École Nationale d’Équitation

Top choice in Anjou

One of the world's premier equestrian academies, the prestigious French National Riding School is home to the Cadre Noir, an elite group of riding instructors that's also an equestrian display team. Superb tours take you behind the scenes; kids will love to pat the horses in their spacious stalls – several stomp their feet insistently if you don't caress them! Commentary is in French, but written information is available in eight languages; call ahead for details on tours in English.

Tours (one hour) take visitors around the spacious campus, built in 1980, and stop by the manège (riding arena), which has mirrors mounted on the walls, like a ballet studio. It's often possible to see horses and riders training (no photography); watch carefully and you'll get a sense of the incredibly intimate collaboration between horse and rider.

The riders and horses of the Cadre Noir, founded in 1825, are famous for their astonishing discipline and acrobatic prowess, all performed without stirrups. The school trains about 150 students – they're headed for careers as riding instructors – as well as their horses, 350 in number. France's Olympic eventing team trains here; the 2016 team, which won gold in Rio, included a member of the Cadre Noir.

You can recognise members of the Cadre Noir by their distinctive black (noir) jackets and hats (képis for men, bicornes for women), gold spurs and the three golden wings on their whips. Look closely at their collar insignia and at the gold buttons of their tunic: a flaming grenade means they're members of the French military, a sun that they are civilians. Saumur has been an equestrian centre since 1593.

The school is 4.5km due west of Saumur, just outside sleepy St-Hilaire-St-Florent. There is no public transport.