In 2010, I attended the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in the heart of the Bluegrass region, Lexington, Ky. Like thousands of other horse lovers, I ran around the Kentucky Horse Park waiting to catch a glimpse of the best horses in the world competing in the eight disciplines: dressage, eventing, reining, para-dressage, show jumping, endurance, vaulting and driving.
So when I received an invitation to travel to France to see where the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy will take place, I jumped at the chance.
The Biggest Horse Event in the World
The Games will be held Aug. 23 to Sept. 7, 2014, and Alltech, title sponsor of the 2010 Games, is once again lending its support to the biggest horse event in the world. If you’re a horse owner, there’s a pretty good chance that your horse’s feed bag includes ingredients developed by Alltech, one of the world’s leading animal health and nutrition companies.
I’ve been to Paris several times but hadn’t ventured northwest of the capital to visit the area that the French consider the “Land of the Horse.”
Unlike in Lexington, where all of the competitions were located at one site, the 2014 Games will take place in several locations around Normandy. Caen, the region’s capital, will be the heart of the Games. The city, which is a two and a half hour drive from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris or a slightly shorter train ride, will host seven of the competitions, including show jumping, dressage, para-dressage, reining, vaulting, driving and the stadium jumping phase of eventing. The endurance competition will be run an hour or so away and pass by the scenic Mont-Saint-Michel, a famous abbey perched on top of a rocky island off the coast. The eventing dressage and cross-country phases will take place at one of the area’s national stud farms, Haras du Pin, deep in the countryside.
This year, two exhibition sports have been added to the Games: polo and horseball. These events will take place in Deauville, a popular seaside resort.
The Land of the Horse
After spending just a few days in Normandy, I can see why the region was picked to host the Games. It’s a very horsey area. As we drove down winding country lanes and in and out of quaint villages, I spotted lots of healthy and happy-looking horses grazing in lush green fields. I learned that there are more than 700,000 riders in Normandy and that around 4,000 equestrian events, including horse racing on the beach, take place there each year. The region has two national stud farms and 21 racetracks where both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing take place.
My first day in France was spent in Trouville-sur-Mer, a small fishing town on the coast. Within five minutes of walking around, I saw several people at the local outdoor market wearing breeches, and I spotted a two-horse trailer being towed by a Volkswagen Golf. Yes, folks, a Volkswagen Golf.
I walked by a riding stable built on the beach, and watched a French Trotter being exercised on the sand in harness. I also saw several billboards advertising a Congres des Chevaux, a horse expo that was taking place the next week.
Getting Ready for the Games
The next day I visited Caen so that I could see where the bulk of the competition will take place.
The Prairie racecourse, smack dab in the middle of the city, will be the location of the para-dressage and driving competitions. Driving obstacles have already been built, and there are billboards posted around the city explaining to the locals what preparations are being made for the Games.
One of the goals of the organizers of the 2014 Games is to engage the local population and encourage them, horsey or not, to come out and enjoy the event and learn more about equestrian sports. The organizers have promised that tickets to the different events will be moderately priced so locals will be eager to attend.
The show jumping, eventing show jumping and dressage will take place in the town’s soccer venue, the D’Ornano Stadium. The vaulting will take place in the Zenith indoor arena, a theater in the round where everyone will have a good view of the action.
Caen will also be the site of the exhibition center, home to hundreds of trade stands, restaurants and exhibits. The organizers plan to offer an inexpensive day pass for people who just want to shop or watch demonstrations.
Visitors to the competitions taking place in Caen will be able to walk from one venue to another fairly easily, but for people who need help getting around, there will be regular shuttle buses driving between the sites.
Versailles for Horses
If you plan to watch the eventing dressage and cross-country phases, you must make your way to Haras du Pin, near Argentan, about 45 miles south of Caen. The stud farm, spread out over 2,500 acres, is the perfect place to host the cross-country jumping. Often called “Versailles for Horses,” Haras du Pin is the posh home of French stallions of every shape and size. Munching on hay in their stalls you’ll find burly Percherons, with legs as solid as tree trunks, Thoroughbreds, French Trotting Horses, Arabians, Lipizzaners and Selle Francais.
Every Thursday from June to September, visitors can watch a parade of the stud’s stallions, mares and foals. More than 100 equestrian events take place at Haras du Pin each year, making good use of the stud’s several outdoor arenas and grass training track. Haras du Pin also features a museum, a horse and pony care workshop for kids and a gift store.
Memories of D-Day
After visiting Haras du Pin, we headed back to the coast for a bit of sightseeing. Normandy is home to Omaha Beach, the site of the historic D-Day invasion in World War II. Since 2014 is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the area is planning several large celebrations; it’s likely that President Obama will make a trip to France to honor the thousands of Americans who died in battle on June 6, 1944.
A tour of Omaha Beach had been arranged for my group with D-Day Academy—a company that advertises itself as a “Museum on Wheels.” We whizzed along the coastal roads between memorials in Jeeps and supply trucks from the 1940s. Riding in an old truck was pretty bumpy, and I suspect my truck’s driver had dreams of being a Formula 1 race car driver because he was a bit of speed devil, but it gave me a taste of what American soldiers must have seen and felt in 1944.
The visit to Omaha Beach was quite an emotional experience for everyone on the tour, and it’s a detour I recommend if you attend the Games.
Before we could hop out of the Jeeps, our guides from D-Day Academy whisked us to a nearby château where we sipped Calvados, an apple brandy made in the region. We were able to look at and touch some of the actual rifles, guns, helmets and equipment used by soldiers who fought on D-Day.
Abbey on a Hill
My final destination was Mont-Saint-Michel, the site of the endurance competition. Mont-Saint-Michel is about 75 miles away from Caen. Walking on the causeway on the way to the tiny town and abbey perched high atop a rocky island, I was able to see where one loop of the endurance competition will take place.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a spectacular place to have lunch, high above the gray sea, but you have to be fit to walk around the island—there are a lot of steep stairways to negotiate!
A Destination for Horse Lovers
More than once on my trip I thought about how wonderful it would be to ride around this beautiful area. I discovered that the Normandy Tourism Board’s website has several links to farms that offer trekking holidays, rides through the countryside and gallops along the beaches. When I return to Normandy, a ride with Mont-Saint-Michel as a backdrop is on my must-do list.
If you’re thinking of attending the Games, now is the time to book your hotel rooms. Caen has many different types of hotels near the Games’ site, or you could consider staying in a château in the countryside that surrounds the city. I stayed at the gorgeous Château de Sully, a small hotel and restaurant in Bayeux, a historic town known for the Bayeux Tapestries, near Caen.
There are other housing options available too. What about renting a gîte, a private country cottage? Booking a gîte is a great idea if you plan to attend the Games with friends. There are also plenty of chamber de hôtes, French-style bed and breakfasts in Normandy. Looking for an even cheaper option? Camp out! There are many campsites in the area, often near the seaside, that offer mobile homes, caravans and even yurts to rent.
After spending just a few days in Normandy, I found the area to be a great destination for horse lovers. If you plan to go to the Games, build a few free days into your schedule so you can make the trip to Omaha Beach, visit a Calvados distillery or ride through the quiet lanes that meander through villages and along the River Vire.
There’s plenty to see and do in Normandy. Start planning your trip of a lifetime now!
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This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.