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.
Each team comprises ten pairs of horses and there are 21 relay stages which vary in length according to the gradients and type of ground to be covered. The total relay length is 300 kms. (187 miles approximately) and has changing posts for the horse teams about every 10-15 kms. (6-9 miles approximately). No pair of horses may run more than three stages in the 24 hours, and this includes the special associated events, and must have a seven hour rest between the stages and events they undertake. It is important to stress the run is not a race. The aim is not to cover the relay stage in the fastest time, but in a pre-announced time based on an average speed of 12.5 kms. (7.8 miles) per hour. The pair nearest this time is the winner of that stage, and penalties are awarded for an early or late arrival, with very strict vetting of the horses’ condition, breathing and pulse before and after their efforts. Often entrants pass the finish line right on the second so the competition is very fierce. If a stage cannot be undertaken or completed, the team is awarded the worst time achieved on that stage by any pair plus a penalty of 10 minutes.
The special events held along the route are designed to test skill and obedience. They include a mini marathon at Le Touquet, pulling a loaded fishing boat along the sandy beach at Boulogne at a controlled walk, a task traditionally carried out by the Boulonnaise, pulling an old 1920’s passenger bus that can seat 20 people around an obstacle course against the clock at Amiens, and a riding course requiring negotiation of unusual items at Clermont.
It is the responsibility of the Team Manager to decide which horses are best suited to which stage or event bearing their strengths and degree of fitness in mind, and to ensure each pair and their driver and groom can be in the right place at the right time with sufficient rest periods.
David and I had followed the course from Boulogne to Paris as spectators in 1997, so were very enthusiastic about joining the first all British team in 1999. Although the team did not come last in the placings on our first attempt, we realised we had a lot to learn if we were going to compete on a more equal footing in future, and returned to Britain determined to put our experiences to good use for another entry in 2001.
For centuries Britain has been very glad of the 20 mile wide English Channel which has helped protect us from invaders, but today it is an obstacle to traveling with horses to mainland Europe as it is not possible to ship livestock through the Channel Tunnel which now connects South East England to France. So one of the first tasks was to obtain financial help with the cost of shipping ten lorries and several support vehicles to France at the end of September 2001. This organised, it also was necessary to seek commercial sponsorship for the cost of a team uniform, horse feed and all the associated costs such as the entry fee for the event. Eventually all these expenses were covered either by sponsors or from Club funds and we could set about the fitness training of man and horse.
Beginning in March 2001 David took our pair of Percherons out daily in the competition cart, gradually building up their fitness and stamina. The Driving Club also held its regular events where the individual performances could be observed and practice gained in completing set courses to a pre- determined time. Training even continued with 4 am starts during the almost two month long harvest before the official working day which starts at 7 am and can go on until 9 or 10 pm! Finally it was September and time for the team to assemble for La Route du Poisson 2001.
The English Channel can be very rough with the autumn winds and the ferries will not carry horses if the wind is more than Force 6, but we were very lucky and the team had a smooth crossing to Boulogne. Then it was a short half-hour drive to the equestrian centre at Le Touquet to set up camp and complete all the necessary administrative procedures over the next four days before the big event.
When we arrived on the Monday the English team was the only occupant of the site, but over the next two days the area became packed with the other 14 teams, each with numerous trucks, caravans, marquees for team meals and a variety of vehicles. The nearby temporary stables were filled with over 300 horses of all breeds and the nights became quite noisy as horse replied to horse and some expressed their opinions by kicking the partitions. The days were filled with feeding, cleaning out and exercising them, whilst our Team Manger Rowena McDermott attended various briefings. Although fluent in French she had found some of the meetings problematical during our first competition and so was provided with an interpreter in 2001. However, even Monique, President of the French Shire Society, reported that she found some of the accents difficult to follow and this in her native language, especially as several conversations took place at once. Meanwhile the rest of us communicated as best we could with other competitors in French or English according to our, and their, abilities. Our catering squad produced three meals daily with very limited facilities for nearly 50 team members and meal times were used to keep us all up to date with the latest event news.
The different breeds of horses, a far wider range than those seen in Britain, were of great interest to everyone and much time was spent walking round comparing size and conformation, and asking their owners questions. Besides the familiar Ardennes and Percherons, there were Bretons, Comtois, Auxois, Trait du Nord, Brabandts with lovely black feathers reaching to above their knees, Rhinelanders, Black Forest and the lighter combined riding and draught horse from Switzerland, the Franche-Montagne. The two large mules, a cross between the Shire-like Mulassier horse from the marshlands and the Poitou donkey, which formed part of the International team, were a sight to see. The British Suffolks and Shires created a great deal of interest, being taller than many of the continental breeds, and David’s black Percherons were also a source of puzzlement as grey is by far the most usual colour for this breed in Europe.
Each of the 15 teams had its own team colour. The Percheron team were in bright red tops, the International team in green and yellow and several in blue or green with distinguishing scarves etc. As late comers to the competition, the British had had a very limited choice of team colour but the problem was overcome by the very kind gesture of a supporter’s mother who had made waistcoats from the Union Jack flag for the entire team, and with these and light coloured trousers for public appearances we managed a very “together” look.
Unfortunately France suffered very heavy rainfalls for the whole of September and our plans of eating together in the open air were often replaced by a rapid retreat to our individual vehicles and wet weather gear was very much the order of the day. This also had the result of turning the entire campsite into a sea of liquid mud and those teams sited near the exit had to endure teams further from the gate churning up the ground even more.
Le Touquet was a very fashionable seaside town in the 1920’s and 30’s and boasts a very attractive town architecture and wide seafront promenade as well as sandy beaches. During this one week the streets are filled with the sound of numerous pairs of trotting horses on daily exercise whilst the car park of the nearby sailing club becomes the practice ground for trying out team quick changes.
Whilst these daily tasks were going on, the event’s Management got on with the vetting of horses and equipment.
On Tuesday each team presented its horse for weighting, essential as each stage of the relay is adjusted according to the combined weight of the pair – extra time being allocated for the heavier animals and less for the lighter ones. They also had a microchip inserted into the neck, or if they had competed before the chip was checked, and the details entered in the individual horse passports. Then it was off to the vet’s inspection where heartbeats were noted and soundness checked at both walk and trot. On Wednesday the carts to be used in the relay were weighed to ensure they fell within the regulations and tagged with a seal to ensure substitutions could not be made.
On Thursday the already busy pace began to increase with the traditional parade of all the entrants around the town. Again the skies opened but it did not dampen the spirits of the participants who presented their horses in a tremendous array of turnouts. There were various traditional wagons and a passenger bus all filled with their team members, horses under saddle and horses on long lines. The British team displayed a double-shafted farm wagon and a steam powered horse-drawn fire engine. The French teams each sported their regional flag, and the Belgians, British, German and Swiss groups their national flag. And the French spectators were as welcoming as ever, turning out in large numbers and cheering as we made our way through the town. This included a slow drive down a very narrow shopping street with cars parked down one side and narrow pavements (sidewalks) packed with pedestrians on the other whilst the fire engine blew its whistle every few minutes. Very nerve wracking!
After the two-hour parade, the carnival atmosphere continued with an evening meal at the huge indoor sand school for all the members of all 15 teams. There must have been around 1000 people there, seated team by team at long trestle tables, enjoying conversation, in some cases indulging in team chants and generally relaxing. The British group was very distinctive in their Union Jack waistcoats. During the evening each team was introduced and its Manager gave a short speech (again all in French), to rapturous applause from the entire gathering and, as ever, the team made up of disabled drivers received the loudest applause of all. Known as the Hardi Mareyeurs, which translates as the Fearless Fishsellers, these drivers receive no concessions to compensate for their disabilities except for larger support crews, and managed 2nd place in 1995. Later we were treated to a display of French hunting calls used during hunting on horseback with a pack of hounds. Played on French horns, these are very different to those heard in Britain where the horn used is a short instrument which can be tucked into a pocket, and true to form, David produced his English horn and engaged in a friendly battle of hunting calls. Unfortunately the meal of mussels and chips, which I think the Management believed might equal the world famous British fish and chips, did not agree with several of our team members and next day was not a very comfortable time for some.
On Friday afternoon, the Suffolk horses took part in a parade around Boulogne, whilst two pairs of Percherons took part in a mini marathon which comprised several timed obstacles on the site at Le Touquet, a drive to a nearby village for a timed change of horses and a timed drive for the second pair though woods and along the beach back to the Casino at Le Touquet. Five minutes after the end of each competitive stage throughout the Fish Run the horses are checked by a vet, and if the heartbeat is over 80 beats per minute a further five minute period is allowed to bring it down by pouring quantities of water over the animal. If it is still too high after 20 minutes the horse may be banned from further appearances in any part of the event.
On Friday evening the British team put forward a pair of Swedish Ardennes for the floodlit Boat Pull, held in yet more heavy rain, on the vast flat sandy beach in Boulogne town. Here a traditional fishing boat, filled with sandbags and weighing a metric tonne, had to be pulled at a walk from a standing start for 100 meters, or for as far as possible. The Boulonnaise used to carry out this work in past times and are generally reckoned to be one of the favourite contenders. The great skill in this contest is to get both horses to move forward at the same moment, as if one only pulls it then get snatched back by the stationary horse and the rhythm is lost, and also to keep the moving horses at a walk. These requirements can cause some unexpected results.
At 4:30 am Saturday the Suffolks and their crew were up to get ready for the 30 minute journey back to Boulogne and the 9 am start of the 24 hour relay. The quayside at Boulogne was full of spectators to see the fish hauled up out of an old-fashioned sail boat, and a set weight packed with ice into a container which was then strapped on the cart for each of the 15 teams, who set off at five minute intervals to a background of folk music from live performers and a countdown by local school children. Each team is preceded throughout the relay by a car carrying a timekeeper who, by radio, advises the horse team of their performance against the time scale set by the authorities.
Meanwhile the rest of the camp at Le Touquet were up and about shortly afterwards in order to pack up and be on its way to their appointed places along the route to Paris. The speed of evacuation of over 300 horses, and approximately 1000 people in trucks, cars, caravans and camper vans would have done credit to a well practiced military unit and by 10 am a site that had been seething with activity was deserted.
It was now that the meticulous planning of the Team Manager Rowena McDermott and her helpers became apparent. She had had to make the final allocation of the horse pairs to the stage most suited to their ability bearing in mind its length and gradient following the vetting and weighing, brief each driver on the characteristics of each stage, and ensure each support truck driver had a map to enable them to navigate through the countryside to reach the correct drop off and collection points in good time to allow for the rest periods stipulated for the horses. It was very important that the trucks kept to the appointed route as penalties were incurred if motorised vehicles strayed on to the route set aside for the horse teams. During the relay run itself Rowena and the interpreter Monique had to be at each changeover point to oversee the horse pair quick change and check the timings with officials. And as if this were not enough she had to be available to dash anywhere she was needed to iron out any problems that could not be solved by mobile phone. Meanwhile the changeover team also had to make its way from post to post in good time to achieve a quick efficient hitching out of the finishing pair and hitching in of the fresh horses, and to have good supplies of water on hand to cool down the hot and tired animals before they were vetted.
With all this movement and activity only the horses managed to rest. There’s a lot to be said for the equine ability to sleep standing up. The human participants snatched what sleep they could, between driving, unloading, loading, feeding and watering horses and themselves, harnessing and unharnessing, catching up on news as other team members came and went, chatting with members of the other competing teams and spectators and soaking up the atmosphere of the different staging posts which ranged from enclosed farmyards to major towns.
Whilst the various stages of the relay were taking place, the riding skills test was under way at Clermont. Here each contestant had to ride his or her horse in company with those of the other 14 teams to show how it behaved in company, then carry out set tasks such as taking the horse from one end to the other of a seesaw to show obedience, and finally to do an individual show to show off that animal’s particular talents.
David’s first event was a timed maneuverability course around a cones course in a floodlit stadium at Amiens. Here again the weather played a major part. A torrential storm just before the competition was due to start meant the course had to be amended at the very last minute as much of it was under water, but even so he managed a very creditable 3rd place. Then it was a further journey through the night to the little village of Mello to be ready for the 5 am stage to Chantilly.
The unloading area in Mello was about 1/4 mile from the changeover area, and walking with a pair of harnessed horses through dark, narrow streets also being used by motor traffic, with limited communication with one’s team and French officials was nerve wracking. Yet even at this unearthly hour there were hot food stalls doing a brisk trade among the crowd of over 300 spectators who gave each team rousing cheers on arrival and departure. But all the tension vanished when David had hitched in and set off at a smart trot through the French countryside in the dawn light.
The 24 hour relay finished on the outskirts of Paris Sunday morning, and all the horses were trucked in to the Vincennes racecourse where the 15 teams set up camp again, but this was not the end. The last Sunday in September is designated as the Festival of the Horse throughout France and crowds visit the course to see the parades which take place all day in the centre of the site and the light horse trotting races that are run on the surrounding circular track. At last the sun came out and a carnival atmosphere prevailed as the different teams, often in national costume and regional harness, paraded in large hitches put to traditional vehicles, all against a background of regional and craft stalls. The public’s day was topped off with an evening parade around the trotting circuit of all 15 teams with their 300 plus horses. Some, often harnessed 4 or 6 abreast, were driven on long lines with their foals tied alongside, others were ridden by athletic souls standing astride two animals, and an even greater variety of traditional vehicles were displayed. The British steam engine was given the honour of heading the entire procession.
For us competitors there was one last event before the day finished. Having been awake for more than 36 hours, all 15 teams then attended a final meal to hear the results, applaud the winners, and receive commemorative plaques and rosettes. A splendid end to an outstanding week.