Ask anyone, novice or aficionado, if they can remember the first time they rode horseback along a beach. I'll bet they'll go into minute detail as they tell the story. Moments like that are not easily forgotten. "It was early one morning, in Ronce-les-Bains, near Royan. We had been following a horse trail through the forest for about an hour when we came to the top of a dune. Before us, an incredible view of the ocean, so calm and peaceful. We felt as if we were the first people on earth, it was surreal!", says 62-year old Donatienne George, certified monitor in Equestrian tourism.
This regular horse rider never tires of riding along the coast. These moments out of time seem to draw us back over and over. I talk from experience. "There's a relaxing side that inevitably leaves me with a happy memory", confides 20-year old Jeanne Kalbach, from the saddle of a dappled pony. « Every single time I get the same feeling of freedom. We gallop so fast it feels like I'm flying! The best thing is that my horse loves it too. She becomes playful, and is happy to be able to pick up speed. It really makes me happy", says 23-year old Lucie Lardy. "We can really see a change in their behaviour, the horses come alive. It's very satisfying", adds Donatienne George.
Getting over the waves
In the best of worlds these shared moments with man's most noble conquest look idyllic. Add the backdrop of any of the beaches that run along this 150 kilometre stretch of the Charente-Maritime coast and the postcard looks perfect. It often is, but to be honest things need to be seen in context. Originally horses were prey. This explains why they are often fearful. They can be afraid of things that wouldn't even make a human jump. "My pony is frightened of seaweed, oysters and above all of waves! There's no way he'll put a hoof in the water", laughs Jeanne Kalbach, who settles for staying on dry land.
Most horses apprehend going through waves, however small. My amazing horse - Junior - is an exception to the rule. One beautiful winter's day, he showed me how at la pointe des Saumonards, in the île d'Oléron. As soon as we arrived on this beautiful stretch bordered by pines, he headed instinctively for the Atlantic where Fort Boyard rose up in the distance. As we approached the foaming waves, his first steps were hesitant but he ended up by going into the sea. Then came the "queasy" moment! When a horse gets to where the wave breaks, sea sickness sets in for most of us riders. The easy way to get rid of it is to simply get out of the water.
“You can't make it up as you go along”
These escapades along the coast are not short of stories. Jeanne Kalbach remembers a Shetland pony rolling in the sand while she was still sitting on his back. Lucy Lardy had to handle an impromptu jump when her mare mistook an amorous message in the sand for an obstacle...As for me, I fell in the water last December. It was in Châtelaillon-plage. Wading through the sea in perfect harmony with my faithful companion, I made the mistake of tightening the saddle just as a wave rolled in. He became frightened, started and... splash. No-one was hurt but we had a good laugh.
Happily no serious incidents have been reported in our club during these outings. « To keep speed under control you have to have horses with a minimum of training. This work needs to be done upfront. If there are lots of people around, the horses need to be able to keep at walking pace easily", explains the Equestrian tourism supervisor. "You can't make it up as you go along!", agrees Michel Vallaeys, chairman of the Departmental Committee for Equestrian Tourism (CDTE) in Charente-Maritime.
«You need to be extremely careful, know the place well so you can avoid mud or soft sand... With inexperienced riders it's best to go with a professional (1). In any event, it's vital to respect other users, by picking up horse droppings for example. Access for horses is not authorised everywhere and at all times (see below). You'll need to call the town hall first to check existing legislation and make the most of this magical experience.
(1) The list of equestrian centres in Charente-Maritime is available on www.chevalnouvelleaquitaine.fr
CITATION : I feel a sense of freedom. Galloping flat out, I feel like I'm flying
How to access horse-riding beaches
On the île de Ré
- At Rivedoux: authorized between 15th June and 15th September before 10.00am and at low tide, if supervision is guaranteed by certified professionals.
- Sainte-Marie, Le-Bois-Plage: authorised between 1st October and 30th March.
- At La Couarde: authorized between 1st October and 30th March, strictly forbidden during school holidays.
- At Les Portes: forbidden from 1st June to 30th September between 9.00am and 1.00pm & between 2.00pm and 7.00pm.
- At Saint-Clément-les-Baleines: authorized "La Conche" beach towards Les Portes from 15th June to 15th September before 10.00am and after 7.00pm.
On the île d’Oléron
- At Dolus, Saint-Georges, Saint-Trojan and Saint-Pierre: authorized between 8.30pm and 9.00am for the period between 15th June and 15th September, otherwise no restrictions outside of this summer period.
- At Saint-Denis: strictly forbidden all year round
- At Grand-Village: strictly forbidden between 15th June and 15th September
- At Saint-Palais-sur-Mer: forbidden during the school holidays and from 1st June to 30th September.
- In Mathes/La Palmyre: authorized all year round between the path to the Forester's House in Bonne Anse and the edge of La Tremblade; forbidden between the edge of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer and the path to the Forester's House in Bonne Anse from 1st April to 30th September
- At La Tremblade: forbidden on the beaches between the Pointe-Espagnole to the La Coubre lighthouse from 1st June to 30th September between 10.00am and 7.00pm
Around La Rochelle
- At Aytré: forbidden to horses between 15th June and 15th September
- At Châtelaillon: accessible all year subject to authorization from the commune, except between 1st June and 30th September.
N.B.: beaches not listed above are either forbidden to horses, or local authorities have not pronounced their decisions on the subject. Check directly at the town halls.