30 years ago, article by Xavier Libbrecht published in “L’Information Hippique L’Éperon”
Gaston Mercier … Finish by winning …
The gold medal of Gaston Mercier at the last European Endurance Championship (Erlangen) is it chance? Yes – and this is encouraging for the future of all of us – if we consider that twenty years ago there was no reason to think that this Aveyronnais would successfully practice a sport at its highest level.
No, if we want to admit that his approach, his approach to endurance are right. With him, the formula “to finish is to win” seems Because he obviously assimilated a lot of knowledge about the selection of horses, their preparation and how to run.
In Rodez, mid-August, eight days after his success in Erlangen (FRG), the taxi driver did not know that Gaston Mercier was European Endurance Champion. But in Millau – it is a little closer to Laclau – it seems that the rider of Mao IV has more supporters
He has long rolled his hump before coming to settle here ten years at the Mas de Vinaigre
It must be said that Mercier is native and that, although he has long rolled his hump before coming to settle here ten years at the Mas de Vinaigre, when the roots exist somewhere, it takes little for the day wanted the leaves are green again.
Seen from afar, this privileged place is a big stone building with crossings studied just so that the house is habitable as well the summer by the oppressive heat as the winter by the rigorous cold which rages during long months: it is that we are at over 1000 m altitude! In the small neighboring population, Mas Vinegar is seen more disparate.
For some, it’s a farm where you basically practice horse breeding. It is true that Gaston Mercier, his wife Réjanne and their children have about thirty hectares around the imposing hiring.
Pour les autres, qui voient peut-être plus souvent le « patron » à cheval que sur son tracteur, c’est un centre équestre ou un centre de randonnée, ce qui correspond davantage à la vocation de cette région.
Finally, there are those who, better informed, know that the Mas de Vinaigre is something else, “A place of life”, as they say in the administration (DDASS or Departmental Direction of Sanitary and Social Affairs). Yes, the official activity of Gaston Mercier and Réjanne is a bit peculiar.
At the Mas de Vinaigre, they receive each year, three, four or five young people who come for extended stay (equivalent to one school year) to restore health. Moral. Teenagers in trouble with society. In the back of society, in a way! How, why Gaston Mercier has considered ten years ago such an approach? This requires a bit of history and going back to the “beautiful years”. Twenty years !
The long way
Mercier, “like all Aveyronnais,” feels the need to go to Paris to study. “Maybe to live the life of student,” he admits too. Because it is not a “prep grande école” that targets our future champion. “A little law one year … a little accounting … and then I was quickly fed up”. He returns to the fold just before May 68.
A period that has not fascinated her more than she is concerned today. “No, despite the coincidence with these events, since I was twenty-three years old during the student crisis, I never felt very concerned. And I refuse today to be assimilated to the generation of ecologists who followed, even if I also carried out my reconversion to the campaign. What makes me different is that they did not hold, or are in a precarious economic balance …
Back home, “I needed to recharge my batteries”
Back home, “I needed to recharge my batteries”, married to Réjanne, with brown eyes as hers are blue and with a Mediterranean temperament as hers seems Nordic when it comes to dominating her character for 160 years. km of riding, Mercier decides to embark on horses. The green horse, hiking are already in fashion. “Very quickly, we set up a kind of hiking center in the north-east of Aveyron, in Espallion exactly. And Mercier to describe this second slice of adult life that will last five years.
He rubs shoulders, meets during his wanderings on the Causses, in the Cevennes, the equestrian figures of the region: Francis Arnaud who was installed in the Canourgue, Paul Neyrolle nicknamed “Popaul”, Loulou Arnal, Yves Levacher and well heard Jean-Yves Bonnet with whom he still maintains excellent relations. Did not they team up together during the Musketeers’ Road, alongside Didier Séguret and Hughes Auffray?
“Jean-Yves is idealistic. A great guy, who only works with passion! The danger, it’s true, is that he does not always realize the moment when what he does is recovered for purposes he does not know. Five years of “hikes”, and then Mercier begins to have the impression of repeating itself, of vegetating.
Difficulties with the owner of his establishment will be an excellent excuse for a change of course. The children (Elsa who is now twenty, and Emmanuelle, eleven) are growing up, a little stability in the household income would be welcome. Mercier falls back on Rodez and feels the salesman. At Nestlé. “It was bearable. I could organize my work as I wanted. Representative, it does not leave a lot of freedom. To think that he will drink whey until the age of retirement, however, would be misunderstood. “When you have the horse virus, you need space, loneliness to live well, there is a moment when comfort is not enough anymore. ”
A virus to get by
Le Mas Vinaigre près de Laclau, ce petit pays de l’Aveyron profond (23 km de Millau), est à louer. Mercier et sa femme plongent. Avec eux, ils entraînent les chevaux qu’ils possédaient encore et reprennent leur activité équestre. Gaston n’a pas le monitorat, son statut est celui de « guide de randonnée ». « On est reparti comme des petits jeunes. Mais le profil du client moyen évoluait.
The Mas Vinegar near Laclau, this small country deep Aveyron (23 km from Millau), is for rent. Mercier and his wife dive. With them, they train the horses they still owned and resume their equestrian activity. Gaston does not have the monitorat, his status is that of “hiking guide”. “We’re leaving like little kids. But the profile of the average customer was changing.
Many young people who were at home. Paumed young people with problems. We were part of the ARTE which, given our very family-friendly structure, systematically sent us the kids alone. From there to institute a situation of fact there was only one step. This evolution was not displeasing to us. Then, Réjanne having a training to apprehend this kind of situation, we thought to structure what was finally our daily lot. The DDASS found our project interesting.
Here. From this experience, Gaston Mercier, out of modesty, out of respect for teenagers at Mas de Vinaigre, does not like talking too much. “Initially young people who want to come to the Mas de Vinegar have a false idea of the horse. They only see the good side of the thing. In fact, living here in isolation is hard. There is a lot of work. Little cling, little fate. Disappointed with the experience? “Not at all, there are also encouraging results.” A family life open to others, very busy and full of dangers. “It is necessary that the young person feels at home knowing that this family is not hers. And the converse is true for us. ”
Situation, one imagines, not always easy to “manage”, where, to hold, it also needs an outlet.
This essential exit door will soon have a sacred name for Mercier, forty-two years, 1, 70 m, dry as a stroke endurance stunt. Mercier is not one of the pioneers of this discipline from America, Letartre, Laudat, Chambost, etc. His buddy, partner or even better “sparring partner”, Raymond Johnson explains: “Gaston is a fundamentally sporty type and he found that some rules of this nascent discipline, appropriate techniques, knowledge, behaviors lacked precision and rigor . ”
Mercier is waiting for his hour.
As always in riding, it coincides with the meeting of an exceptional horse: Mao IV. The little gray is born in 78. Alone it is the thread of the career of the champion of Europe. We are in 77. Réjanne Mercier regularly rides a mare named Cassalia. But as she has just given birth to “Titi”, the decision is made to project Cassalia. Gaston does not break his head. He kept friends in Lozère where he had started, including Mr. Bordes, who is trying with the Local Breeders’ Union to have a free ride on Mount Morges, a 300-hectare park. The standard of service then belongs (still) to the National Stud. Gosse d’Avril is officially an Arab Thoroughbred, which Mercier nevertheless contests. “He has more of a profile of Anglo (..). There must be somewhere wrong writing or something else (..). Moreover, a few years later the Studs sold him to an individual in the Aude, that’s saying. ”
Say for example that, Arab or not, this Gosse d’Avril should not be such a bad sire! Cassalia the following spring puts in the world a colt who, if nothing extraordinary, has for him to be well done. In the lot of horses that Mercier possesses (about fifteen), he will be distinguished after a growth and a debauchery without history that by his temperamental laziness.
“At the age of four, our foals start their first hike season: the one where they are trained, where they are tested, and Mao was an idle fool and quickly his” client “was in trouble 200 meters behind the others” · At five years the case gets worse! “In fact, he was watching others go on a hike!” Things are so bad, according to Mercier, that he decides to take the problem himself.
We are in 84. A time when, reassured and encouraged by the inseparable Raymond Johnson of Rodez, he decides to seriously tackle endurance. The first competition takes place in Sète. “60 km that Mao ends his fingers in the nose by winning, if not the victory, at least the price of the best condition.I was surprised, but it was only a beginning.
A few months later, on the occasion of the regional Nasbinals, on the Aubrac plateau, this is the 2nd prize for the best condition.
And since the horse seems so comfortable, Mercier just considers the 130 km of Cherveux where he won the prize for the best condition on arrival. Does Mercier hold a crack? “They think so.” They … that is, Johnson and his friends. It was enough to reassure the rider who admits unashamedly his lack of enthusiasm for forced training. “We put it in the fridge until the following spring.”
But Réjanne, the patient wife, to resume immediately: “you mean that you both hibernated a little more than necessary”. In fact, the early 85 recovery is a bit laborious. “To Allan, I finished 6th without conviction. My worst race! Curiously enough, I am still selected for the Rosenau European Championship in Austria. But here I remain on the sidelines: Mao caught cold during transport.
At rest, Mao’s heart beats at 28 beats / minute: exceptionally low.
On the end of the season, however, the couple wakes up and finds its superb. “In Florac, on the event that I still consider the most difficult in the world, we finish 2nd with the best condition, two months later, on the 200 km of Montcuq, same scenario”.
So, 86 under the same auspices? “Alas no !
And for the same reasons as in 85, a lack of preparation before the opening of the season. In Allan, the horse suffers cramps on the 120th km. I stop it. At Cherveux, he suffers from heat stroke on the first day. And then summer passes and late Mao signs three 3rd place in a row without suffering. The proof, he also wins every time the price of the best condition.
This time the rocket is in orbit for 87. “I tried to learn lessons from previous seasons and set my main goal of the season earlier, a goal in Erlangen after a tactically perfect race, on a horse at the top of his form, Gaston Mercier is the first Frenchman to win the European title.
Short story of a career which will be deepened two aspects. First the horse, Mao, who seems to be the archetype of the endurance horse. Who is he ? Then place to the man. In what spirit does Mercier approach a competition, what is his concept of endurance?
Mao IV? A carpet cutter!
If a word characterizes Mao IV and all the line of girls and sons of Cassalia who gave five other foals (including two twins who have not survived), it is: sobriety. “At the start, you need a horse with perfect feet, solid feet, short pasterns, deep chest, in short a square horse but without excessive muscle mass.
In endurance, the fewer muscles to feed, the less you risk problems. Mimoun, Zatopeck … you see. “Side” gaits “, they must be economical first and foremost, Mao is a carpet razor. In addition, there are “exceptional” cardiac recovery qualities. According to an American veterinarian who was in Erlangen, at each veto check, he returned in less than 7 minutes to his basic rhythm which is 28 beats at rest. A flawless physique but also a “practical” temperament. As we have seen, Mao is cold. “He is perfectly balanced. When he is on a train, trotting or galloping, he only gets out when asked. ”
Brave little white horse … all behind and him in front … Nothing in fact is more inaccurate! … At least. To the finish line!
For Gaston Mercier, who has a good deal of trouble before embarking on the endurance race – and has not stopped since – “Cross Country Running is first and foremost a competition. If we refer to all that we see in the genre, both in humans and in motor sports for example, the secret in endurance is to spare the competitor or the machine as long as possible – while staying in the race, of course. It’s the only way to finish strong and eventually win. ”
Reasoning devoid of any criticism but which, in his opinion, is still far from having made its way in all mentalities. “There are those who are still in the formula” finish is win “· I am not against the idea. She is generous, but she goes against any concept of competition, to which I am personally attached. And then there are those who actually want this confrontation but have not yet assimilated the functioning of endurance. They usually leave too quickly and end up rowing. This is where the one who has led an intelligent race, that is to say without drawing on the energy capital of his horse, is in a position of strength. What a treat to be able to finish a race of 160 km with a horse that takes of itself the hunting gallop a few kilometers from the finish and comes to chew his opponents on the end! ”
And Mercier, who also gallops in his head, whose eye shines, to add: “then there you forget all the fatigues, all these hours of saddle to wait, all the anguish of knowing whether or not you dost. This is the endurance raid. And it is only at this price that it will become a show for those who attend, and therefore it will grow.