BY ERIN GILMORE
I’m not sure who it was at Hermés Sellier who came up with the notion to hold a horse show under a 100-year old glass ceiling, but whoever you are, I applaud you.
This is my third time attending Saut Hermés in Paris, France, and I picked a good year to return. The massive Grand Palais venue, which was originally built in 1900, will close in 2020 for renovations, putting the show on hiatus for the next four years. Like most things in France, I have no doubt that the wait will be worth it.
You have never seen a horse show like this. It is the only equestrian event in the world that is hosted, owned and operated by a fashion brand. That means no sponsored jumps, no ad banners, no visuals at all other than the absolutely outrageous Hermés branding that unfurls across the ceiling in larger than life show jumping poles and massive white globes. Bold orange, yellow and mauve wrapped stands to create the kind of colorful contrast that photographers salivate over. All the pictures in the world can’t do it justice. But I’ll keep trying.
Seeing that the show has the highest FEI rating in the world, it’s almost a given that the best show jumping riders are here; Marcus Ehning, Daniel Deusser, World Number One Steve Guerdat, and many others. There are no Americans on the list—it seems that Week 11 of WEF, which is running concurrently an ocean away, is difficult to get away from.
However, there’s an Under 25 division that attracts a group of Europe’s top up and coming riders. Hermés partner (read, sponsored) riders are out en force, and on Friday, the first day of the show, French Equestrian Federation members (the French version of USEF) got in for free. But even without that perk, the stands fill up every day.
If you want to see a Hermés saddlemaker working on the leather to build the brand’s flagship product right in front of you, there’s a booth for that. Master saddlemaker Laurent Goblet, who is retiring this year after 42 years, was there on Friday, gesticulating wildly in French as he passionately described his latest saddle design. A virtual reality horse riding experience attracted long lines, as did a photo booth with a show jump that one could pose on.
Mystifyingly, there was a herd of llamas that were available for members of the public to handle in some sort of llama obedience class. A goat pulled thrilled children in a cart. In the morning, a couple of decked out school horses trotted obediently around a small space for beginner riders wearing flats and Hermés helmets. Everything seems to be free to ticketholders.
French riders fittingly won the opening classes on Friday, with Israeli young rider Robin Muhr taking home the U25 opener. It was a day to get lost in the fantasy of this place. The show is as fantastical as it gets in our already privileged and elite sport.
Directly outside the Grand Palais, strong barrier fencing and a heavy police presence hint that Saturday could be different; Paris has been contending with ongoing “Yellow Vest” protests held on Saturdays that last week turned violent on the famous Champs D’Elysees. Soldiers with fully automatic weapons standing sentry on street corners has become a usual sight since the terror attacks in 2015, but I have a feeling that seeing 6,000 of them out on the streets today won’t feel quite as normal.
Given that the horses’ temporary show stabling borders the Champs D’Elysees, there are a few tense feelings about Saturday afternoon, but by all appearances it seems the show will go on. Will the protestors, who are speaking out against a proposed gas tax and economic hardship, catch on to the irony of the over the top world that has been created for us show jumpers inside this beautiful glass globe? Perhaps. But then again, this is Paris, and for Parisians, the Saut Hermés is simply another beautiful weekend event in a city where over the top is the norm.
Erin Gilmore is a freelance journalist and international equestrian photographer who lives in Leesburg, Virginia.