Not being horsey people, a visit to the French national Stud in the Orne has been lurking quite low on our list, but we were in for a rather dainty and delightful surprise.
Our postcard shows the main gate of Le Haras national du Pin, the national stud of France.
It was founded by King Louis XIV who’s army was in desperate need of horses and had the expensive habit of buying them abroad. He first built a Royal stud at great cost in Saint-Léger-en-Yvelines near Versailles. However the land was not particularly rich, the paddocks were too far apart and the horses did not thrive. Louis commissioned his first horseman François Gédéon de Garsault to find a new site.
Off to the Orne
François found everything he wanted at Buisson d’Exmes and Le Pin, a little east of Argentan in Normandy. Le Pin was owned at that time by Béchameil de Nointel, a state Councillor not unhappy to swap his estate for a great deal of land in Picardy and the King’s favour. The order to move the King’s stud to the Haras d’Exemes in the Orne was given on 2 April 1715.
Following plans drawn up by the King’s architect Robert de Cotte, Pierre Le Mousseux created the stable blocks first, with the horses moving from Saint-Léger in in 1717. By 1736 the monumental gate, elegant chateau and main arenas had been added. ‘Le Versailles du cheval’ the Versailles for horses, was born.
By 1789 when the French revolution swept across France, the Haras d’Exemes stud was home to 196 stallions. When the new government ordered their sale on 20 January 1790 the Orne was in uproar.
The stud was an important employer and source of the best horses in France, so the Council of the Orne petitioned to keep it running. But their petition only managed to put off the inevitable sale. They were allowed to keep 40 stallions until 1793, when everything would be sold.
By 1806 Napoleon’s government took a more practical view. The country was at war and needed horses. An Imperial decree on 4 July 1806 reinstated the stud as a state run institution, renamed Haras du Pin. Land sold to private owners was gradually bought back and the buildings repaired.
The very best Stallions from across France were moved to Haras du Pin, along with a number taken by Napoleon’s army from the famous Dutch stud at Borculo.
Turmoil, art and suicide
Since then Haras du Pin has survived a tumultuous history.
It was here that Edgar Degas, the famous Parisian Impressionist painter, was first moved to draw and paint horses. He painted his first horse races at the Argentan race course.
The Haras was looted by the invading Prussians in 1871 and Germans in 1940. During 1944 the stud was occupied by the German army while many stallions were still kept there. Somehow during the battle for the Falaise Pocket in 1944 it was not destroyed.
Günther von Kluge took over Rommel’s troops after Rommel was wounded outside Vimoutiers in July 1944. From an old aristocratic family Kluge despised how Adolf Hitler was running the war in France and he was linked (if ineffectually) to a group that conspired against Hitler. The assassination attempt was unsuccessful. Kluge was summoned to Berlin and expected the worst.
On 18 August as the liberating army approached and Berlin beckoned, he asked for the superb stallions of Haras du Pin to be paraded before him one last time. The next day on his way back to Germany, Günther von Kluge took a cyanide pill.
Haras du Pin today
The stud now reaches over 1000 hectares of lush green paddocks edged with smart white fencing and oak forests laced with winding bridle paths. Of course the horses here thrive and are famous the world over.
Our visit and a small surprise
Not organised enough to visit on a Thursday (every Thursday from June to September all the horses and carriages are buffed up and paraded through the Colbert courtyard) we expected to take the usual tour. Arriving at 3pm, our ticket seller suggested the weekend show.
We joined a crowd of excited families with all the enthusiasm of people whose knowledge of horses is confined to a pony trek in the rain across Dartmoor. Taking central seats in the darkened, not unpleasantly scruffy terraces, we waited.
Many small surprises
The show started slowly with beautiful Percheron (Normandy’s own) horses paraded in time. Then it just took off. Clever, gently humorous and surprisingly engrossing, this little display is an excellent way to spend a Normandy afternoon.
The best surprise? Circus trained equestrian artist in residence Piéric and his miniature horses. The toughest Normandy tourist would be charmed. We aren’t at all tough and thought them brilliant. Our photos don’t do the show justice (no flash allowed of course) so go and see for yourself. It’s on every weekend at 3.30pm in the covered arena. Check dates on the Haras du Pin website.