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France, Western-Style

Where the Gallic and the giddyup are in step.

Cowboys who’ve just finished their rides gather in twos and threes at the Saloon, complete with wagon wheel décor, and drink tall glasses of beer in quick, easy gulps. They are professional cowboys, many of them, wearing Wranglers bunched up over fat square-toed boots and jackets emblazoned with the organization of their equestrian specialty — reining, barrel racing, and cutting.

As the competitions end throughout the day, the groups around the bar get bigger and the laughter gets louder. More beers are ordered. Instead of a handshake, they greet each other with a customary kiss on each cheek.

But this isn’t a West Texas roadhouse. It’s the 27-acre Eurexpo exhibit site outside of Lyon, France, in the Rhône-Alpes region, where Western riding has taken off at full gallop. This year’s prestigious Equitá Lyon horse show, held last month for the eighteenth year, included three arenas devoted solely to Western riding events, along with hundreds of vendors selling everything that a wannabe cowboy or cowgirl might need — boots and buckles to spurs and saddles, along with sparkly T-shirts with images of horses, and dream catchers.

The prestigious Equitá Lyon equestrian show is in its eighteenth year, and this year marks the fourth — and biggest — for all things Western, including the reining competition that started it all, barrel racing, and cutting. All of these events are sanctioned by the American organizations that govern each one: the National Reining Horse Association, the National Barrel Racing Association, and the National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA). They make riders want to be here.

“Western has really exploded in France in the last five years,” says Irene Stamatelakys, the American Paint Horse Association representative for France, who’s lived in Aix-en-Provence for 13 years. “Europe is our fastest-growing market, and the fastest-growing country is France — with 5,000 registered paint horses — followed by Italy.”

While France has a long tradition of riding — equestrian sports rank as the third most popular here, after soccer and tennis — saddling up, Western-style, is just starting to catch on.

“A lot of French people have this American dream,” says Stamatelakys. “They romanticize America and the West and they want to be a part of this.”

 

Rein Me In

T.G. Sheppard’s “Devil in the Bottle” blasts over the loudspeakers while competitors warm up their horses, moving from one end of the arena to the other at full gallop, then a slide, the horses’ back ends down, as puffs of burnt orange dirt fly all around. Up again and back and forth they go. Running, sliding, and spinning in tight circles to the left and right.

Reining was the first Western equestrian sport to take hold in France, and it’s largely due to Guy Duponchel, who bought the first American Quarter horses off the boat in Le Havre in the 1970s — shipped to France from the United States and meant for eating, not riding – then trained them for trick riding in Western-style shows around the country.

Duponchel, now 65, has been president of the National Reining Association of France, boasting more than 300 members, for 12 years.  Dimpled, moustachioed and with chestnut-brown eyes, he’s also a dead ringer for Tom Selleck — and with a charming French accent, to boot.

“Everyone thought that Western riding was cowboy folklore, not real riding,” he says, over an espresso at the VIP lounge above the arena one afternoon. “The FEI [Fédération Equestre Internationale] wouldn’t recognize Western riding. But after reining was part of the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain, in 2002, the FEI changed its mind.”

The Lyon International Reining Competition at Equitá is now considered to be the most prestigious and biggest reining show in Europe, with $100,000 in prize money and top riders from Belgium, Austria, and Italy.

 

The World Series Of Cutting: The Mercuria

“Bravo, Marco!” shouts a woman sitting in the packed metal bleachers, where the crowd has gotten a pre-event explanation so they can better understand the sport. Marco Salvatore has just completed his ride and the overhead board shows that he’s now ranked second out of 11 riders in today’s Open Derby, after last year’s champion, Denis Peni, also from Italy.

American Sherry Mason lives on a ranch outside of Milan, in Agnadello, Italy, and trains cutting horses. She’s a past Associazione Italiana Cutting Horse Challenge Futurity winner, and this is her first time to compete at the Equitá show. “We came for the Mercuria,” she tells me the day before her competition while roaming the exhibition space with two of her students, who’ll compete in the non-pro events. “It’s a lot of money ($100,000 in total) and a very important show.”

The next day, she’s dressed in a long-sleeved raspberry shirt, fringed chaps over her Wranglers, and a gleaming silver championship belt buckle that’s as big as a saucer — and riding Red White and Boo, an imposing  black quarter horse with a white stripe down its nose.

Her two and a half minutes begin ticking away as she cautiously approaches the herd of cows gathered towards the back of the arena, most of them a dirty white, with a few brown ones mixed in.

Moving slowly, yet with focus, she slices through the herd, then, holding the reins high with her left hand and onto the saddle horn with her right, she cuts away a brown cow, then a white one. 1:23 left. She and her horse lunge, then lurch, elegant waves of movement mimicking the cow’s effort to escape. Two more cut. The buzzer sounds.

She’s the last rider of the day, and she comes in second. “I had a good run,” she says afterwards, smiling.

Indeed she did. Two days later, Mason placed sixth in the finals, ahead of former world champion and NCHA Hall of Famer Chubby Turner.

 

A French Western Lifestyle Magazine

In Angers, about 190 southwest of Paris and not far from the Loire Valley, Marc Bainaud publishes his quarterly lifestyle publication, written in French but with an English title, New Western Way of Life.

Simply designed and largely instructional (one issue included a dental diagram of a horse’s mouth, along with a detailed photo essay of the unique components of Western saddlery), the magazine aims to introduce newcomers in France to all things Western as well as be a guide for enthusiasts looking for new horses, tack, training, or to read about the biggest names in reining and cutting, worldwide.

“France has a very large horse culture,” Bainaud says, wearing a straw hat, a paisley shirt and a vest that looks more Gunsmoke than Gallic, and sitting in a green canvas camp chair at the booth where he’s selling back issues of his magazines for €7 (about $10) apiece. “And there are many riders that have come over to the Western tradition.”

Apparently so. Now five years old, New Western Way of Life has 800 subscribers and sells close to 5,000 copies per issue on the newsstands, he says.

Why has the Western lifestyle has so captivated the French? “The conviviality, the ambiance,” he says wistfully, gazing off to the arena where the barrel racers will soon compete. “C’est extrodinaire, the vie Western.” (“It’s extraordinary, the Western life.”)

 

Country Dance Corner

Four lines of men and women in their 50s and 60s tip their hats and scoot their boots across the wooden dance floor that’s been set up in a corner not far from the Airstream trailer selling crêpes. From afar, they look like they were imported straight from Billy Bob’s Texas, wearing tiered denim skirts that twirl, T-shirts with American flags, and bandanas tied on their wrists.  

Speaking little or no English, they nonetheless mouth the words to Country Music Association award-winner Sara Evans’ “A Real Fine Place to Start,” as they cross, slide, and stomp under the direction of their “prof,” 32-year-old Jean-Christophe Chariwe, in tight jeans, brass-tipped cowboy boots, and a straw hat cocked back on his head, just so.

When Chariwe isn’t working in the wood pallet-making factory near Valence in southeast France, he’s on a dance floor like this one somewhere in France, with his 180-member country line dancing club, The Swivels, one of dozens of such groups located mostly in the south.

He’s been line dancing for eight years and hopes one day to visit the U.S. Until then, he’ll keep crossing his feet — and as he does so, the Atlantic — one song at a time. “I close my eyes and I’m in Texas,” he says in French. “With my feet I can be there. It’s my dream. Dance is my passion.”

Chariwe takes his place in front of the line. “Un, deux, trois,” he says, signalling his dancers to get ready and for another song to begin.


Ellise Pierce loves riding Western anywhere in the world, and is author of Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking with a French Accent (Running Press).

 

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