Tiny hooves peeped through first, followed by a head resting on a pair of front legs. I had some difficulty with the shoulders, but the rest came out very quickly. Once the umbilical cord was severed, the mare jumped to her feet, whinnying for joy and impatient to see her foal.
THIS was just one of the many times I had to leave my bed during the night to help a “mother” in distress. I accepted this without complaint. You see, breeding purebred horses was my passion.
My love for horses began very early in my life. I started riding when I was six. Born at Roncq, in the north of France, I was brought up by Catholic parents, who sent me to a Catholic boarding school for my secondary education. Schools for horse breeding did not exist, so I decided to leave school and enter the world of horses. I started out with a trainer in Chantilly, a town north of Paris that is famous for its purebreds. There, I got an inside view of the demanding, austere world of racing. Why demanding? Racehorses may be compared with high-class athletes—they need constant attention.
The delicate period of training and preparation usually starts in the fall when the horses are 18 months old. They have to get used to their new surroundings and learn to give up their former carefree play, buckling down to work. First, the trainer must introduce the horse to a bridle, which is no easy task.
Just girthing a horse can sometimes set off a rodeo! The colt must be trained to accept a saddle, and finally the time comes for the horse to be mounted for the first time. The first rider is usually chosen from among those training to be jockeys. Many of them thus get their first taste of licking the dust! Training horses requires much skill and patience, coupled with a sensitive approach. Indeed, if the animal is traumatized, its entire racing career could be endangered.
Early each morning, we took the horses out to teach them the different gaits—namely the walk, the trot, and the canter—all of which are part and parcel of training. When being trained, a horse must successively change gaits according to instructions. However, a brief gallop is allowed from time to time, giving the horses free rein over a short distance.
At the end of the morning, we returned to the stables for the horses to be meticulously groomed. All traces of perspiration were removed, and their hooves were also carefully cleaned.
If a horse makes good progress, it can start taking part in races for two-year-olds by the end of winter. A purebred’s career generally finishes at the end of its third or, at the latest, its fourth year. Trotters, however, continue racing up to eight years of age.
My Dreams Come True
As I was particularly interested in breeding horses, I started training on a stud farm in Normandy, northwestern France—an excellent region for breeding racehorses because of its climate and lush pastures. Eighteen months later I became assistant director of the Bois-Roussel Stud Farm, the largest in Europe at the time, with 300 horses to care for and hundreds of acres of space.
At the Bois-Roussel Stud Farm, I met the woman who was to become my wife; she worked there as a secretary. I had no idea how much this was going to affect my life. You see, she was acquainted with Jehovah’s Witnesses and started talking to me about them. At the time I was not interested.
When the director heard of our plans to get married in a few months, he asked if we would take charge of another stud farm for which he had joint ownership. Thus my fondest dreams came true. Here I was, director of an important stud farm at the age of 24! There are very few stud-farm directors in France; these posts are usually reserved for members of the exclusive racing-world circle. Smaller than Bois-Roussel, the La Louvière Breeding Farm was also located in Normandy and to me was a little 250-acre [100 ha] paradise, with about a hundred horses, counting stallions, mares, and foals.
As the previous director would not be leaving for six weeks, the owner offered us a trip to the United States in the meantime. We visited large American stud farms to study their breeding methods and contacted several farms where we would later be sending our mares to be covered by their stallions.
Life on a Stud Farm
Life on a stud farm is all absorbing but certainly not tiresome. Indeed, it brought us great satisfaction, for we were in constant contact with nature and had beautiful, healthy animals to look after. In the morning we awakened to the gentle sound of horses munching fresh grass. What music this was to my ears!
Work on the farm is divided into the mating and the birthing seasons, the weaning of the foals, and the selling of the young purebreds. Stallions are carefully selected on the basis of excellent racing records, as well as ancestry and pedigree. Each spring about 40 mares are covered, and as much as a hundred thousand dollars may be paid to have a purebred stallion with an outstanding record sire a foal. In view of such investments, it is not difficult to understand why so much care is taken during both gestation and birth periods.
Unfortunately, accidents do happen, and sometimes the little foal is an orphan from birth. In this case we are faced with the difficult task of persuading a brood mare to adopt it. The mare is held in curb by the stableboys, who relieve one another day and night for about 48 hours, when the little foal is brought near in order to feed. The mare has to be held to prevent her from kicking, as she could easily kill the orphan. One of the mare’s front legs has to be held against her abdomen and a twitch tightened over her upper lip to restrain her.
Eventually the mare begins to tire, and success is assured when she finally accepts the foal. Often, the new mother becomes so protective that it is difficult even to get near the foal. The birth must be promptly declared to the French National Registry, where it is entered in the register for the particular breed.
Horses and Foals
A few days after giving birth, the mares, followed by their foals, are led out to the paddocks. Like many young animals, foals immediately go wild, joyfully frolicking around their mothers and kicking in all directions. What a delight to watch them leaping, rearing, and rolling in the grass! They love water and enthusiastically splash themselves, stamping all the while.
Horses do not like being alone and easily become bored. However, stallions and training colts must be isolated. If a horse cannot bear solitude, a companion animal has to be found. We were obliged to supply one of our stallions with a sheep. They got along very well. In fact, the sheep refused to leave the horse day or night. One champion racehorse called Allez France had a sheep companion that accompanied her even to racecourses—though not in the races themselves!
August brings weaning time, a sad period for mothers and foals. They must be separated and must not see or even hear each other. The foals demonstrate their grief by constant whinnying for several days, after which they get over it. On January 1 of the year following their birth, they are called yearlings. At the Deauville annual auctions, the price for a yearling can easily exceed a million dollars.
Some of the horses born and bred on our stud farm had successful careers. One such was High Echelon, who won the Prix d’Amérique in 1979, as world champion in the trotter category. We also raised other purebreds that won a number of important classic races.C