As an equestrian, if you had a wish list, would riding the Versailles be one of them? If not it should be. Horses have long been of major importance to the realm of all that is French and is nowhere more evident than at the Versailles.
The Great and Small stables were commissioned by Louis XIV and built by JulesHardouin-Mansart. The names of the buildings do not indicate size, rather their purpose. It has been said it is the greatest royal construction dedicated to horses in history. Opposite the Palace, they are situated at the edge of the Place d’Armes and the beginning of the three main avenues. They are considered a monument to the importance horses held during the Ancient Regime. During the 18th century, the stables were home to more than 2,000 horses!
Now, the stables house the National School of Architecture of Versailles, part of the Centre for research and restoration of the museums of France and the Equestrian Academy of Versailles. Also housed are the Gallery of Coaches in the Great Stables and Sculptures and moldings in the Small Stables.
If visiting Paris and The Versailles is not fantasy enough, add riding horseback on the same grounds that Napoleon, Louis the XVI, Marie Antoinette as well as other historical figures, have ridden.
I did. Riding this dream come true was nothing I could have conceived of a year ago. Paris is the most beautiful city ever imagined; I fully understand why people who visit never leave or want to leave. Architecture and gardens are the one thing Paris has that I would like to take home as well as the weather during August. As a native Floridian, I would like to escape the heat like all of the snowbirds who have taken up residence in my birth state. The problem is I have no place to “return” to.
Even though France, as well as much of the United Kingdom, had an outrageous heatwave this summer, I was lucky. The week I arrived in Paris, it departed. While some rain did indeed dampen our days, the weather was almost fall-like. (Well, at least fall-like for a Floridian.)
So when the idea struck about riding horseback while in France, I began to research and Horse In The City came up numerous times. While it was difficult coordinating schedules between two people in different states as well as another country, Baptiste Auclair, the owner of Horse in the City, was patient. When dates changed, he accommodated. Eventually, the date, place and time were confirmed. I chose to ride at the Park of Chateau De Versailles but had the option of riding at Park of Saint-Cloud (France not Florida) as well as Bois de Boulogne.
I chose Chateau de Versailles as it has appeal; perhaps someday I will have the chance to ride the other two venues, but I am happy with the ride I had.
On the day of the ride, I met Baptiste at the park gate at 9:30 AM not long after the park opened; this particular gate is located at 77 Boulevard Saint-Antoine 78000 Versailles. Numerous joggers, cyclists, and hikers were waiting to enter this vast park which is a haven for such activities. Trails are well manicured, and the cobbled “streets” are easy to maneuver. The symmetry of anything and everything in this park is evident as well as the rest of Paris. And like most large public areas in France, armed guards patrol with the mandatory blank face.
I knew Mr. Auclair immediately as he strode to meet me inside the gate. Riding attire was evident and I was relieved. Being in a foreign country is difficult when you lack shared language and even those who speak English are not always fluent. I will suggest that there are more foreign peoples who speak English than Americans who speak a dual language. With that said I was fortunate Baptiste was able to communicate with me as I do not speak French.
Introductions made, we walked to the horse van where he proceeded to set up a table on the lush lawn for a light breakfast. Croissants with chocolate along with coffee were presented on a red checkered table cloth. While this is indeed charming, it also gives the client time to chat with their host and to relax. To be honest, I was nervous – I hadn’t ridden in quite a while, though I have owned horses most of my life. Add an injury from a fall induced by the rain, clay and the exiting of a pickup truck as I was leaving for the airport…well, I was tense. The left knee down to the toes was swollen (though not considered bad enough to seek medical attention). Continuous walking after my arrival may or may not have contributed to the problem, but if you are in Paris you walk. So I was a little unnerved when I arrived, but soon relaxed and was engaged in conversation.
It must be noted that one of the best reasons for choosing this riding stable is that it is not a group style ride. Unless you have someone accompany you such as a friend or family member, it is a one on one experience – you have the full focus of the host. This alleviates the problems so many trail riding stables have, the differences in riding ability, age as well as personality. Some people would prefer to do no more than a walk when riding while others may want to gallop off into the sunset. There are those who are Olympic hopefuls as well as those who have never been on a horse. The limiting of the group solves this dilemma and provides a more enjoyable as well as safe experience.
Once our breakfast was consumed, Baptiste proceeded to unload gear as well as the horses. The two horses being unloaded were calm but curious, already saddled and bridled before being transported in the box van. A helmet and leg chaps are provided for the rider. Let me add that these horses are obviously well taken care of. It is one of the first things I look for while visiting any commercial stable.
Horses are saddled in the traditional English tack as might be expected here, but perhaps with a French twist. Baptiste Auclair is an accomplished horseman who is fluent in dressage as well as other disciplines (although he prefers trail), and is competitive in a game on horseback called Horseball.
His confidence lends confidence to the ride, and I happily settle on to a mare named Beauty, who is a New Forest and Welsh cross. I can honestly say Beauty was beautiful inside and out, well-mannered and easy to handle. On mounting, the stirrups were adjusted and off we went. I had given the necessary information at the time of making the reservation – age, weight and riding ability are noted and the horse is chosen for that particular rider. It was well done.
When we began the ride, I noticed that Baptiste would casually observe and evaluate my riding ability before asking if I would like to trot or gallop. He gives riding lessons as well as owning a stable of 30 horses and was mounted today on a Spanish gelding. He recently acquired this particular horse – a gorgeous palomino, well-bred and obviously intelligent as well as quick – and was giving him trail time.
Though the 800-plus acre park is open to all who wish to walk, jog or bike, it is a huge place and you find a sense of quiet and openness. Riding down the tree-lined avenues we pass a couple of houses with obvious French characteristics and thatched roofs. A barnyard field with sheep grazing garners my attention as well as a herd of donkeys. Further down the way, a stone wall starts surrounding the private quarters and somewhat private lives of government officials. The house or The Pavillion de la Lanterne where the President of France, Emmanuel Macron retires too when he is looking for a peaceful retreat is pointed out in the distance. Of course, also in the not so far distance lies The Palais in all its glory. While we ride in the adjacent park, the manicured gardens and Palais are an adventure for another day.
This particular day though, I am happy to be horseback and to daydream about the history and all that has gone before. The idea that perhaps Empress Josephine looked out upon the very same landscape as she rode in her carriage or on horseback is enough. Whether in subterfuge or intrigue, revolution and yes love as well as hate, the earth beneath our horse’s hooves has been churned by many a famous or noteworthy person who’s also ridden these very paths.
As we canter alongside The Grand Canal, it amazes me how such an area was created hundreds of years ago and still maintained, meticulous yet serene seemingly to stretch forever. The canal took eleven years to complete, with construction beginning in 1668 and finished in 1679. It is never-ending at 1,670 meters and mirrors the surrounding park. Louis the XVI held events here, including boating. During the winter it was used for ice skating; one can only imagine the vivid image royalty must have created.
We continue up and back down the park, cutting back into a wooded area edging the vast acreage. Some of the trees themselves are most likely centuries old…if only they could talk!
After a couple of hours, we make our way back to the horsebox just outside the entrance gate. As we dismount, an onlooker engages Auclair with her history of riding at his father’s stable.
Even in Paris, it is a small world.
Once the horses are loaded into the horsebox, again the table is set, this time with wine, cheese, fruit, and a baguette. As we sit and leisurely drink wine and partake in a typical French lunch, a lone dog comes and sits near our table. A breeze rustles the leaves on trees nearby and the sunshine is mellow. Conversation over wine ending a lovely ride, a lovely day.
Life does not get any better than this.
If you plan to visit Paris and would like to ride the way of history, contact Horse In The City at www.horseinthecity.fr…tell him Barb from Horse & Rider Living sent you!