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.
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.