For the past few years, once a year, I have taken part in a Transhumance.
The dictionary defines transhumance very simply as the action or practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer
For me it is four (autumn) or six (spring) days of adventure, freedom, hard work and most important of all, learning from nature.
And in this case it is the herding of around 70 horses from the high Pyrenees in Cerdagne/Languedoc-Rousillon to the Aude in Southern France.
The Owner: Pierre Enoff; bio-mechanical engineer and musician; inherited a farmhouse and a couple of horses from his grandmother over 45 years ago. From that moment, Enoff has studied the actions and interactions of horses, their habits, their way of surviving in a natural environment; he has, and still does, actively promote the barefoot horse – his own herd being the prime example of barefoot survival.
The Riders: Of necessity with a reasonable amount of experience of riding outdoors in all terrains – a couple of hours around the lanes with the riding club every summer is not sufficient! The days are long, it can be perishing cold, or soaking wet, or both; between departure in the morning and lunchtime, and between lunch and arrival in the evening, there is no possibility for a sanitary stop – you are moving with a herd and they will not stop just because you need a pee!
The Locality: Porta, Cerdagne; the valley floor is about 1600m at this point, the surrounding mountains rise to around 2800m. The horses have a total of around 2,000ha common land to graze on.
The Destination: Denis, near St Gaudéric, Aude; a rolling grassland of 85ha with a lake. Mean height 450m.
The Route: On the map, the autumn edition is about 150km and the spring edition about 200km – in reality, with all the twists, turns, ascents and descents you cannot measure on the map, the distances are some 20% longer.
The autumn transhumance begins for Enoff and his team some time beforehand, organising the night stops (accommodation is more or less the same each year but at some locations there needs to be hay on hand to feed the horses, for instance), insuring sufficient provisions, getting clearance from the authorities both at local and at departmental level – some sections make extensive use of the public highway – and all the sundry tasks involving vehicles and tack.
For the riders, it all begins at La Pastorale on the Sunday morning. Seventy-odd horses have to be brought down from the mountainside and corralled. They can be anywhere within an area of a couple of thousand hectares – but, horses being horses, they are seldom alone, rather in their bands and often close to the larger group to which the band “belongs”. This is always helpful, but there are always groups that will hide themselves away and, surprisingly enough, when there is a reasonable layer of snow, they are nigh on impossible to just find!
Sunday afternoon is the time for a try out – old lags having prior knowledge can pick and choose their own horse, the rest can make their preferences known and a suitable horse is allocated. If it doesn’t click during the try out, then it is no problem; there are plenty of other horses to choose from.
And then breaks Monday morning. 9 o’clock sharp, everyone is at the stable, brushing down and saddling up their allotted or chosen steed. By 10 we must be on the road to insure a timely arrival at the evening stop. In previous years, there have been some major problems during departure – horses have cut a dash over the railway-line running alongside the main road in an attempt to get back to their pastures… others have dived up side roads into the village… so these days, there is a carefully planned departure involving help from the village, metre upon metre of striped tape and a rapid and tightly coordinated release onto the main road.
With the exception, weather permitting (deep snow makes it impossible), of a very short stretch, the morning is spent on metalled roads. The herd passes through the famous skiing village of Porté-Puymorens (4 seasons of skiing) up the old road from Barcelona to Toulouse that snakes up the side of the Puig Carlit crossing the Col de Puymorens at 1915m.
From here, it is a downhill trot – irrespective of road conditions, dry, wet, snow, ice – to L’Hospitalet près l’Andorre, a distance of over 9 km and a descent of nearly 400m, and lunch. The uninitiated are thinking how tough it was and the old lags are remembering how tough tomorrow morning is going to be…
Lunch is an al fresco affair, the Equi Libre trailer being kitted out with an awning for inclement – or excessively sunny – weather and carrying two large tables and four benches providing a modicum of comfort. Soup, cheese, cold meats and salad are the order of the day and all accompanied by the obligatory french bread and red wine. Even here there is no question of really slumming it – most lunches are rounded off with coffee and bitter chocolate.
Now we follow the railway line almost to Mérens-les-Vals, home of the famous Mérens horse. This is a stretch on wooded paths alongside the river with the minimum of obstructions – occasional overgrown trees and bushes and a couple of particularly narrow bits. The horses have little need of guidance – they can’t do much other than follow the path – and most of the riders are glad of the change of pace from this morning.
Two large rolls of hay await the horses at the night-stop – the next morning there will be just about nothing left of them. We leave the horses to it and are transported by minibus back to La Pastorale in Porta; backs need repacking tonight for tomorrow, we move the whole caravan to Comus, some 12 km above Ax les Thermes as the crow flies.
Tuesday dawns early – the minibus is ready to whisk us back to Mérens-les-Vals at 08:30 so everything needs to be in the trailer well before then. By 09:15 we are collecting saddles, brushing down horses – or still trying to catch horses in a few cases – and the first tentative moves are made to look at the horses’ hooves after the gruelling descent of yesterday morning. And the first gasps of disbelief at just how good they look.
Once underway, we pass over the picturesque little bridge in Mérens, over the main road and begin the slow ascent that allows us to reach Ax les Thermes without making use of the main road. The atmosphere is good, the views are superb and everyone is feeling reasonably relaxed; until the twisting, narrow extremely steep path up through the trees. With a rise of over 150 metres in a straight line distance of just over 250m, the horses have to work very hard to climb this stretch, a number taking time out at the top to have a good roll in the snow. But then it is all downhill along wide forest rides, finally back onto the main road and into Ax les Thermes.
The herd passes rapidly around the outskirts of the town and heads out on the road up to the Col de Chioula and towards the ski-resort of Camurac. Once again, a suitable spot alongside the road forms the ideal place for lunch – once more, very welcome after the mornings hard ride but also as preparation for the afternoon. The climb up to Chioula and back down the other side is again almost exclusively on metalled roads. Weather permitting, from Prades to Camurac is possible on farm tracks but a recent change of venue for the night halt, has also cut this short.
This is the second night spent at a location usually above the snow line and so hay needs to be provided and as before, the next morning there is almost no trace left. In previous years, use was made of a gîte just outside Camurac that was run by Flemish people – this had the added attraction of meaning the beer was well above reproach! Sadly, they have returned to Flanders and this year the evening was spent drinking self-mixed G&Ts at a brand new gîte in Comus.
Wednesday dawns with the possibility of one of the most spectacular parts of the route – but again, weather permitting. Too much snow makes it almost impassable but the chance of riding over the Plateau de Sault in the snow is one to take up at every opportunity. Once over the plateau, the route finally descends below the snow line and apart from the occasional patch, we have seen the last of the “real” snow.
Lunch is at La Maison des Maquisards; the Maquis were rural resistance fighters – named after the scrubland in which they fought – and at this house a group of maquisards was executed and the house destroyed by the nazis.
Following another rocky descent and the fording of a river, the going now very easy. Before long, the castle of Puivert can be seen on the horizon and not long after that we are into the outskirts of the town and heading up to pastureland next to the local graveyard. Tonight the horses will have to fend for themselves – there is plenty of rough grass and scrub; we shall retire to the marionettes’ gîte.
The last day; despite this realisation, activity is unsubdued and all the riders are at the graveyard before the saddles are brought up in the trailer. We climb out of the corner of the pasture and hit the road for the last time. The day is a mixture of metalled roads, muddy paths and forest tracks but still enough twists and turns and stretches at a gallop to make even this last day as good as the rest. As we finally climb the hill past the abandoned farmhouse, even the first-timers have the realisation that this is the end. Into the enclosed meadowland, we have one final gallop to the top of the hill, dismount and unsaddle our horses. The adventure has come to a close.
The horses are thanked, we watch them rolling on the grass and sniffing out the ground they have not seen for the last seven months. The last chance for taking photos of the hooves and the horses and it’s off down the hill to await the minibus back to Porta.
But what about those hooves? How do they look after four days intensive riding – a substantial part on asphalt too? In one word, superb! The myth that hooves wear out too fast is completely busted. These hooves are as good on day four as they were on day one and lameness and injury is almost unheard of.
What does this trip teach us? That horses do not suffer for being exposed to nature, having to fend for themselves, having only dry grasses and, in their absence, hay to feed on. On the contrary, the majority of liveried horses on bix and cubes and all manner of grain-based feeds, would probably have difficulty getting through day one, let alone all four days. Their shod hooves would have had great difficulty in handling the ascents and descents and the chances of injury would have been considerably higher.