Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe
by Daphne Turner and David Baker
photographs by Daphne Turner and David Baker and Gary Crisp
The fortunes of the heavy draught horse over the last 50 years have been very different in North America to those in Great Britain, as was borne home to us very forcibly when we visited the Progress Days in Indiana in 2000. There we saw numbers of draught horses and modern methods of using them which are simply unknown in Britain.
In the UK after World War II the mechanization of agriculture and the changes in farming practices, coupled with the tremendous increase in urban growth, led to a drastic reduction in working horse numbers in the 1950’s. Thousands were sent for slaughter every week, and it was only the dedication of a few owners and breeders that kept the heavy draught horse going in these Dark Years, as they became known. During this period it was the showing fraternity who kept the heavies in the public eye and today these classes, whether in hand or turnouts, are one of the biggest attractions at a range of events. However, it is this very area of activity that works against an increase in horse numbers as the cost of showing is far beyond the pockets of many.
One must have show quality horses for which harness costs around $3000 per animal, and a dray costs $12-15,000, and all this before the exhibitor thinks about motorised transport for reaching the shows, or the help he needs. As a result, even the top agricultural shows in the UK may have only ten drays in the commercial turnout class and four turnouts in the agricultural section.
Fortunately the interest in the working aspect of the heavy draught horse has been gradually increasing since the 1970’s. In the South of England we were fortunate. At that time a horse veterinarian, Carl Boyd, realised that the skills of working horsemen would soon be lost if no action was taken and with others founded the first society (now known as Southern Counties Heavy Horse Association) to preserve this knowledge. Other societies followed suit and membership has increased over the years but even so, the All England Ploughing Match probably only attracts about 40 horse powered entries, whilst local Ploughing Societies will have mainly tractor entries with perhaps half a dozen horse ploughs. The Southern Counties Association encourages new members with novice days at which cultivation and ploughing can be learned under the guidance of experienced horsemen. However, in Britain as genuine commercial use of horses is confined almost entirely to forestry work there is a pressing need to widen the use of the heavy draught horse and attract fresh young blood.
The need also applies in France even though there heavy draught horses are numbered in thousands whilst in the UK they are counted in hundreds. Their answer to this problem is to cater for the leisure market with competition driving. Based on the same principles as carriage driving with cross country, dressage and cones driving elements, competition driving events have been adapted with shorter distances at lower speeds to allow for the different build of the heavy horse.
In southern England we have followed this lead and approximately eight years ago an embryonic British Heavy Horse Driving Trials Club which has since been formalised, began. Holding four or five events every year at a variety of venues, it attracts both single and pairs entries with homemade and competition quality vehicles, and drivers from their mid teens upwards. The range of British breeds, Suffolks, Shires, Ardennes and Percherons is usually represented, and this year, 2002, it is hoped that the Clydesdale will also put in an appearance. However, this is still all on a small scale and our experiences whetted our appetite for something more extensive. To this end the Club, with the encouragement of Rowena McDermott, its secretary and a founder member, turned its eyes to France and the biennial event held there entitled “La Route du Poisson” or “The Fish Run.”
Until the coming of the railways, fish catches landed at the French ports were rushed by horse and cart to the inland cities. This trade had been carried on since the 13th century and was so important that once when the delivery to the royal palace was late it is said that a chef of King Louis XIV committed suicide. The Boulonnaise breed, similar to the Percheron in conformation, had been bred for use in the fish trade, and even when their role declined, breeders managed to find outlets for the foals as meat. But when the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, horses of all types from the East flooded Western European markets. A new way to demonstrate the virtues of native breeds of heavy horse was needed. The French Government actively supports the equine industry in its many forms and as part of this support finances a nationwide network of National Studs. The Stud at Compiegne is the main breeding establishment for the Boulonnaise and the Manager there came up with the idea of re-enacting the ancient journeys in which the Boulonnaise had played so prominent a part. So in 1991 the old fish journey from Boulogne to Paris was revived using the traditional route, as an extension of the well established competition driving. Six teams took part in the first event.
The succeeding ten years have seen La Route du Poisson become established as a truly international event with teams entering from France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany.
Often the teams are made up of one particular breed but teams of mixed breeds are also accepted, as is an International team of mixed nationalities. The first all-British team entered in 1999, with all four British breeds represented, and this gave us an opportunity to see the enormous degree of organization needed for such a large event. Happily the French Government support extends to this even and various French companies are generous with their sponsorship but even so it is a tremendous undertaking costing £250,000 (around $375,000).
The Fish Run is a 24 hour long relay which starts from Boulogne on the coast at 9 am on Saturday and runs through the night to the outskirts of Paris with relays of heavy horse pairs until 9 am Sunday with associated events on the way. The relay “baton” is an approved cross country competition vehicle carrying a set amount of fresh fish. At the end of each stage the tired horses are hitched out and a fresh pair, ready with fresh driver, hitched in as quickly as possible, often within 30 seconds. Every relay change, whether in town, village or farmyard and regardless of the time of day or night, attracts huge crowds of spectators, said to total 250,000 who give each competitor a rousing reception and send off, and is complete with stalls selling regional delicacies and locally made goods. But the end of the relay is not the end of the matter. On Sunday morning all the horses are trucked to the Vincennes race course in Paris itself for a day of parades and spectacle which continue to be overwhelmingly supported by the regional stall holders and the general public.