The streets of France resound with the sound of working horses

The clatter of hooves marked the start of the morning’s litter collection in the Breton town of Hennebont, as Dispar, a Breton draft horse, pulled a small cart towards the bins on a central street.

“This job is much nicer with an animal,” said Julien, 38, who usually worked emptying trash cans on a motorized garbage truck in another city. “People see you differently, they say hello instead of calling. This is the future, it saves pollution, gas and noise. And it makes people smile. Normally, I would be constantly breathing exhaust fumes from the back of my truck, so this is much healthier.”

In the face of climate decay, the energy crisis and modern stress levels, there is a growing movement in French cities to bring back the horse and cart as an alternative to fossil fuels and a way to slow down urban life.

Florence, an estate agent from Hennebont, always came out of her office to watch the horse-drawn carriage go by. She said: “When I hear the sound of hooves, it’s just total happiness for me. It brings a kind of gentle calm to these frantic times. It brings a bit of poetry into everyday life, a reminder that things can be simpler. If I could live in a world
without cars, I would.”

Since the first attempts to reintroduce draft horses for municipal tasks in the mid-1990s, the number of French cities and urban areas using them has multiplied by nearly 20 and continues to grow. Up to 200 urban areas have used draft horses in recent years. The most common tasks are collecting garbage and pulling carriages that take children to school.

In the southern town of Vendargues, where horse-drawn school wagons are so popular that waiting lists are 100 families long, a study found they improved children’s relationship with learning. Some children who could walk or cycle to school preferred to travel by horse-drawn carriage, despite it taking longer, because they found it “soothing”.

Municipal draft horses were also used for green space maintenance, public transport to markets, local forestry work and Christmas tree collection for recycling. In parallel, there has been an increase in the agricultural use of horses and donkeys, with hundreds now being used in vineyards and gardening. Carriage driving, which was once the domain of men, is increasingly attracting women.

Local politicians like the symbolism of a horse to show that they are acting for the environment. As one put it, horses bring a “feel good factor”.

Cities claim they are not driven by nostalgia. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was one horse for every five people in France, and draft horses often did dangerous work in industry or mines.

Vanina Deneux-Le Barh, a sociologist at the French Institute for Horses and Equestrianism said: “It is absolutely not a return to the past. It is a sustainable development approach, about respecting nature and welfare in new, innovative ways, for example with electric assistance for horses climbing slopes or with advances in new types of harness.”

Hennebont, a town of 15,000 in western Brittany, is the latest to offer a new training scheme for municipal horses, carriage drivers and local authority workers. The municipal Breton draft horses, Dispar and Circus, are 8- and 9-year-old siblings who weigh about 900 kg (1,984 lb) each and live outdoors in a vast paddock with limited working hours. Their arduous pace of 6-8 km/h (3.7-5 mph) includes transporting children from an after-school club to the canteen, taking shoppers to the market, running errands at a local care home and collecting litter. But much of their time is spent resting.

Morgane Perlade, carriage driver, coordinates Hennebont’s unique service of employing horses in all areas of urban life: “The presence of a horse rehumanizes a city. If the city wants to conduct a survey regarding the renovation of a housing complex, it may not get many responses. But if we bring a horse to the estate, everyone will come and talk and take the survey.”

Attitudes to garbage collection have changed, with local residents putting away glass bottles to make it easier for horse-drawn workers. “I’m not sure they would do the same for a garbage truck,” Perlade said.

At the local care home, residents have regular visits from Hennebont’s municipal horses. “Some people here who rarely speak in sentences will say whole sentences when talking to a horse,” said Magali, a nursing home coordinator. She said that when the horse and cart comes to transport residents to cultural events, they dress smartly, in a way not for the minibus.

Bernadette Lizet, an ethnologist and draft horse historian, said their return to the urban landscape is rooted in the growing global concern to protect biodiversity. Draft horses remain popular with the public because they “represent a link between generations,” Lizet said. “Horses disappeared from farm life in France relatively recently, it’s the 60s, 70s, even 80s. Their presence is a link between the old and the young.”

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

– The Guardian

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