Galloping with grace through the countryside, majestic and free, horses are living art forms that inspire wonder and awe for the natural world. Up close, their velvet noses, expressive eyes and flowing manes spur grown women like Virginie Couperie-Eiffel to gush with emotion while describing virtues akin to “a friend or a lover.”
Not a moment of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle, says Couperie-Eiffel, a champion of French riders, and great-great grand daughter of Gustave Eiffel. Her innate bond with horses has allowed her to literally soar to new heights, navigate life’s obstacles and fulfill her raison d’etre to create a prestigious show-jumping competition at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, where the legacy of two extraordinary families becomes as one.
“I was born on a horse,” she happily exaggerates, marvelling how her pregnant mother rode until one month before she was born. From her bedroom window as a child, she could watch horses jump in the first Bordeaux jumping competitions, founded by her father. Even her first companions were horses, she says. “My joys and sorrow were for it,” she says of Pompon, a pony with whom she spent every waking moment.
Her story begins at Chateau Bacon, an estate with a storied past where her family has bred and raised Anglo-Arabian horses for over a century. The setting is idyllic, nestled in a lush valley near Bordeaux, a region in southwest France famous for its medieval castles, mouth-watering cuisine and sweet wine. Her childhood was a “wild” one, she muses, “in the middle of trees along the poetic river of Dordogne, following the rhythm of nature. It was a childhood filled with fond memories of farming, driving tractors under the intense sun, and enjoying “the true pleasures of this countryside life.”
Inspired hereditary traits branch in all directions from Couperie-Eiffel’s family tree. Her father’s lineage is one steeped in equestrian and aristocratic tradition. The Couperie name can be traced back to Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto, who served as minister of police under Napoleon — when battles were fought on horseback. Despite losing the noble title during the French Revolution, the Couperie family enjoyed an aristocratic lifestyle in the 1900s — committed to elite education, raising horses and taking part in equestrian competitions.
On her mother’s side, the great-great grandfather Gustave Eiffel needs little introduction — the engineer and visionary who pushed the boundaries of imagination and science while connecting the world with his iron inventions: the Eiffel Tower, the locks of Panama Canal, the framework for the Statue of Liberty in New York and numerous churches, bridges and train stations.
“Gustave Eiffel instilled in us the power of passion and dreams, of boldness and innovation, hard work and the necessity of being a team. Together, nothing is impossible,” says Couperie-Eiffel, who finds strength as she looks up at the tower, exposed to all the elements of nature, yet confidently standing as the very symbol of freedom.
While the DNA was there, it was Couperie-Eiffel’s father, Emeric, who truly harnessed his daughter’s love of horses — teaching all four of his children to ride. Every morning they’d rise early, one by one waiting their turn. With eyes closed, Couperie-Eiffel describes their routine like it was yesterday. Her father hoisting her up high onto the horse’s back, then she would repeat exercises for hours, over and over like a “dancer with the barre.”
Couperie-Eiffel trained vigorously every day, with hours and hours of work. “We were one hundred percent into this life — from morning until evening, we were thinking and sleeping horses.” Besides working the muscles and increasing the flexibility, the disciplined training established a connection between horse and rider, and at the same time began to nurture the spirit of the horse, “its generosity, its goodness, its sensitivity.”
Time and patience paid off, and as she matured into adolescence, she demonstrated an understanding that success was not through dominance but through a balance of leadership and partnership with her horse. “Horses teach us what is dignity, how to listen, how to self-reflect, and how to be humble,” she says. She paired this insight with her father’s wisdom “never to go against a horse’s will but become one with it. That is where the magic happens, and that is when one becomes an avatar.”
On the eve of her biggest competition, the 2005 French Championship of show jumping, she could barely sleep as she prepared to exceed herself as an athlete. She recalls her mindset as she lay in bed: “I was already in the competition. I could feel the concentration rising little by little.”
This fervor continued to the next day as she gradually progressed to the final stage of the competition. In the saddle of Jolie B’Neville, “a mare with a big heart,” she would negotiate through a timed course of six fences, each obstacle higher than the last.
“Everything is happening very slowly in my head,” she recalls. “I go through each of the obstacles. I must be flawless. I was so excited to jump my last fence. I could feel my mare excited too, yet we must not be in a hurry to win… I do the final jump and finish with one second left over… I close my eyes and lift my arms. I have just become champion!”
In true partnership, she credits the sensitivity and generosity of her horse. “I knew everything from [the horse], as it knew everything from me. Horses will give everything for free, just because you ask.”
The day Couperie-Eiffel retired and “put back boots and vest was a day of bereavement,” she says. In time, she discovered new joy in “training young riders to become champions in respect of horses, nature and humankind” and in establishing Eiffel Academy. She is currently teaching a number of talented young riders, including her niece Marie, as well as Mathilde Pinault, “who is very gifted.”
To this day, Couperie-Eiffel is intentional with her life, sharing her days between Chateau Bacon and her life with husband Charles Berling in Montmartre, where she oversees the third annual Longines Paris Eiffel Jumping on the Champ de Mars. The three-day cultural event draws the world’s best riders and horses, as well as celebrities and artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, who will watch their daughter Jessica, an American show-jumping champion, compete; French film stars Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet; and American actress Salma Hayek. To see horse and rider once again regain the heart of Paris is a dream come true for Couperie-Eiffel, and in every essence a tribute to both her parents and Gustave Eiffel himself.
“When I look up at this Eiffel Tower that rises like latticework towards the sky, I feel a breeze of freedom go through me. The openness and the lightness of the structure is what really makes the tower strong and sturdy, high up in the sky. To let go and soar to new heights. That is the legacy I was bestowed.”
The 2016 Paris Eiffel Jumping is a three day event (July 1-3), free and open to the public. For more information, kindly visit pariseiffeljumping.com.
Text by Janine Mackie Translated by Rui Chen Produced by Peggy Liu