Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Fete de la Ruralite - Rural Fair

Sunday August 26 2007

Fete de la Ruralite – Rural Fair

Sunday, just down the road in the village of Faulx-les-Tombs, Belgium, was a Fete de la Ruralite – a rural fair. The focal point of the fair was a Belgian Ardennais horseshow. I'd gotten my first glimpse of the Belgian Ardennais, or the Ardennes, at the Libramont Fair a few weeks ago, and here was a closeup look at the attractive, big, strong working farm horse.

The breed originated in the Ardennes region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, perhaps 2000 years ago, and is one of the oldest of the European draft horses. The Ardennais is still used today for farm work and logging. You could see that the handlers – most of them weathered old Belgium farmers (all wearing white) - regularly used their animals for work. Many of the horses had their tails docked, presumably to keep it out of the way during work. Many of the mares had foals at their side that roamed freely with them.

The average height is 15.1 to 16.3 hands, and the average weight 1500 to 2200 pounds - so, smaller than a percheron, but as compact and muscled and powerful. They come in all colors, though black is excluded from registration. The horses were judged on conformation and movement, judged by 3 studious men with a knowledgable eye.

The breed is known for being docile, willing, and easy to handle, though I was surprised to see that a fair number of them seemed to be spooky, jumping at things like some Arabians I've ridden. But then, these farm horses probably aren't used to such a place, a busy fair, with people everywhere, miniature horses pulling carts, hay-bales flying through the air (a human throwing contest).

The horses were not the only attraction at the fair. The big social tent, next to the show ring, was packed with people, first for a lunch, then afterward for copiously flowing wine and beer. “Everybody comes here to see and be seen,” said Leo's neighbor Eddie. “The local politicians are here.”

A local marching band played (sitting under the tent). A little miniature horse was very busy giving little cart rides – with a companion Australian Shepherd clearing the way for him, nipping people in the legs when people didn't move. Saddled ponies gave rides to kids. You could join in the hay-bale throwing contest, watch the shoeing process of a Ardennais, take a mini-cart ride or a ride in a carriage pulled by two Ardennais horses, or get your face painted. There were fruit and vegetable stands, artist booths, an ice cream vendor, a candy vendor, and later in the day, a fantastic 4-piece New Orleans jazz band – here in the heart of Belgium! The crowd grew as the pleasant sunny day went on.

Leo borrowed the key to the old church built in 1850, on the street overlooking the fair. It was beautiful inside, original stonework, nothing gaudy, just simple and cool and nice. We opened a side door and the 5 of us climbed up cobwebbed stairs to the balcony below the belfry – which I am pretty sure hadn't been visited since 1850! The 'floor' was 6 inches of bird and bat guano, with a smattering of desiccated bird and bat skeletons. We creaked open a door to the little outside balcony – scaring the feathers off a nesting pigeon – and had a great view of the fair below. Leo dared to climb a very tall aluminum ladder even higher toward the belfry (I wonder how long the ladder had been there!), but I preferred standing on the solid guano floor. What great character the church had!

We ended our afternoon at the fair with a beer (or two) with the local Belgian community, sitting next to the arena where the Ardennais were still showing, with the 4-piece band jazzing away beside us. Nice way to spend a Belgian afternoon!

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