Meet Aston, the bull who thinks he's a horse
At the foot of the vineyards outside a sleepy village in northern France, Sabine Rouas and her steed Aston, a 1,400kg bull, make stately progress.
A van pulls to a halt and the bemused driver takes out his phone to record the scene.
Aston’s outings often trigger the same reaction, and this gives Rouas a chuckle.
“Honestly, I didn’t invent this,” she said. “Look around the world, people ride all sorts of animals – ostriches, camels, elephants.”
Aston is a local celebrity in the Meuse region, and now around the world, via the web.
Rouas’ husband Yannick Kirschhoffer is the bull’s social media manager, and Aston has 62,000 TikTok fans, 90,000 YouTube subscriptions, and almost as many followers on Facebook.
Today the scene is cheerful, but the story begins with Rouas’ grief for her dead racehorse.
“Every rider has a particular relationship in their life with a horse. When he died, I didn’t want to hear about horses anymore,” she told AFP.
At that time in her life, Rouas – a sales manager – was living over the border in Luxembourg in a house by a cattle farm.
As time passed, she watched the daily life of the cows and one day decided to ask the farmer if she could meet them, to restore her bond with larger animals.
“I still had a problem with horses, but I missed being in contact with them. So, I headed down to the farm and spotted a cow that seemed more alert than the others,” she said.
“I started to brush her. I could tell she was intelligent. She learned to raise her hoof to me, to say hello, to respond to her name.”
Rouas was delighted with her new friend but, when the cow had a calf, she made a dramatic decision and bought them both – despite not having a farm of her own to keep them on.
“For me it was hellish,” she recalled. “They said I was completely mad and it’s true, I didn’t know anything about how to go about things.”
But Rouas knew how to train cats and, believing in the bond between humans and animals, set about training the calf, Aston, to live alongside her.
It wasn’t easy. She fell from the young bullock at least 38 times in three months – but nine years later Aston is a show pony: vaulting small hurdles, galloping, prancing sideways.
Today, the team lives in France, and Aston has been learning lessons from his neighbours.
“Watching me ride horses, Aston wanted to do the same thing,” Rouas shared. “By watching them, he learnt a lot, so we played on his talent for mimicry.
“People tell me Aston thinks he’s a horse, and it’s true that he loves to copy them. But I can’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to.” In other words, he’s bull-headed.
“He weighs 1.4 tonnes and has his own personality. If he jumps over obstacles, it’s because he enjoys it.”
And if he does enjoy online stardom, he’s also spreading joy. Aston is now much in demand to perform at equestrian events, and has appeared in movies while developing an online brand.
“People contact me to ask how to ride their bulls. I give advice,” Rouas said. “I can’t quite believe it, he’s famous all the way to Japan.”