Silence filled the space as Swiss rider Romain Duguet and his chestnut mare took to the course under the glass and steel domes of Paris’s Grand Palais. The 15-obstacle course with a triple vertical combination was challenging to say the least, and only eight riders managed to qualify. Duguet’s horse, Quorida de Treho, bounded between obstacles and seemed suspended in midair over jumps that were higher than five feet tall. They sped up to complete the final jump and the crowd erupted in applause. Their time of 38.99 seconds was enough to win the Grand Prix Hermès, the showpiece event of this elite three-day horse jumping competition, which awards its first place with 400,000 euros in prize money.
A budding rider myself, attending Saut Hermès was truly inspiring. Earlier in the week I had taken jumping lessons at the Bayard Equestrian Center in the Bois de Vincennes where I attempted a mere two-foot jump and had to grip my horse’s mane to stay steady. Now I was watching the world’s most elite equestrian athletes compete in one of Paris’s most beautiful buildings.
The Grand Palais was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 and is an excellent example of Fin de Siècle style, merging classicism and art nouveau. I’ve visited the Grand Palais a half dozen times in the past to see art exhibits and even to go ice-skating, but I’d never seen it like this. Sponsored by Hermès, there simply is not a more aesthetically pleasing event in sports. The glass roof, the largest in Europe, held up by painted green steel was hung with white orbs and strung with wide blue, yellow, and white ribbons. Four sets of blue grand stands flanked the rectangular arena, which was filled with pale pink sand. Even the jumps themselves (which I’m told in other competitions are typically plastered with logos) were beautiful and gave subtle nods to the brand with an orange H or a yellow-and-white rocking horse.
While it may seem an unusual use for the space, according to president of Saut Hermes Anne-Sarah Panhard, the Grand Palais has hostes equestrian events since 1901. “The area at the foot of the central stairway is called the paddock, the nave can become the central track, and there are even stables in the basement,” she explains of the layout.
Equestrian competition petered out at the Grand Palais in the 1950s and only resumed in 2010 when Hermès decided to start the Saut as a nod to its heritage. While Hermès may be better known now for its colorful silk scarves and the Birkin Bag, it was founded in 1837 as a horse harness and bridle maker. The finest equestrian equipment is still made by hand in Hermès’ flagship location on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honorè. During the Saut, a saddlery was set up in the nave to showcase the intricate work involved in making these functional masterpieces.
While the five-star event is first and foremost an equestrian competition of the highest caliber, there was plenty of pageantry to go around. Two Pegasus art installations loomed over the arena, a boutique featured Hermès equestrian gear (including riding boots designed by Pierre Hardy), and each night ended with a Cirque du Soleil-esque equestrian show complete with an aerial silk act and dare-devil acrobatics—at one point, a man riding two horses standing up had others gallop between his legs.
As my day at the Saut wound down, my heart sank slightly only to lighten again when I remembered all of the other activities equestrian lovers have access to in Paris. At Versailles, equestrian ballets are put on each weekend by the Academy of Equestrian Arts, and the center where I take lessons is offering one-day riding camps this spring for all levels. During the event, Grand Palais president, Jean-Paul Cluzel urged people to attend the Diego Velázquez exhibit at the Grand Palais Galeries Nationale, where horses play a role in many of the artworks. “See, it’s a season for horses,” said Cluzel.
I couldn’t agree more.
Photos above courtesy of Casey Hatfield