White Horses of the Camargue

The Best White Horses of the Camargue

Photography Workshop

Gardians & the White Horses of the Camargue

Photographs and Text by Tony Bonanno Photography, Santa Fe, New Mexico

No mountains, no relief.. a horizon line separating the land (and water) from the sky. The Rhone Delta of southern France. The estuaries, ponds, brackish waters...all blending towards the Mediterranean. And the Camargue horses, inhabiting the area for thousands of years, along with Pink Flamingos, Grey Herons, black bulls, and the many sounds of nature. The Camargue Horse is an ancient breed and probably existed in the region since prehistoric times. Some experts suggest the breed is very similar in appearance to the horses depicted in prehistoric cave paintings in France. Some think the Camargue Horse may be descended from the now extinct Soutre Horse (17,000 years ago). If the Camargue Horse is descended from the Soutre Horse, then it may even be related to the wild horses of Mongolia. Over the centuries, the Camargue Horse adapted to the harsh environment of the Camargue wetlands and marshes of southern France. They are hardy, disease resistant, agile, and sure footed. 



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Saintes Maries de la Mer, France

The Camargue Horse is often called “the Horse of the Sea”. They are wonderful animals to watch and study.. and to photograph. Today, most of the horses are semi-feral and live on large expanses of open lands (or manades) managed by the Gardians. Most have never been ridden or broken. The Camargue Horse is often characterized as a “primitive” breed, meaning that the breed has had minimal interference from mankind.

The Camargue breed is relatively small, usually only 13-14 hands in size. A large stallion somewhat bigger. They are strong and rugged for their size. They have broad hooves and are well adapted to the wet environment. They endure extreme weather, extended periods without food, and travel long distances effortlessly. They are mild mannered, but lively and brave.

The Camargue Horse is often characterized as “wild”.  The horses  are “wild” in the sense that they are not confined. Most living on their own terms on large expanses of land (the manades) with minimal contact with humans.

The Camargue Horse roams the natural pastures, marshes, and wetlands foraging on the natural vegetation that's available to them; which today is mostly in the marshes due to the cultivation of much of the land for agriculture. Foals are usually born in April, and usually at night.  For a Camargue Horse to be considered a “pure breed”, they have to be “born in the wild.” And they are born dark. They don't turn white until they are grown and between 4-7 years old.  Young stallions spend a lot of time learning how to be “dominant” and how to fight. They spar a lot, but rarely are hurt. It is almost like play.

The Gardians are the “keepers” of the Camargue Horse. It is a culture that goes back hundreds of years in this region of France. The Gardian and their herders are responsible for managing the semi-feral herds and ensuring the purity of the breed and the protection of the herds. The breed is protected by French law. The Gardians and herders are very passionate about their horses. A number of animals are used for their own mounts and also for the increasing tourism business, but the rules still apply.. most are never ridden, most are still semi-feral, and they are born in the wild. Family members often work alongside the Gardian and become equally skilled equestrians and herders.

The Gardian and their “herders” raise the black Camargue cattle and Camargue bulls that are used in the bull rings of Southern France. The Camargue Horse is especially suited for herding the Camargue bulls. The Camargue Horse is tough, quick to turn and stop, sure-footed, and fast, even when working in deep water. And they show little fear of the bulls. The Gardians select their mounts based on these qualities and they are always stallions. Mares are not ridden. 

The training and the title “Gardian” is often handed down from father to son, and occasionally to daughter. They've been working with these horses for generations and they are proud of their lifestyle, their culture, and their horses. It is a love affair. It has been that way for hundreds of years ... and it still is today. As one Gardian told me, they and the horse are one.

The Gardians’ tack, saddles, stirrups and boots are designed to ensure the rider stays mounted while working with the aggressive bulls. Their clothing, their trident tipped staffs, the design of their quaint homes with saddle scabbards and stone fireplaces … all reflect a culture and passion that has changed little since the 16th century.

Acknowledgements: A big thanks to California based photojournalist Jodie Willard who invited me to co-lead a photographic workshop in the Camargue in 2015.  This was the first of my many forays into this wonderful world of white horses and Gardians.  I’m equally thankful to French nature photographer, Patrice Aguilar, whose help was invaluable in accessing  the best of the Camargue.  A special “thank you” to the incredible Camargue Gardians, their families, riders and staff who were so generous with their time, their beautiful horses, and knowledge. 

Tony Bonanno is an internationally acclaimed photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His fine art images have been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums throughout the US and abroad.  The artist's goal in photographing these beautiful animals was to explore the intersection of light, water, and movement that emphasizes the power, grace and beauty of this special breed of horse.  It was also the artist’s goal to photograph and capture a glimpse of the “Gardian” culture which is so important to the protection and well being of the Camargue Horse.

In addition to Tony Bonanno's  personal work in the Camargue and  his interviews with Gardians, other sources of information on this page include Wikipedia, various websites, "Horses of the Camague" by Hans Silvester, 1976, and "Camargue" by Michel Drott, 1963.

© Copyright 2019 Tony Bonanno All Rights Reserved



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