Tuesday, April 24, 2007


"Going to see the little foals then?" asked Marcel, when he saw me going out with the camera, a cherubic and fairly unusual smile changing his face.

Un homme serieux, Marcel, meaning a hard-working man, one who takes commitments and responsibilities seriously. This is reflected in demeanour; to smile too much,to be over-jolly or familiar is to risk being construed as lightweight, frivolous, unreliable. And sober too, in all senses, unlike his brother Francois, a good man but ruined by cider and Calva, died a few years ago, and his sons tend the same way; though Marcel once told me exactly the recipe for making the aperitif from the walnut leaves and green walnuts, at home it's only Orangina and coffee. In his mid-eighties now, he worked the farm of his wife's family a mile or two from here, a former manoir, L-shaped around a courtyard, grey granite with a beautiful tower, now crumbling, used as a barn. Ann, his wife, was born the same year as my mother, 1914, so is some years older than him. She is gracious and discreet, kind and friendly but rather sad, still preparing meals, still to be seen with him on sunny days sitting under a parasol by the woodpile, but mostly blind, weary with age, hanging on for him. Their small, foursquare modern house, its flowers and potager are new-pin neat; they worked hard all their lives and prospered, but had no children.

" Yes, perhaps." I replied. There were two mares in the paddock in November, then they disappeared. In March, however, I was walking and saw two horses there again, and with them an elderly man, a typical Gallo-Breton farmer, small, workmanlike clothes, flat cap, strong accent and by the loudness of his speech, rather deaf - which made understanding each other less than easy, but with a nifty, new model, red roadster which looked like it should have been driven by someone in marketing.

"They're back!" I exclaimed. However, I learned that only one was from the original pair, the other, her mother, had died suddenly. A horse should not be alone, he said, they pine (s'ennuyer ), so he had bought another mare in foal to keep her company. Clearly not short of a few euros. The foals, he said, would be born in the coming months. The girls clearly got on very well, grooming each other with their teeth, rubbing off shedding hair,

or at other times standing back to back, shifting their increasing and cumbersome weight from foot to foot, acquiring that torpid, inward-looking, elsewhere look I have sometimes seen in pregnant women shortly before giving birth. But they were always gentle and friendly, plodding over to the fence to say hello and rub noses.

Then, a few days ago, I walked there and two foals were lying in the grass. Another elderly man came up on a bicycle, and the occupant of the nearby house, who happens to be my former next-door neighbour's daughter-in-law's father, so is known to me (familiale, this area), also joined us. " You want photos, that'll be 10 euros!" Evidently, the birth of these foals is a cause of some celebration; one had arrived the previous day, she lifted her head to look at us,

then her mother settled down beside her.

The other was a few days old, and quite lively and mischievous.

As I returned past Marcel's, I called out " I've just seen the new foals!" and stopped to chat. He had farmed with horses, he said, until about 1955 or 56, when the first, small, tractors arrived. Always two or three horses, he said, and sometimes we had foals. He would take the mares down to Moncontour where there would be seven or eight stallions; they were ridden out from the haras, the national stud farm at Lamballe, and would stay at the stations from spring until summer. There are two strains of Breton horses, the trait, the draught version, mighty and solid, and the quicker and lighter postier, developed to transport mail and passengers around the region. The two largely became hybridised, but the breeding programme at the haras now seeks to refine and redistinguish the characteristics of each. (The National Studs are an important institution in France, the first ones set up by Napoleon.) The keeping of them is a hobby for farming people; there is some work done by them in forestry, where they are less damaging than tractors, but in general they are not working animals. Box vans containing state-of-the-art veterinary equipment travel the countryside to assist with their care and mares are artificially inseminated, which is safer in every way. But many who keep them now remember when they were employed on the farms, so the link has not been broken. At the displays and open days at the haras along with the tourists are often local people, knowledgeable and passionate, who seem to know the horses and their grooms by name.
The horses lack the picturesque elegance of the tall, feathery-footed English shire, or even that of the pearly grey Percherons of Normandy; they are square, massive, large-headed and short-legged, but they are beautiful in their own way, and endear themselves by their kindliness.

" There was one foal didn't make it," Marcel continued "the mare had something wrong, he was born after just thirty-six weeks."
" What's the normal gestation?"
"Eleven months. I found him in the field, he was no bigger than your dog, but still alive. I put him in a box by the stove to be warm, and drew some milk from the mare, put it in a baby's bottle, but the instant I gave it to him, he died."
I wondered that this story came back to him, standing out in his memory after seventy years of life on and around farming, with all its successes and failures, its harsh practicalities and unsentimental pragmatism. I saw him, still a youngish man in his thirties, but with the couple's hopes of children fading, and the survival of a tiny, hopelessly premature foal taking on exceptional importance.

A day or two later, in the late afternoon, I called out to Tom that I was going to see the horses. They and their mothers were up and about,

and I scrambled under the fence to get an unobstructed view of them. One of the mare's came over and greeted me affectionately, and happily introduced her foal. Molly snuffled about in the ditch and watched with interest.

So absorbed were we in this inter-species entente that it took me by (pleasant) surprise when I turned around and Tom was standing on the path in work clothes, looking and smiling.
"I'm not really here," he said " I'm still back at the house. Astral projection."
For half an instant, half of me half-believed him. One of those funny moments.

We walked home, side by side down the parallel trackways in the growing wheatfield.


Anonymous said...

Oh, what a heart-warming story with that sudden sweet human touch at the end. Glorious photos! I was completely swept into this very different world-from-mine, with my tea getting cold as I read it a second time.

Beth said...

Enjoyed this enormously, Lucy. The foals are so beautful and it's fascinating to see how stocky they are already - your account was terrific reading (and looking!) Thanks.

Unknown said...

What blissful images!

Unknown said...

What blissful images!

Catalyst said...

Lucy, you are a true artiste with both words and camera.

I brought my birthday greeting from you to the attention of a friend of mine, who wrote: I am instantly intrigued, charmed & utterly fascinated by your
friend, Lucy. She writes like a poet and the photographs are worthy of hanging in a gallery.

I couldn't agree more!

Fire Bird said...

Oh - how beautiful...

Zhoen said...


leslee said...

Oh, so beautiful! They look very sweet.

We have horses in my town. People up the street rescued an older mare who'd been in pretty bad shape, and after healing she ended up getting pregnant (the owner said she'd be the equivalent of in her 40s in human years). I saw her just before she gave birth - absolutely huge and stunningly beautiful, wild-looking. She gave birth to a very large foal, which apparently brought her way up on the horse totem pole. She's blind now, but the owner says the other horses look after her. So interesting - horse social groups.

Lucy said...

Thanks all! I almost feel a cheat because the foals are so beautiful and photogenic I could get away with anything!
Yesterday they had their first head collars on, apparently they were quite stroppy about that and surprisingly strong. they are both girls, which is good news.
Catalyst, your friend's comments are highly flattering, thanks for passing on the link.
Plutarch, you can say that again (oh, you did!)

Jan said...

"Endearing themselves by kindliness"...lovely!
And so was the superb picture of the foal's slender legs..
As Catalyst says, you are an artist twice over.
Superb posting.

herhimnbryn said...

Lucy, the Thomas Hardy of the Blog world.

Beautiful images and words L. Perfect reading on this cold morning while drinking my coffee.

Avus said...

A lovely essay, Lucy. Good photos too (but, as you say, with that subject it would be hard to produce a bad one).
I have a great affection for horses - particularly the great draught type, as my grandfather was horseman on a farm and I was brought up, from about 3, to sit beside the old man on the cart and "help" in the stables (the sweet, strawy breath of his charges stays with me still)

Lucy said...

Thanks Jan, h and Avus
dear h, I hope I am not quite so lugubrious, but otherwise the comparison is flattering!
A - I enjoy rubbing noses with the beasts because of how delightful they smell.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Horses, farmers -- ah!

herhimnbryn said...

Never lugubrious, never. Just a love of all things natural and country.

Lucy said...

So, you detect a theme do you Richard? I'd best get out more and find something else to write about!
H- the countryside is a rather gloomy place in some ways, but thank you, a flattering comparison as I said.

Misssy M said...

Hello, I had the pleasure of judging the Post of the week this week as a guest judge and I just wanted to leave a comment to say how much I enjoyed your post.
Will keep reading your work from now on.

Lucy said...

Thank you, missymartin. Unfortunately I can't find anything out about you!

Misssy M said...

Bizarre- link gone weird. Try this- you're welcome round my patch anytime!