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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

A Gathering of Comtois in France
A Gathering of Comtois in France

A beautiful example of the breed.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

by Kristina Goetz of Jackson, WY

In August 2004, I once again managed to slip out of the country to return to the splendors of rural France. I had several goals in mind, one of which was to try to get a glimpse into life for the draft horse there.

The origins of many draft breeds lie in Europe: the Belgian of Belgium, the Fresian of the Netherlands, the Haflinger of Italy and the Fjord of Norway, are all European breeds quite popular here in the US, as are several breeds originating on the British Isles like the Suffolk Punch, the Clydesdale, and the Shire. The French specifically have a very long history with horses, and have played a large role in the development of draft horses. France as a single country has itself over 41 breeds, with 10 draft breeds. In a country with over 90 “departments,” or counties, and at least as many cultural identities, it should come as no surprise that there are so many breeds of working horse. These include the Ardennes, Auxois, Boulonnais, Breton, Percheron, Poitevin, Norman Cob, Trait du Nord, and the Comtois. Many of these have been interbred over the ages producing the breeds we know today.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

The gathering was teeming with horses.

Before I left the US I tried to do a little homework. Although difficult to determine, it did seem that there may be several strongholds of draft horse use in France. Unfortunately, my schedule and itinerary didn’t allow me to attend any big events. Instead, I had to seek out something that was being held in one of the areas I was already heading. I had the good fortune to then stumble across a listing of draft horse fairs and events throughout the entire country, which proved a gold mine of information. Of course, this gold mine was all in French, and mine is a little lacking. Nonetheless I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to. But, off I went…

The Franche-Compte is the region just north of the Jura Mountains, in the far east of France, on the Swiss border and not far from the Swiss city of Geneva. This area clearly has a Swiss/German influence, in both architecture and dialect, and is a beautiful, picturesque, and seldom-traveled area. Pontelier itself was a charming town, well kept and filled with friendly people and surrounded by outlying areas of lush meadow and grazing cows. Despite its small size and distance from the big city (Paris was several hours away) it had a very progressive feel. It was also host to a magnificently large organic market! Many footpaths and walking opportunities surrounded the town, and the few visitors to the area often come for the walking. I myself made it to the Swiss border on a morning’s jaunt on a well-marked and beautiful desolate country lane. This is a very popular area in winter for cross country skiers, as the rolling hills, thick forests, and magnificent scenery are perfect for the sport. When I arrived in mid-August, the meadow grasses were tall and flowers in bloom.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

The mane and tail are traditionally braided with straw.

The Franche-Compte is, like many regions in France, very proud of their distinct heritage and unique local flavors. The Comtois, it seems, is a very old breed, perhaps descended from horses brought to the area from northern German immigrants in the fourth century. It is second only to the Breton in numbers in France, and its numbers continue to rise. It is said to be a good-natured, hard working, easy to train horse, with endurance, hardiness, and balance. The Comtois continues to be used for hauling wood from the forest in the Jura, and for working in hilly vineyards. This rural county is also the proud producer to what I found to be another most outstanding accomplishment I must not neglect to mention: it’s own cheese. Compte, with its strict regulations (regarding cows allowed per acre of grass) for production, is the most mild creamy and delicious I came across in all of France, and there was a place right in town where you could tour cheesemaking facilities and gorge yourself on tastings.

But truth be told, upon arrival in this clearly modern town, I was highly skeptical that my sleuthing skills were to pay off. Surely there was no draft horse meet going on here! But after poking around a bit, and with the help of a very kind information clerk, there it was, deep in a long list of Pontelier’s summer events: the working horse exhibition.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A horse is trotted for the judges.

And so the following morning, a short walk from town to the schoolgrounds led me to a hill overlooking a most lovely sight: a field full of Comtois! Hundreds of these beautiful chestnut workhorses, with flaxen manes and tails, milled about a field filled with spectators. I marched down the drive and into a froth of French-speaking agriculturists, armed with an array of questions in my impressively broken and horrific French.

From the get-go, it was clear this was no plow match or demo; the show was purely for judging each horse’s conformation and gait according to the breed standard. Although I was disappointed not to see them in real action, I was still commending myself on finding the needle in the haystack. Apparently, it seems draft horses for show are more common than in practical use or agricultural matches in France, and so I couldn’t feel too bad. Turns out, this particular meet was an uncommon event and had only been planned to mark the anniversary of the area. The atmosphere was delightfully low-key, the beer flowed, and one could look out over 100 thick rumps gleaming in the sunshine.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

Horses were branded on the spot!

For each horse to be judged, two lanes were set up for the horse to walk, then trot down, led by their handler. Classes were arranged by the horse’s age. All Comtois born in a certain year were given a name that began with the same letter; for instance, yearlings had names that began with M. Two year-olds that were deemed worthy of the breed standard were eligible to be an official Comtois, and were branded with the elegant and historic brand right there after they exited the lane! Tradition also seemed to dictate that the horses manes and tails be braided with straw, and this was indeed a very beautiful and classy touch. Leave it to the French!

A Gathering of Comtois in France

Being in such a rural region, nary an English speaker could I find. So, many of my questions were left unanswered. In my travels following, I did hear vaguely of the resurgence of draft horse use by small farmers. I also heard of a group of farmers in the Ariege region who are promoting the use of the draft horse, forming work groups and giving clinics and instruction in using horse drawn farm tools. I heard just enough to keep me wanting to know more. Guess I will have to return once again to this country that prides itself in its small farms and agricultural diversity.

Spotlight On: Livestock

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

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At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

The Broodmare in Fall

The Broodmare in Fall

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Mares are not the major emphasis in the fall since they have performed their task of foaling, lactating and being re-bred. After foals are weaned, most breeders tend to focus on weanlings and yearlings that are being prepared for shows, sales and/or performance in the case of long yearlings. Fall management of broodmares is far more critical than some breeders realize and can directly impact foaling and re-breeding successes next year.

Lineback Cattle

Lineback Cattle

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Cattle with lineback color patterns have occurred throughout the world in many breeds. In some cases this is a matter of random selection. In others, the markings are a distinct characteristic of the breed; while in some it is one of a number of patterns common to a local type. Considering that livestock of all classes have been imported to the United States, it is not surprising that we have our own Lineback breed.

Ask A Teamster Ten Common Wrecks With Driving Horses

Ask A Teamster: Ten Common Wrecks with Driving Horses

One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips. Here are 10 of them:

Logging with Oxen in New Hampshire

Logging with Oxen in New Hampshire

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I hear time and time again at the outset of each workshop, “I don’t know anything about working oxen.” And I say, “There is no more fun than being a beginner.” Myself and the staff get great pleasure in sharing our knowledge of working steers and oxen. For as long as there are those interested in working cattle, the men I mentioned early in this article will not be forgotten. I believe there will always be cattle worked on small farms and in the woods.

"Work Horse Handbook, 2nd Edition" by Lynn Miller

Draft Collars and How To Size Them

It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

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For centuries, the skills of training steers for work and the craft of building yokes and related equipment was passed down from generation to generation. It was common for a young boy or girl to be responsible for the care and training of a team from calves to the age of working capability. Many farms trained a team each year, either for sale or for future replacement in their own draft program.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Since the horse is useful to man only by reason of his movements, his foot deserves the most careful attention. The horse-shoer should be familiar with all its parts. Fig. 3 shows the osseous framework of the foot, consisting of the lower end of the cannon bone, the long pastern, the two sesamoid bones, the short pastern, and the pedal bone.

Horseshoeing Part 1C

Horseshoeing Part 1C

The horn capsule or hoof is nothing more than a very thick epidermis that protects the horse’s foot, just as a well fitting shoe protects the human foot. The hoof of a sound foot is so firmly united with the underlying pododerm that only an extraordinary force can separate them. The hoof is divided into three principal parts, which are solidly united in the healthy foot – namely, the wall, the sole, and the frog.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

Farmrun On the Anatomy of Thrift

On the Anatomy of Thrift: Side Butchery

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals.

Ask A Teamster Halters Off

Ask A Teamster: Halters Off!

When my friend and mentor, the late Addie Funk, first started helping me with my horses, he suggested that we get rid of my halter ropes with snaps and braid lead ropes on to all the halters permanently. Actually as I think about it, it was more than a suggestion. Knowing him, he probably just braided the new ropes on, confident that anyone with any sense would be pleased with the improvement. In any case, when the task was completed I clearly remember him saying to me, “Now nobody will turn a horse loose around here with a halter on.”

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

Ask A Teamster: Perfect Hitching Tension

In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule.

Horseshoeing Part 1A

Horseshoeing Part 1A

Horseshoeing, though apparently simple, involves many difficulties, owing to the fact that the hoof is not an unchanging body, but varies much with respect to form, growth, quality, and elasticity. Furthermore, there are such great differences in the character of ground-surfaces and in the nature of horses’ work that shoeing which is not performed with great ability and care induces disease and makes horses lame.

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 3

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In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked.

Mini Horse Haying

Mini Horse Haying

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The first mini I bought was a three year old gelding named Casper. He taught me a lot about what a 38 inch mini could do just by driving me around the neighborhood. He didn’t cover the miles fast, but he did get me there! It wasn’t long before several more 38 inch tall minis found their way home. I presently have four minis that are relatively quiet, responsive to the bit, and can work without a lot of drama.

The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge

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In the morning we awoke to a three quarters of a mile long swath of old growth mixed conifer and aspen trees, uprooted and strewn everywhere we looked. We hadn’t moved here to become loggers, but it looked like God had other plans! We had chosen to become caretakers of this beautiful place because of the peace and quiet, the clean air, the myriad of birds and wildlife! Thus, we were presented with a challenge: how to clean up this blowdown in a clean, sustainable way.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT