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Horses show off in Versailles, keeping alive royal tradition

SYLVIE CORBET Associated Press

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VERSAILLES, France — The historic Versailles Palace Gardens will soon host the Paris Olympics equestrian sports.

Meanwhile, the select riders in the National Equestrian Academy who handle the palace’s famed royal stables are continuing to care for their beloved horses. Almost every day at dawn, they enjoy the quietness and splendor of the grass lawns and woods of the park of the Versailles Palace, before thousands of visitors from across the world spread in.

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The elite academy, founded by French horse trainer and impresario Bartabas, who decided to revive the splendid building in 2003, has only 12 riders. After years of hard work, they take part in a prestigious show at the Great Stables of Versailles every weekend to the delight of spectators.

While the academy is open to both genders, women form the majority of applicants.

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“We are only women here now,” said one of the riders, Fanny Lorré, smiling as she noted how big a change it is from the once male-dominated world of equestrianism.

Lorré, 28, is known as an “ecuyères,” the French word for squire or horse rider, and has a vast knowledge of the royal stables’ history.

Commissioned by France’s King Louis XIV, or the Sun King, the stables were built between 1679 and 1682 opposite the palace’s main entrance. They housed more than 2,000 horses at one point during the 18th century. Now, the academy’s riders train about 40 horses, notably including Lusitanos, a Portuguese breed known to be a favorite of Louis XIV.

The Great Stables were built “just before the king arrived here in Versailles. He wanted very big and wonderful stables because he had a lot of horses,” Lorré said. “Horses at that time were very important in the court and in the everyday life.”

“They built it in only three years, which is quite amazing when you see how big the building is,” she said. “And it was also a school for the people at that time (who wanted to) learn how to ride … a little bit of philosophy, mathematics and everything so they can become the best person in the kingdom.”

Under the monarchy, horses were used by the royal family, its entourage and visitors to go hunting, show their equestrian skills and enjoy rides in the Versailles gardens. They were an essential part of festivities and a symbol of the king’s power.

After the French Revolution, in the 19th century, the army took over the stables, using them for its cavalry regiments until World War II. They were then used as a storage facility for the Versailles district’s archives and later for horse carriages until Bartabas stepped in and formed the academy.

Its members are known for their contemporary take on equestrian art. They receive fencing, dancing and Japanese archery classes to help them hone skills used in their weekly shows.

As the Paris Games approach, the palace, which will host equestrian and modern pentathlon events during the July 26-Aug. 11 Games, is starting to buzz with excitement.

The academy members, though not participating in the Games, are looking forward to seeing Olympic riders galloping in the gardens of the Versailles Palace, Lorré said.

“There’s a lot of historical meaning to have those Olympics in the gardens,” noted academy rider Dounia Kazzoul, 26. “The king used to organize a lot of (theater) plays and shows in those gardens. So it’s really great to have that here!”

Grandstands, outdoor arenas and gallop tracks are now being set up for the Games across the park, where up to 40,000 people are expected to attend the cross-country part of the event. Olympic horses will be housed in temporary air-conditioned facilities built close to the competition site.

The palace itself will remain open to the public during the Games. To coincide with the Olympics, it will hold an exhibition dedicated to horses and equestrian civilization in Europe from July 2 to Nov. 3.

The National Equestrian Academy will continue to present its show at Versailles this summer until Aug. 7. Visitors can also discover the nearby Gallery of Coaches, which contains one of the largest collections of coaches in Europe.

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