- Credit: Archant
Alex Schofield helps you look for the perfect property to keep both you and your horses happy, and there are plenty to choose from across the Channel
Fine houses set in glorious countryside, complete with spacious outbuildings and surrounded by acres of land. With all this costing a fraction of the price of something similar in the UK, it’s no wonder so many horse lovers are keen to move to France.
But whoa there, not so fast! There are a few things that need to be considered before you up your fence posts across the Channel if you want to avoid accidentally saddling yourself with an unsuitable property.
NICE PAD, POOR PADDOCK?
House, barns, stables: these can all be altered in some way to make them more appropriate to your situation and for the benefit of your horses. Even if you find a wonderful house that’s perfectly suited to your lifestyle, it’s the land itself which must be carefully assessed to see that it is going to provide the right environment for equestrian pursuits.
The ideal terrain for horses is well-drained pastureland sown with natural grasses and free from toxic ragwort and bracken which can have serious consequences for animals if eaten, especially dried in hay. Tramping up and down pulling out these noxious weeds by hand – pretty much the only way to do it – is a tedious and thankless task. It might be better to give untended and overgrown acres a miss, however perfect the rest of the property, as weeds have a habit of establishing themselves quickly.
Horses’ feet aren’t designed to cope with constant wet so marshy land is definitely to be avoided, as is overly hard and stony ground. A quick glance will often be enough to tell if there is likely to be a problem with drainage as persistently boggy ground will sport telltale clumps of rushes.
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Always consider the climate of the region when looking for your animal kingdom. Horses prefer temperate conditions, so that idea of a horsey paradise down in the far south of France might have to be reconsidered. Relentlessly hot weather will make the horses miserable and bothered by flies, plus hay will have to be sourced from further afield, making the transport costs more expensive.
It’s generally considered that two acres per horse would provide enough land for grazing but obviously where the land is of poor quality, dry and barren, an awful lot more will be required. Ideally there should be enough steady rainfall to keep the grass growing over a long season; there’s a reason why one of the most famous national stud farms, the Haras national du Pin, is to be found in rainy Normandy!
Sometimes you strike lucky, and an immobilier will find you those precious hectares of ideal land attached to the ideal house and outbuildings – but it will all come at a price. Buying a property which has already been designed and used for equestrian purposes is the easy option but the most expensive one, and as with any major lifestyle change, compromises will often have to be made.
There is no shortage of farms and smallholdings for sale in rural France, with lots of potential to create a home where both you and your horses will be happy. Many types of outbuildings lend themselves to being adapted to provide stabling, tack rooms and storage for feed bins and hay, but before signing on the dotted line it’s a good idea to check to see whether planning permission will be required for change of use, and whether it is likely to be granted. Plans for purpose-built stable blocks and manèges (covered riding schools) will definitely have to be approved and again it pays to pop in to the local mairie to discuss matters. Incidentally, watch your language here as manège sometimes translates in French as ‘merry-go-round’. It might be wise to try manège équestre or carrière équestre (outside ring) to avoid misunderstandings!
While you’re chatting with the maire, youcan also enquire about the local chasse and whether its members have any rights to hunt and shoot over the land you are interested in buying. Introducing yourself to the nearest potential neighbours is courteous too, as they may be concerned that their views will be spoilt or interrupted by the erection of new buildings, however tastefully conceived. Depending on the type of equestrian pursuits you have in mind and the size of the operation, good access roads might also be a deciding factor in your choice of property, as narrow tracks with overhanging tree branches are going to prove hard to negotiate for big horse boxes or trucks loaded with sacks of horse feed.
Land and buildings sorted, the practicalities of everyday life in your chosen bit of horse heaven remain. How easy is it going to be to access the services of equine vets, dentists and farriers? If you are more of a happy hacker than a professional show-jumper, a property with direct access to bridle paths would be fantastic – otherwise, you need to ensure that your regular rides won’t entail crossing busy roads or other obstacles to reach the wide open spaces.
Check out whether there are horse transport companies, riding schools and agricultural merchants nearby, too. You can always try popping into the nearest cabinet vétérinaire to ask their advice, and posting queries on expat website forums will be sure to provoke a response and plenty of advice from those horse lovers already settled in the area.
Some properties are going to tick all the important boxes and that dream of an equestrian life in France could easily become a reality. Don’t forget to make sure that all your horses’ passports and documentation are up to date, and contact international horse transport companies well in advance of your move before heading across the Channel to pastures new.
The International Horseman’s Dictionary by Zdzislaw Baranowski