A Gift Horse on the Farm

Above: Xavier Paquin is a breeder of Merens horses on
one of the handful of farms.
Here he is collecting wood on his 150-hectare farm on
the northern fringe of the Pyrenees, near Mirepoix.
“This is not just folklore,” Paquin says. “Why use a
78-horsepower tractor, when one horse will do?”

The Merens pony may be coming to a field near you courtesy of Tony Blair. These indigenous ponies of the Ariege, in the Pyrenees, are making a miraculous comeback as the new farm machine, writes Paul Jenner.

Photographs by the author.

WHEN IT COMES TO REVIVING THE fortunes of species close to extinction British Prime Minister Tony Blair is an expert. On holiday in the French departement of the Ariege this summer he briefly switched his attention from the Labour Party to the indigenous Pyrenean pony. By accepting the present of a Merens foal, Just In Time, he joined the elite band of owners of a tiny equine race that is claimed to be one of the closest to the prehistoric horse. Iron­ically, the gift was bred not by a native Ariegeois but by an English expatriate, Kevin Henshall.

I met Kevin some ten years earlier, whilst co­authoring a guidebook to the Pyrenees. I had been to the vast labyrinth of the Niaux Caves, where the Merens have their earliest known portraits, and I wanted to see the real thing. Accord­ing to the best scientific analysis, the Niaux cave drawings date from 14,000 years ago when people of the Late Magdalenian, for some unexplained reason, groping in the black recesses with woos torches or greased wicks, made their spare but vir­ile outlines. It seems improbable that the blood­line could have remained pure through the centuries, yet the similarity is undeniable. There, or. the cave walls, are the same shaggy manes, the same short stocky legs, the same powerful chest; and necks, the same docile expressions.

The Merens disappeared from the historical record until a 17th-century book on equitation spoke of the noirs frontaliers d’Espagne (black horses of the Spanish frontier). The gardes-etalons royaux, forerunners of the present haras or national studs, went to take a look at them for the cavaleries royales and found them strong enough to haul canons but too slow to lead a charge of hussards. These must have been the Merens.

TRADITION AND ETYMOLOGY PUT THE BIRTHPLACE of the Merens race at Merens-les-Vals, a small village at the confluence of the Ariege, Mourguil­lou and Nabre rivers, some 30 kilometres south­east of Niaux on the road to Andorra. As I drove along the Ariege its slopes plunged ever more steeply into the galloping river. Side valleys briefly opened and closed, devoid of sunlight in winter, dank and deep in leaf mould and choking with the smoke of wood fires. Few breeds would pros­per here.

At Merens the valley widened and the thin autumn sunlight played on the slate roofs and the yellowing leaves. Houses in groups, many in ruins, clustered around the few flat fields, empty and overgrown. I took the turning that climbed along the Nabre stream. An old man with a beak for a nose and a deeply fissured face was standing by the bridge.

“In this village we all used to breed one or two Merens,” he told me. “And we used to sell them for working in the Roussillon vineyards. But that’s all finished now.”

I drove on up past the site of the old castle and the ruined Romanesque church. The road came to an end where the final group of houses stood in the funnelling wind of the bleak Nabre valley. A man wearing a black beret and a frown was stand­ing by the water trough. In my hobnailed French I explained what I wanted. There was a long pause while, in the Ariege fashion, he weighed me up. Then, in English, he invited me into the stable.

Kevin swung open the door and inside, teth­ered in a line, their eyes momentarily wild and white-ringed with fear at what might be about to happen, were four gleaming, black ponies. Immediately I recognised them from the cave drawings. But I was not prepared for the size of them. Short, they are technically ponies, yet they have nothing in common with a Shetland or a New Forest. These four animals were massive, standing like monuments, with the presence of statues in stone or bronze. They had the manes of lions. Each hoof was the size of a discus. Each leg the thickness of a marble column.

The next day he took me along the Mourguillou valley to see the rest of his herd living wild on the summer pasture. The Merens is semi-wild. No Merens is an individual, but a part of a larger organism, moving like a boulder in an avalanche, governed by a rigid hierarchy and growing muscles from wires of mountain grass.

At the edge of a small lake he pointed to a huge mound of stones. “That was where the last Mer­ens supposedly died,” he said. “Somehow they got into a hut and the door closed behind them. When someone discovered what had happened there was nothing to do but demolish the hut over the bodies.”

The story is to a degree apocryphal. The Merens that died were not quite the “last”. But there had been a savage decline that ran parallel with the depopulation of the Pyrenees from the middle of the 19th century. There are fewer people living

in the Pyrenees now than there were one hundred years ago. A society was formed to protect the Merens in 1933, but SHERPA (Syndicat hippique d’elevage de la race pyreneenne ariegeoise) was impotent faced with the Second World War and the mechanisation of agriculture. Eventually, there was only a single recognised stallion, Vigoureux.

IT WOULD BE ROMANTIC TO SAY THAT THE BREED had been saved by an Englishman who, setting off on a world tour, had fallen in love with the Merens and got no further than the Pyrenees. But what really saved the Merens was leisure riding and holiday pony trekking. In the mountains, the Merens has no equal, whether carrying a man or, as in the olden days, a load of hay, provisions, timber, or stones for building the typical beehive shelter known as an orri.

From Vigoureux came the four `roots’ of the modern Merens Quart, Contestataire, Vengeur and Uranium. Every registered Merens is a descendant of one of those four, and most are des­cended from the last two. That is how close the breed was to extinction.

Today, the picture is more hopeful. The number of Merens recorded in the stud book is more than 600, double the 1986 figure. Of those, around 40 mares, stallions and foals belong to Kevin Henshall and his French partner Helene Sapy, six belong to me (together with Christine Smith, co-author of the guidebook) and one belongs to Tony Blair. If he takes just In Time to England as planned then his will be the only known Merens in the country, perhaps the start of a new group. Mine, and their owners, will remain steadfastly in the Pyrenees. Nothing political, Tony.