‘A gentle peace’: the streets of France once again echoed with the sound of working horses

TeaThe clip-clop of hooves marked the start of the morning’s garbage collection in the Brittany town of Hennebont, as Disper, a Breton draft horse, pulled a small cart toward the garbage bins on a central street.

“It’s great to work with an animal,” said Julian, 38, who usually worked in another city emptying bins on a motorized garbage-truck, but has been training in horse-drawn techniques. was. “People look at you differently, they say hello instead of beeping. It’s the future, it avoids pollution, petrol and noise. And it makes people smile. Normally, I’d smoke constantly in the back of my lorry. I keep breathing, so it feels healthier.

Faced with climate breakdown, the energy crisis and modern stress levels, there is a growing movement in French cities to bring back the horse and carriage as an alternative to fossil fuels and a way to slow down urban life.

An estate agent in Florence, Hennebont, always left his office to see the horse-drawn bin cart pass by. “When I hear the sound of hooves it brings me complete joy,” she said. “It brings a kind of gentle calmness in these frantic times. It brings a little poetry into daily life, a reminder that things could be more simple. If I could live in a world without cars, I would.”

Since the first trials of reintroducing draft horses for municipal work in the mid-1990s, the number of French cities and urban areas using them has increased nearly 20-fold and continues to grow. growth, In recent years over 200 urban areas have used draft horses. The most frequent jobs are the collection of garbage and the horse cart taking the children to school.

In the southern town of Vanderguys, where horse-drawn school carts are so popular that the waiting list has grown to 100 families, a study found that they improved the relationship of children to learning. Some children who could walk or cycle to school preferred to travel by horse-drawn carriage, despite the longer time taken, as they found it “cooler”.

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Julien picks up rubbish from a public bin during horse-drawn collection in Hennebont.
Julien picks up rubbish from a public bin during horse-drawn collection in Hennebont. Photograph: Thomas Laupre/The Guardian

Municipal draft horses have also been used for green space maintenance, public transport to markets, local forestry work, and collecting Christmas trees for recycling. Most towns using draft-horses are medium-sized, many of which are in northern France. In parallel, the agricultural use of horses and donkeys has increased, with hundreds of horses and donkeys currently in use. vineyards and for market gardening. Carriage driving, once the domain of men, is increasingly attracting women.

Local politicians like the horse symbolism to show that they are working for the environment. As one put it, horses bring a “feel-good factor”. But the use of draft horses remains driven by individual towns, and some local figures want the state to give more centralized support and name horsepower as an official form of alternative energy.

Horse-drawn carriages on a busy boulevard in eastern Paris in 1900.
Horse-drawn carriages on a busy boulevard in eastern Paris in 1900. Photograph: AP

Towns argues that he is not motivated by nostalgia. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was one horse for every five people. FranceAnd draft horses often did dangerous work in industry or mines.

“It’s not exactly a return to the past,” said Vanina Deneaux-Le Barh, a sociologist at the French Institute horses and ride. “It is a sustainable development approach, about respecting nature and welfare in new, innovative ways – for example with electrical aids for horses, or with advances in new types of harness.”

Hennebont, a town of 15,000 people in the west of Brittany, is the latest to introduce a new training scheme for municipal horses, carriage drivers and local authority staff. Its municipal Breton draft horses, Dispar and Circus, are brothers aged 8 and 9, weigh about 900 kg (1,984lb), and live outside in a spacious paddock with limited working hours. 6-8km/h (3.7-5mph) speed includes taking children from after-school club to the canteen, taking shoppers to the market, activities at a local care home and collecting rubbish. But most of his time is spent resting.

Morgan Perlade, a carriage driver, coordinates Hennebont’s unique service to employ horses in all areas of urban life. “The presence of a horse rejuvenates a city,” she said. “If the town hall wants to do a survey on housing estate renewal, they might not get many answers. But if we bring a horse along to the housing estate, everyone will come to talk and answer the survey,” Perlade added. For cultural events and festivals, “if we offer horse-drawn transport, all the places fill up”.

Morgan Perlade, a carriage driver and rider, coordinates Hennebont's unique equine service.
Morgan Perlade, a carriage driver and rider, coordinates Hennebont’s unique equine service. Photograph: Thomas Laupre/The Guardian

Attitudes towards garbage collection have changed, with local residents taking apart their glass bottles to make it easier for horse-drawn workers. “I’m not sure they’ll do the same for Bin Laurie,” Perlade said.

“We think we are building the famous post-Covid world,” said Andre Hartro, a former mayor involved in the local authority running the national stud farm of Hennebont. Horses can neither provide all the answers to the emissions problem, nor replace all vehicles, he said, “but what we can do is considerable … A horse has no carbon footprint on the environment, It is not a ruminant like a cow. The cost may be lower than the investment in motorized transport. The bottleneck for towns is being able to provide enough space for horses.

Employing horses in urban settings is also seen as a way of protecting France’s nine draft-horse breeds, whose numbers are declining. French draft horses continue to be bred in part for the meat market, including export to countries such as Japan, but meat consumption in France horse meat is decreasing

In the local care home, the residents have regular visits from the municipality of Hennebont horses. “Some people here who rarely speak in phrases will say full sentences when talking to a horse,” said Magali, the care-home coordinator. She said that when horse and carriages arrived to take residents to cultural events, they were smartly dressed, in a way they did not do for minibuses. “It’s special,” Magali said.

Residents say that they are happy to see the horse passing by.
Residents say that they are happy to see the horse passing by. Photograph: Thomas Laupre/The Guardian

Bernadette Lisette, an ethnographer and draft horse historian, said that his return to the urban landscape was rooted in growing global concern for protecting biodiversity. Draft horses are popular with the public because “they still represent a link between generations”, Lisette said. “Horses disappeared from farm life in France relatively recently, be it the 60s, 70s, even 80s. Their presence represents a connection between the old and the young.

Véronique, 73, a pensioner who retired to Hennebont from Paris, said: “Just the sound of a horse crossing town makes me cheer for my grandchildren.”

Maurice Lechard, a town hall official in nearby Ingenzac-Locrist who has been overseeing the horse training, said equine therapy has been proven to make people feel better. “Having horses in a town means a little sprinkle of everyday life.”

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