There’s no better way to wrap up our celebration of nature in Europe than tapping into the spirit of freedom embodied by wild Camargue horses in France.
I suspected my guiding gardian was disappointed when I chose the jeep and hike option over the horses he already had saddled in the barn. This French version of a cowboy looked nothing like cowboys of America’s old west in his tidy black jeans and matching felt hat. His features were so delicate, his frame so slight. If not for the hat, he would be a more natural fit in one of the many cafés just north in Arles. I envisioned him sipping pastis while perusing a dog-eared copy of Madame Bovary. Yet here he was, in Provence’s sparsely populated Camargue region, guiding me across a marsh in Western Europe’s largest river delta, the Rhône.
My feet sank slightly with every step through the carpeting of damp mud and succulent plants. This particular marsh looked very different than anything I’d seen from the roadside. Decades of protection from agriculture and active restoration management had allowed this area to return to a natural state. It was lush and beautiful. The only sign of civilization was powerlines along the edge of the property. This blemish, my gardian reassured, would be removed shortly and then it would truly be an oasis of wilderness within a predominantly cultivated regional landscape.
Movement in the bushes ahead caught my eye and a white horse head emerged from the vegetation. It paused chewing to gaze in our direction, then dropped its head again behind the screen of leaves. A few steps further revealed an entire herd of the region’s namesake horses. Considered one of the most ancient breeds, Camargue horses have been a symbol of the region since before Roman times. Known for their stamina and ruggedness, these all-white Camargue horses have long been used to herd the equally characteristic black bulls of the region. This particular herd, however, was wild like the marsh it inhabited.
White adults grazed placidly while their brown colts ran in circles. One colt nipped another, then bolted off with its playmate in pursuit. They whinnied and raced, jostled and chased. I had never seen such unbridled energy. Surely this level of playfulness was reserved for the untamed. The colts pounced at each other like kittens, then reared back for stallion-style battle.
And they were curious. Humans were clearly a rarity and the young horses approached inquisitively, then charged away after parental chiding. Even the adults seemed curious though, advancing close enough that the gardian warned they may bite and shushed them back more than once. I confess to not particularly being a horse fan. I glided through the standard horse obsession that seems to infect most little girls in the US, but it was brief for me. My only horse encounters between then and now hadn’t been particularly inspiring, but here watching these animals unleash the spirit of freedom they are so often called upon to represent, I got it. Just like the land itself, these beasts of burden rose to another level of beauty and passion when allowed to be free.
Camargue colts play fight in Provence, France.
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