A bay with an upright mane, she stood about fifteen hands and was considered a Cheval de Selle Francais throwback.
She had one passion in life: Big fences, the bigger, the better. She was the reason I’ve flown illicitly over some of the off-limits-to-me fences on the cross-country course in the Forest of Compiegne.
I loved riding her despite not sharing her passion for bolting over stratospherically high obstacles. I’m more of a flat rider. I learned to jump because trail-riding in France required the ability to jump a meter twenty. She didn’t bolt every time I rode her, either. No nearby fences of interesting height meant no bolting.
Two of the fences she chose to bolt over are permanently engraved in my memory. The first turned out to be the biggest on the course. There’s nothing quite like coming up to a very big fence on a rather small horse! I’d already learned that once she’d decided to jump something, there was no stopping her. Not me, not anyone else. I knew she wasn’t mean and that she wasn’t trying to get rid of me. I took one look at the monstrous fence, closed my eyes and went with the flow over a two-meter (6 feet 8 inches) fence! I didn’t come unstuck but once was quite enough which I think Volga understood. Sigh of relief, she never tried it again while I was up.
The other fence was actually an in-and-out. Huge logs piled one on top of each other, they were only about five feet high but they were very broad and VERY SOLID! And very scary to riders! Horses respected their solidity. They usually either flew over or said no. Volga flew over both. I ended up hugging her neck for dear life but I didn’t come off!
Volga was actually a very safe ride despite her predilection for big fences. You see, she knew how to jump and was good at it. Even if you were at a disadvantage, she never tried to get rid of you. She was a very good teacher and I am the better for having ridden her.
Satellite imagery reveals a Cercle Hippique de Compiegne (CHC) which isn’t at the location I used to go to.
The old CHC had its entrance on a corner. You could drive in and park by the outside riding area located in the center. On the left side of the entrance gate, buildings abutting the outside wall contained first the clubhouse, then tack and grain rooms and finally a series of loose boxes which turned the corner. There was a good-sized indoor arena at the other end of the loose boxes. Kennels for two packs of hounds occupied the back of the enclosure while a small stable with a half-dozen tie stalls and a loose box for the chief instructor’s horse sat next to the wall on the right side of the entrance. A head-height wall surrounded the whole. Thirty-six working (and I do mean working!) hunters lived there.
From 1963 to 1965, all the things we used to do on weekends were crammed into Saturday to free up Sunday for riding. My mother would drive (no highways at that time) from Paris to Compiegne. We’d stop for an espresso, pastries and the fixings for a picnic lunch before riding in the Forest of Compiegne for two or three hours, rain or shine. In bad weather, we’d picnic in the clubhouse; otherwise we’d have lunch in the forest.
The Forest of Compiegne was (and probably still is) an extra-ordinary place to ride!
It was said that the Empress Josephine once got lost in it. To make sure she couldn’t get lost again, a signpost was erected at every intersection with the name of each and every lane identified at both ends and in betwixt if necessary. A small vertical red line was painted on one side of each post. Turn your back to it, ride away and you’d end up in Compiegne. Bridle paths were unmarked and went between the bridle lanes.
Before ever riding in it, we were instructed on how to deal with the wildlife. If roe deer, you gave them a wide berth so they wouldn’t spook too easily in hunting season. If boar, you split up and ran away as fast as possible, leaving the boar to decide which horse to chase. By the time it had made up its mind, hopefully everyone would be too far away to be in danger. In the time I rode there, this happened once. Fortunately, it was a short dash and we were able to regroup easily. The sow and her offspring didn’t even realize we were nearby!
It was the French government’s policy at the time to manage deer population by allowing hunting in the fall. An inspector rode with each hunt to ensure that the kill was done as humanely as possible and that the quota was not exceeded. In those days, there were several participating stables. The then CHC had two packs of hounds so that they could hunt every two weeks and rotate the packs. Deer hunting on horseback was done in woodlands rather than open fields and required very athletic, very fit horses. It was those horses we rode in Compiegne.
As nearly as I can tell from the Internet, only one stable remains in Compiegne. There are no packs of hounds so no hunting as it was practiced back then. The fabulous cross-country course, once the second hardest in France, is no longer in use. It’s been replaced by a steeplechase.
I have never hunted or ridden the actual cross-country course although I’ve ridden the track along side it. It was off-limits in its entirety, a fact which eluded Volga!