As I wind my way into the packed Grand Palais for the Saut Hermès jumping competition, it dawns on me quickly that this crowd is very different from those at the equestrian shows I normally attend. Sure, there’s the usual mix of horse lovers, amateur riders and families. But these fans are smartly turned out in tailored pants, nipped-in blazers and highly polished calf-hugging boots; even the children are sporting jodhpurs and expertly knotted neckwear. The only difference between the competitors and spectators is the Birkin and Kelly bags and elegantly tied Hermès silk scarfs – not-so-subtle hints that this annual event is run by the venerable Paris house. I almost get the feeling the crowd is here as much to make an equestrian fashion statement as to see the teams that are currently warming up in the glass-domed arena.
I’m at Saut Hermès to experience this cultured fusion of athleticism and style. Some of the top riders in the world have competed here each spring since 2010, when Hermès launched the event as a sort of homage to the fact that horsepower built the brand. (The luxury leather goods manufacturer started out as a harness and saddle maker back in 1837.) But the competition also brings horses back to the Palais, which hosted equestrian shows between 1901 and 1957. Entering the sunlit venue, I look around and notice the brown-leather-with-white-stitching logos on boards and walls – still, understated enough to let the horses steal the show. A pop-up shop entices with the signature printed scarves and horse tack. There’s even a saddlery where artisans are showcasing the century-old stitching technique still used to make leather goods at the brand’s 136-year-old atelier on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a 15-minute walk away. I meet up with Anne-Sarah Panhard, the managing director of Hermès Distribution France, at a paddock where a bunch of kids are eagerly awaiting their turn to ride a Shetland pony. She tells me the venue is normally used for cultural and artistic performances. “It takes a week, and 1,200 tonnes of sand, to transform the Palais into an international-calibre riding ring with 110 boxes for temporary stabling,” she says. What we get is an international five-star jumping competition – the highest classification possible – sanctioned by the Fédération Équestre Internationale (the governing body for equestrian sport), and the only event entirely conceived, hosted and produced by a single brand.
Riders duke it out for a part of Saut Hermès’ €665,000 prize purse. Unlike outdoor competitions where the course can extend the length of five football fields, this indoor arena is the size of a hockey rink. From my seat, 10 rows up at the entrance gate, I have a clear view of all the obstacles. Each of the nine competitions this weekend features 10 to 13 jumps almost as tall as me at up to 1.6 metres. It’s a nail-biter watching the polished and often braided horses squeezing through tight turns and constantly changing direction, all at breakneck speed. For the riders, it’s both physically and mentally demanding. When I bump into Great Britain’s Scott Brash, the number-one-ranked rider in the world in 2015 and number two in 2016, at the pop-up saddlery, he tells me the course is tricky. “With the glass roof and the natural light, this feels like an outdoor arena; the shadows add to the navigational challenge.”
As I’m sitting at the edge of my seat amid a capacity crowd watching the final competition, the Grand Prix Hermès CSI 5*, my neighbour grabs my arm, squeezing it with every rub of a rail or knockdown. A collective sigh from the crowd is heard with each clear round; by the time the last horse and rider clear the final fence and race for the finish line, we’re all on our feet cheering. But during the awards ceremony – the winner is AbdelKebir Ouaddar of Morocco, riding Quickly de Kreisker – when the top eight horses are festooned with ribbons and draped with orange cooler blankets emblazoned with the Hermès logo, the whistling or cheering I’m used to at North American competitions fades away. All I can hear is a hush – if you’re not counting the horses’ snorting.