable for riding — and though they are technically wild, their living among humans for tens of thousands of years makes them friendly and curious of visitors and wildlife watchers.
The Camargue wild horses are indigenous to the Wetlands of Camargue along the French Southern Coast. The wetlands are located in a marshy natural reserve formed by a fork in the Rhone River at the City of Arles, France where the Rhone and Le Petit Rhone split and empty into the Mediterranean Sea. The area is a mostly protected area divided into the Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue and the Reserve Naturelle de Camargue. The area is easily accessible within an hour from the French Cities of Montpellier, Arles and Port St. Louis du Rhone.
The History of the Camargue Horses
The Camargue breed of horses has existed since prehistoric times, and is the oldest living breed of horses in the entire world. Comparisons to the bones of ancient horses place them as a close relative of horses found in France as early as 17,000 years ago. Continuously living in the salty marshes of the Camargue Wetlands has led to evolutionary advances in the animals, including their extremely broad hooves, which allow them better footing in the mud, water and grasses of the area.
Though the horses are “wild horses,” they are often considered as “part wild,” as they live in close contact with humans, and humans regulate some breeding, and even domesticate some of the horses born in the wild to ensure a perfect balance and harmony with nature that has kept the animals thriving for so long.
The Gardians of Camargue
The cowboys that domesticate and work the Camargue horses in the area are known as Gardians. This is not because they are the guardians of the animals — though they truly are — but likely take the name from the plains to the North known as Le Gard. These modern day cowboys use the Camargue horses to herd the Camargue Bulls and cattle that are also indigenous to the wetlands.
The Camargue Cattle
Like the Camargue Horses, the Camargue Cattle have a love for the salty seawater that flows in from the Mediterranean Sea and creates the brackish wetlands at Camargue. Because the cattle will often play in the deeper waters of the wetlands, herding them requires an equally-adept horse that can navigate and remain sure in shallow to medium-depth waters — making the Camargue Horses the perfect animal for the job. The Camargue Cattle — along with the Brava breed of cattle — are the only animals that can be sold under the code of Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) “Taureau de Camargue,” certifying the regional authenticity of the animals.
The Flamingos of Camargue
The horses and bulls are not the only wildlife that call the Camargue home; bright pink flamingos also call the wetland their home, and are just another wildlife species that draws spectators from around France and the world. In fact, bird-watching and photography are one of the biggest draws to the wetlands and the National Park.
Of course the white color of the Camargue horses is what they are most known for, Camargue horses are actually born brown or black, and only turn white after they are about 2-4 years old, making it fairly easy to tell the age and maturity of individual horses in the area. While white is the prominent color of these horses, they are often referred to as grey horses — a more technical term that takes into account the fact that they are not usually solid white, and tend to get greyish spots and patches during the changing seasons.
The Horse of the Sea
We have already mentioned how the horses and cattle of Camargue love water; the Camargue horses spend so much time in the water, that they are often called the Horse of the Sea. You can regularly catch the horses frolicking in the water during sunrise and sunsets, and watching their antics in the water is another of the major draws of photographing and watching these wild horses.
Camargue Horseback Riding
Once again, these horses are technically only “part wild,” and a number of the horses are domesticated and cared for outside of their wild habitat. While most of the domesticated Camargue horses are used by the Gardians in herding cattle, there are a number of these horses that are used for guided tours and horseback riding around the natural reserve. If you are planning on visiting the Camargue wetlands, this is the best way to see area, from atop your very own Camargue Horse for the day.
Facts About The Camargue Horses
Height: 13-14.2 hands
Sexual Maturity: Female, 18 months. Male, 1-2 years.
Mating: Late spring
Number of Birthed Young: 1.
Habit: Sociable; living in small, free-ranging herds, lovers of salt water
Diet: Ground vegetation: leafy grasses, herbs, and plants, shoots, willows and gooseroot.
Call: Ranges from a soft whinny to a shrill piercing cry.
Lifespan: 20-25 years.
Camargue horses are quite small, compared to many of the larger horses that have been bred around the world in subsequent years. This is mainly due to the fact that humans have not intervened in the breeding processes. Camargue horses usually stand and about 12 hands — considered a pony — and the largest of the animals usually max out at 14 hands.