WEG 2014: Taking Normandy by Storm

Come August, France will host the seventh edition of the World Equestrian Games. Here, France's own Cedric Lyard competes in the Games' eventing test event.

Photo: Courtesy Alltech Inc./Philippe Millereau/KMSP

A preview of what's to come when France hosts the 2014 World Equestrian Games.

On June 6, 1944, American, Australian, Canadian, and British forces surprised German troops as they debarked on the English Channel’s French shores, storming the Normandy beaches in one of the bloodiest battles in modern times. 

Seventy years later, America, Australia, England, Germany, France, and dozens of other nations will join together Aug. 23 to Sept. 7 in peaceful sportsmanship along these same beaches as they compete in a sport that epitomizes unity and partnership: equestrianism. The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) will open in the rich and fertile French region of Normandy—celebrated for its fine cheeses, landscapes, and horses—famous for the invasion that marked the beginning of the end of World War II in Europe.

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) event in Caen, France, in the northwestern region of Basse-Normandie—the Games’ seventh edition—promises to bring together many nations to an internationally emotional site, grounded in rich equine heritage.  

An Epicenter of Equine Culture

The French know horses. With two million riders and 7,800 licensed riding clubs, France lists equestrianism as its third most popular sport (just after soccer and tennis). It leads the world in hosting international equestrian competitions, among them the FEI events in La Baule, Pau, Fontainebleau, Lyon, and Bordeaux. It’s also the world’s fourth leading exporter of horses. The country is responsible for having developed more than 20 different horse breeds—including the athletic and versatile French saddle horse; the powerful surrey-racing French Trotter; the hardy, semi-feral Camargue; and the massive Percheron work horse.

At the heart of this deeply rooted equine culture is Normandy. The “bluegrass of Europe,” with its lush pastures and temperate climate, has long been known and respected as “horse country” and its inhabitants revered as horse masters for more than a thousand years. Normandy is home to nearly 100,000 horses and is the country’s largest breeding region, producing at least 10,000 foals per year. It’s here you’ll find the internationally recognized CIRALE, a high-profile diagnostic imaging and research center for equine musculoskeletal pathologies. Normandy is also home to the 115-year-old Frank Duncombe equine research laboratory, where scientists conduct 1.3 million blood analyses for 50,000 domestic and international clients each year. 

The country’s oldest national stud—the prestigious Haras du Pin that King Louis XIV commissioned to house royal stallions and promote research for improving French breeds—is centered on 2,500 Norman acres and manages 10,000 inseminations from its 40 stallions annually. The region also boasts 21 racecourses, a 13.4-million-euro equestrian sports complex, an international equine center (where many elite athletes and their horses stayed in the days before the London 2012 Olympics), and an international airport specializing in equine transportation.

“This isn’t just a sporting event that we’re organizing; it’s a manifestation of equestrian culture in an extraordinary setting,” says Fabien Grobon, WEG 2014’s managing director. 

A Multisite Venue

If you think WEG 2014 will only give spectators a glimpse of Caen, think again. The organizers have planned for each event to occur in the site most suitable for that discipline, meaning a broad spectrum of venues in both rugged and refined settings. 

Dressage and show jumping will be held in the 21,000-seat D’Ornano Stadium in the heart of Caen. Cross-country will unfold along Haras du Pin’s wooded trails. Endurance will roll out around the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, with four miles of the 100-mile (160-kilometer) course winding along the beach itself. The driving marathon will cut through the lush Orne Valley and into Caen’s inner-city racecourse. Reining will be held in Exhibition Park, vaulting in the Zenith indoor arena, and para-dressage at La Prairie Race Track, all within Caen city limits.

And if that’s not a big enough taste of the region, visitors can observe a polo match in Deauville, long-reputed as one of Europe’s polo capitals. Or watch demonstrations of horseball—a thunder-hooved, high-energy team sport developed in 1970 in France—at Saint Lô, one of France’s leading stud farms in terms of number of stallions. 

The WEG “Village”—61 acres of activities, games, and vendor stands—will be located in downtown Caen with easy access to lodging and transportation. 

WEG By the Numbers

  • 15 days of events
  • 8 world championships
  • 60 nations
  • 1,000 horses
  • 500,000 spectators
  • 500 million TV Viewers
  • 3,000 volunteer workers
  • 100 volunteer veterinarians
  • $34 average ticket price
  • $99 million budget
  • $45 million provided by public funds

Research-Based Planning

This year’s WEG organizers are no strangers to the benefits of equine research. They’ve collaborated with top scientists at home and abroad to ensure the elite equine athletes arriving in Normandy receive the utmost care and attention. This means having a designated equine shipping company to handle travel logistics, both in and out of the country and between event sites; reinforced welfare guidelines; specialized footing for each discipline; and possibly even sterilized hay. 

Footing has been designed especially for WEG, with approval by Nathalie Crevier-Denoix, DVM, PhD, head of equine biomechanics at France’s Maisons-Alfort Veterinary School and the country’s agricultural research institute. Her Sequisol research project—measuring footing’s biomechanical impact on living, working horses—has received international attention. According to official veterinary services manager Anne Couroucé-Malblanc, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECEIM, the cross-country surface is “like velvet,” and test riders have even walked the course barefoot.

Nothing-Gets-Past-Us Biosecurity

Strict attention to horse health also means tight biosecurity measures, with veterinarians on hand to examine all horses as soon as they arrive at the territory airports. Any horse showing even the slightest signs of illness will be placed in a temporary holding stable—along with all other horses that traveled with the animal—until the official vets confirm he’s disease-free. 

Throughout the Games, veterinary teams will check all horses around the clock for body temperature and general health. Veterinarians will also walk the barn aisles 24 hours a day, listening for coughs and watching for colic. Vets can evaluate signs of illness or injury immediately at the in-barn examination “clinics,” equipped with an examination chute and radiograph, ultrasound, and endoscopy technology. The CIRALE team will perform all radiographs and ultrasounds, and the nearby Frank Duncombe laboratory will provide machines and technicians at each venue to analyze blood work. If a horse requires hospitalization, vans will be ready on-site to transfer the animal to one of Normandy’s many specialized equine clinics. 

“The idea is to detect illnesses before the symptoms even have the chance to start to show,” Couroucé-Malblanc says. “We’ll be monitoring the health of these horses very, very closely.”

So closely, in fact, that disease risk management will start before the Games even begin, she adds. Veterinarians with the French epidemiologic surveillance network will keep an eye on what kind of epidemics and health concerns are occurring in countries throughout the world. Then, when the horses arrive for the Games, they might undergo particular examinations for the presence of certain specific diseases, depending on their country of origin. 

How is this all possible? Couroucé-Malblanc has rallied a team of 100 volunteer veterinarians for the Games, not counting the 10-member anti-doping veterinary team and the dozens of veterinary students who will also be on hand to help. “The French veterinarians were very quick to respond to my call,” she says. 

The Horse Lover's Guide to France

Normandy might be France’s main horse country, but it’s certainly not the only region where you’ll find horsey heritage. If you’re visting for the World Equestrian Games, consider taking some other equine detours. Just 2½ hours south of Caen, in the chateau-lined Loire Valley, is the city of Saumur, famous for the Cadre Noir National Riding School and the French cavalry training grounds. To the East, just west of Paris, you can catch an artistic equestrian show at the Academie du Spectacle Equestre of Versailles, on the grounds of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette’s historic chateau. You can also visit the royal couple’s Grandes Ecuries stables, built in 1682 of cut stone, with their vaulted ceilings, slate roof, and stone-carved horse statues. Similar royal stables were constructed in the horse city of Chantilly, north of Paris. Chantilly is about a three-hour drive from Caen and also offers visits to its Grandes Ecuries—commissioned by Prince Louis-Henri, who hoped to be reincarnated into a horse so he could live there. Chantilly is home to the Museum of the Horse and to one of France’s most prestigious polo clubs. And finally, don’t forget that “equestrian tourism” centers in each region offer guided riding tours to suit every horse lover’s style.

Christa Lesté Lasserre


Respect for the Horse

The 2014 Games organizers have put equine welfare at the top of their priority list. “This is the only individual sport in the world that is practiced in teams of two, and the quality of the performance is inherently linked to the horse-human relationship,” says WEG sports director Laurent Cellier. “We consider the horse to be the central athlete in our organization, and we are doing everything we can to make sure these horses are in the best situation. … We’re investing heavily in the name of equine welfare.” Cellier has spent nearly a year interviewing stable constructors, taking great care to find just the right company to ensure optimum equine health and well-being. “We’re really concerned about having the ideal air circulation in the stables,” he says. “We need good circulation without having any drafts.” 

While there’s never any need for air conditioning in a Normandy stable, with average summer temperatures historically running at around 75°F, Cellier says he has nonetheless planned to have plenty of ice on hand—just in case August 2014 is a record-breaker. He’s also considering installing cool-mist humidifiers for horses in the cross-country arrival zone. 

“As sports director for WEG 2014, one of the primary directives I have received is equine welfare,” Cellier says. “But I already know this—I’m a horseman myself. I know that if the horses aren’t feeling well, the performances won’t be there. Our sport is based on respect for the horse. So it’s really the primary condition for our organization. Every time we address a new subject, we address it from the angle of the comfort of the horse.” 

An Eco-Responsible Event

While the World Equestrian Games planners have equine welfare on the brain, they’re also keeping the planet’s well-being in mind. The vast majority of construction work in preparation for the event is designed to meet long-term goals for sustainable development. And many of the transportation and security operations—including logistics transport, garbage collection, and parking lot security—will be fueled by a powerful renewable energy source: the horse. Very fitting in a country where 120 cities are already using draft horses for waste disposal and school bus programs. 

Take-Home Message

Mark your calendars: Rendez-vous Aug. 23-Sept. 7 in Normandy for a World Equestrian Games to remember. There’ll be much sport, much history, much scenery, much cheese, much of everything about horses, and above all, much to celebrate.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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