An awe-inspiring maison, satirical French humor, miniature horses at liberty, and a galloping group of riders defines one of Europe’s most famous equestrian landmarks in the center of French horse country.

The Haras du Pin National Stud is a castle to these American eyes, and from where it sits on a steep bend in the road in the countryside of Normandy, France, it’s a guaranteed reason to hit the brake pedal and get out of the car to investigate.

Haras du Pin was constructed in 1715 after Louis XIV commanded that the Royal Haras improve a shortage of horses in the kingdom. The architectural style of the facility was built to mimic the Palace of Versailles, and was completed by 1730. It is the oldest French national stud farm. The stud is steeped in history; it was occupied by German soldiers between 1940 and 1941 and, despite being in the center of the Battle for Normandy, was left undamaged.

Today, the stud maintains a breeding program in cooperation with private French breeders. With 2,000 surrounding hectares of open space, all of which are classified as a Historic Monument, Haras du Pin has settled peacefully into its status as horse heaven.

Every weekend in the summer months, visitors can crowd into a converted indoor arena where a red curtain is pulled back to reveal a stage of sorts for an equestrian show called Jeudis du Pin. Along with a small human cast, a hodgepodge of Percherons, an Appaloosa, Lusitanos, and five tiny black miniature horses (with one tinier, white dwarf mini) make up a sometimes funny, sometimes puzzling exhibition that felt like watching a silent movie. The children in the audience screamed with laughter—it was clear that this show was meant for them.

Back outside in the sunshine, the true wow factor of Haras du Pin lies in its expansive grounds. Beyond the castle is a showgrounds that will host CICO3* and CCI3* FEI Nations Cup Eventing in August; preparations were well underway on this July visit.

Beyond the U-shaped stud are dramatic riding facilities, and I jealously watched a group on a riding tour gallop across the massive grass throughway that led to the front gates, and also down an endless road with a wide track on one side, and steeplechase hedges on another. An overgrown hippodrome can be reached on horseback through beautiful forested grounds.

It was everything to love about France, and it left this visitor with endless reasons to return.

-Photography and text by Erin Gilmore.