The Horses of the French Republican Guard and the answer to the riddle!

This rather unflattering shot is to remind you of the riddle that I asked last Saturday concerning the purpose of a metal template used while grooming horses during Napoleonic times. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll see the checkerboard pattern on the horses' haunches that created an optical illusion to mislead enemy scouts. Evidently, horses that are tired, sick or old have sunken croups, the indented area between the two haunches, so this dappled effect made it difficult for opposing forces to determine the condition of Napoleon's cavalry when viewed from afar.

When I stumbled across this procession last September, I didn't have a clue as to who or what they were. I just snapped some pictures because it's not every day that you see horses walking down the rue de Rivoli. Now, I'm rather pleased to say that I know that this was the first squadron of the French Republican Guard because all of the horses are light brown with light brown manes and tails. If all of the horses were dark brown with black manes and tails, it would have been the second squadron, whereas the horses of the third squadron are almost completely black. The only variations are the drummers, who ride grey horses chosen for their strength, and officers, who may select the color of their horses. You can test yourself by looking at the following photo. How many horses are from the second squadron?

Something else that you'll notice by looking at the procession in the first photo is that all of the horses are approximately the same size. That's one of the three criteria that the Republican Guard use to select horses from farms in Normandy. The other two are color and age.

The 200 horses assigned to Les Célestins barracks are exercised every day, either outdoors or in the largest indoor arena in Paris. Built at approximately the same time as the Eiffel Tower, the ironwork is impressive. Evidently, it's possible to watch twelve members of the Republican Guard demonstrate the principles of French riding at a performance given on one Thursday every month. I'm currently trying to find more information about how to get tickets.

Even though there were more than 100,000 horses in Paris prior to World War I, hearing the clippity-clop of hooves on the Champs-Élysées is more unusual now that there are only 400 horses left in the city. Just like me, horses go through a lot of shoes and need to have new ones every forty days. Unlike me, the Republican Guard horses have designers, also known as blacksmiths, who create shoes especially for them!

To illustrate how well the horses are trained, just as our guide was explaining that the stalls in the large stable were previously reserved for officers' horses but are now used for sick horses or those who are a bit naughty, I caught sight of this horse giving us a lively demonstration. I love his expression - he seems to be saying, "No, I don't know how this tail got in my mouth...but I'm certainly not the naughty horse to whom he is referring!".

Caught in the act!

Edit: It turns out that designs on horses' haunches aren't unique to France. Using the same sort of template and back brushing, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police decorate their horses with maple leaves. I wonder if American horses put maple leaves on their haunches while traveling around Europe like the American backpackers who don't want to be recognized as being from the United States? Many thanks to Christine for sending the following photo that she found online!


  1. Good information. The soldiers during Napoleon's time must have been using good binoculars to see the condition of the haunches of retreating horses, or maybe they just have good eyes. It's interesting which details become significant in life, in work.

    I just read about a white horse that plans to run the Kentucky Derby in May--very unusual. Good story.

    Oh, and did you know that Napoleon is credited with putting buttons on the sleeves of coats? Evidently to keep the men from using the sleeves to wipe their noses,, but I'm not completely sure of this.

  2. Hey wait! Is that a female in the last photo? Interesting.

  3. Yes, it's a female! Women account for 10% of the French Republican Guard.

    Didn't army scouts used to use telescopes or something to observe their enemy's movements? Google is my friend! I just found this on anther blog so I'm assuming that Napoleon had a telescope.

    "At the back of the stand are members of the Imperial Household - a piqueur holding Napoleon's horse "Marengo", another valet, a page with Napoleon's telescope case and another Chasseur holding Napoleon's map case."

    Wiki answers supports your information about the buttons on the sleeves of coats and it also seems like something that I've heard on a guided tour here. I'll have to see if I can find more information about it.

    I'm off to google "white horse" and "Kentucky Derby"!

  4. Thank goodness you had your camera with you when you saw that parade. It's the sign of adevoted blogger - mine goes everywhere with me now. Admittedly I'm not quite as likely to run into a procession of gendarmes on horses - or into any gendarme out here at all! - but it's amazing what little things do crop up now and again!
    I hope you get tickets to the display. I saw the famous Viennese dancing horses in a practice session many years ago when I was an au pair. It was fabulous.

    1. Before I leave home, I always do a quick check - wallet, camera, phone, keys. That's why my purse is so heavy and I lean ever so slightly to the right!

      The horses in Vienna are amazing. I also saw them many years ago during a practice session. It was one of the highlights of our trip. My fingers are crossed that I'll be able to see the Republican Guard horses in action.

  5. if you find out where to get tickets, please let me know! it sounds like a really cool thing to go see.

    1. I most certainly will! Otherwise, there are also Equestrian Shows at Versailles.

  6. I've never heard of this explanation for the origin of what we in the equestrian world call "quartermarks" as they are brushed onto the horse's hindquarters. Did the Republican Guard tour guide tell the story or did you find it elsewhere?

    Today they're a common decoration for competition horses, particularly in the sport of three-day eventing. There's a fun gallery of them here:

    1. Thanks for the link for the Quarter Mark Gallery
      and for telling me the correct term! I enjoyed seeing all the different kinds of quarter marks in the slideshow, including one that looks very similar to the one used by the French Republican Guards.

      The Republican Guard guide told us that quarter marks were used by Napoleon to fool his enemy. Sorry that I can't direct you to an online source.

      Thanks again for the additional information about quarter marks!


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