The Selle Francais is a modern breed which is largely based on the principles of warmblood development with performance being more important than a multi-generation pedigree. The Selle Francais has now become recognized as one of the best show jumping breeds in the world.
In the days when horses were indispensable work animals, France had a wide range of horse breeds many of which have died out or have so few specimens left that they can be considered, at best, of niche interest. Today, France arguably only has 3 national breeds of any significance. These are the Camargue Horse, the Percheron and the Selle Francais. Part of the reason for this is that French breeders took an active decision to abandon their traditional breeds and to amalgamate the best of them into a new breed which they called the Selle Francais.
Their logic was straightforward. Many of the popular saddle breeds in France had come about initially through crossing local horses with Thoroughbreds or Norfolk Trotters, both imported from England. These crosses became known as “demi-Sang” horses and gradually came to form the basis of local saddle breeds, which were managed according to standards laid down in each region. This arrangement was perfectly feasible when saddle horses were a standard form of transport but it was far from ideal when horses became animals used for leisure riding and equestrian sports. Rather than having French regions informally compete against each other to produce the top riding horse for France, French breeders decided to pool their resources to create a new breed which would excel at the top levels of international competition and in 1958 the Selle Francais was born.
As well as amalgamating the best of the “demi-Sang” horses, French breeders happily imported the best foreign horses they could find to improve the breed. For the most part this meant Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Anglo Arabs and French Trotters. In recent years Selle Francais breeders have leaned more to breeding pairs of registered Selle Francais horses, but the stud book is far from closed. There is an approval process to allow horses from other breeds to be used as sires and broodmares for registered Selle Francais horses. This process is liberal enough to include not only horses from recognized saddle breeds but also horses who have excelled in some competitive sphere and even horses with neither pedigree nor performance history provided that they show sufficient quality.
The Selle Francais is now recognised as one of the top warmblood breeds in the world and is both exported and bred internationally. It has also been used to contribute to the development of other breeds, most notably the Oldenburg. Although the breed is probably best known as a show jumping breed, part of the reason for this is quite simply that this is currently the most popular (and profitable) area of equestrian competition. Therefore breeders are encouraged to breed for jumping ability and show jumpers are prepared to pay top prices for these horses. Selle Francais can make excellent dressage horses and some are fast enough to be top-level eventers.
Although the Selle Francais is considered a breed, its nature and history mean that breed standards are loose and that in keeping with the warmblood types, entry into the breed registry is based more on performance than on parentage. Notwithstanding this, the fact that it is intended for use in equestrian sports does create some de facto standards. There is an effective minimum height of 15.1HH but since the Selle Francais is currently predominantly used for show jumping, where long legs are an advantage, most stand at 16.1HH or better. They can be any whole colour although the majority are bay or chestnut with the occasional grey. White markings are common and completely acceptable. There tend to be differences in physique between animals bred with dressage in mind and animals bred for show jumping (or eventing). Notwithstanding this all Selle Francais have deep chests, strong quarters and muscular legs. They also have elegant and athletic gaits.
In common with most warmblood types, temperament is judged when assessing horses for acceptance into the breed registry. This means that it is in the highest degree unlikely that a horse with any seriously questionable personality traits will be accepted for registration. Prospective buyers should, however, understand that those in charge of the Selle Francais breed registry may have very different ideas about what constitutes an acceptable temperament than an amateur rider. For many years the Selle Francais was bred for physical ability first and temperament second and it is only in relatively recent years that breeders have started to pay more attention to producing horses which are a pleasure to ride as well as having competitive ability. Notwithstanding this, may Selle Francais do have attractive temperaments being both friendly and intelligent and can make good mounts for experienced amateurs. Beginners and those with only minimal experience would probably do better to look elsewhere.
Selle Francais Health
Overall the Selle Francais is a healthy animal which is free from genetic disorders. Prospective buyers should however note that even today a significant minority of Selle Francais have a Thoroughbred parent (generally the sire) and that Thoroughbreds are notorious for their susceptibility to genetic disorders and delicate constitutions. If interested in such a horse it may be advisable to have a discussion with the vet carrying out the health inspection as to whether more detailed tests would be appropriate.
Caring for a Selle Francais
Generally speaking the Selle Francais is no more demanding than any other sports horse. It should be noted however that keeping any sports horse requires more commitment and expense than keeping a hardy native hack and prospective owners should think seriously about how important competition is to them before buying any competition horse. Selle Francais with Thoroughbred parentage may well be in need of a fairly high degree of cosseting. In particular they are likely to need more protection in cold weather as Thoroughbreds are both lightweight and thin-skinned. They are also far from being the best of doers and so will almost certainly need to be well-fed over the winter.
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