If you've ever watched Jean-François Pignon in action at Olympia before, you're likely to have been mesmerised by his spellbinding performance. Ahead of this year's show (15-21 December), H&H went to visit the 46-year-old at his home in southern France to find out more about him and his team of 'liberty horses'
1. Jean-François was given his first horse as a present
Jean-François has his father to thank for his unusual career. Aged 11 he was given Camargue filly, Gazelle, as a present to “bring him out of his shell”. “I was the third boy of five siblings and I was a bit of an introvert,” says Jean-François, who immediately felt a connection with the mare. “The feeling, it was funny, it wasn’t something I was expecting. It suddenly came to me.”
2. He initially performed with his brother
With Gazelle, Jean-François began developing his techniques — “I am still learning today” — and at 14 he was doing his first public performance. Initially he built up a company with his brother Frédéric, where they acted the roles of circus riders, and in 1991 he performed his first show without tack. The two brothers then went their separate ways to carve out their own shows.
3. Jean-François experience a religious conversion at the age of 33
Aged 33 came a turning point for Jean-François. “Gazelle was very ill with a uterus infection and a vet came, but it wasn’t going well,” he remembers. “After six months of heavy treatment we weren’t sure if Gazelle would pull through. A friend asked: ‘Would you like me to pray for your horse?’ I said he could, but I didn’t believe in it.
“So he put his hands on her. I felt very emotional — a shock went through me and I started crying. Gazelle got better and my friend said you must now believe that miracles can happen.
“Before that I thought that people who believed in God were scared of death or were weak. Now 50% of my technique is achieved through observing horses and 50% is through the words of the Bible, especially the words of love,” he says.
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4. The Gazelle dynasty lives on at Jean-François’ yard
In total Jean-François has 17 horses, of which around 50% are from Gazelle’s bloodline. He still has the last of Gazelle’s daughters, 33-year-old Salsa, who performed with him at Olympia in 1997.
5. He has six children
From two marriages, Jean-François has six children — ranging from a three-year-old to a 17-year-old. “One day I am keen for the younger ones to get involved in the show, if they are keen,” he says.
6. He has never been injured in his show
Despite what appears to be a dangerous show, Jean-François has avoided injury. “Horses are very claustrophobic animals, but they have freedom here. They never feel endangered and I am careful not to make big explosions with my movements.”
7. Jean-François used to take part in mainstream sport
From the age of 14 to 20, Jean-François took part in endurance, showjumping and dressage, but he ended up not having time to pursue them and preferred the “freedom approach”.
8. He now performs across the globe
In an average year he performs at 20 shows across the world — from Qatar to Japan.