Draft Horse Breeds of France
France, like other European countries, has a number of native heavy horse, light saddle horse and pony breeds. The Percheron, Breton, Selle Francais, French trotter and the white ponies of the Camargue are quite well known but others such as the Trait du Nord, Comtois, Auxois,Norman Cob and Poitevin have only local reputations. Pony breeds like the Merens, Landais and Basque are prized in their local areas.
The Percheron, like the Suffolk Punch, is one of the few draught horse breeds to be free of feather or long hair on the back of the legs. It is always grey or black. The Percheron is now found in many countries. A separate article has been posted on the Percheron.
The Boulonnais weighs between 1,400 and 1,700 pounds and stands between 15.3 and 16.3hh. It comes from northwest France. It is mainly bred for the meat market and is sometimes known as the 'white marble horse' because of its thin skin and fine coat, a legacy from its Arabian forebears. Barb and Andalusian blood also features in its background. It is surprisingly speedy, strong and elegant for such a big horse. It stands about 16.3hh and has great endurance and energy. It has been used as an 'improver' over other breeds and to produce foundation blood for competition horses. It is generally grey in colour. You can read more of this beautiful horse in an article devoted solely to the breed.
The Breton is endemic to Brittany in the northwest of France. There are three types of Breton draught horse, each of which comes from a different area. The smallest is the Corlay Breton which has a slightly concave profile. Its general purpose is as a light draught animal and saddle horse. The Postier-Breton is used for light farm work and has more active paces. The Grand Breton is early maturing, powerfully muscled and used for the heaviest draught tasks. All are accommodated in the one Stud Book which opened in 1909. It was closed again in 1951. More information can be found in an article devoted to the Breton breed.
The Comtois is a cold-blooded heavy horse from the Franche Comte region of eastern France where it has been bred for some 1,400 years. In the Middle Ages it was used as a war horse. It is now bred in the mountainous region on the French-Swiss border where it is used for forestry work and in vineyards. It is also used for meat. It is known for its compact strength and quick active paces, which is unusual in the heavy draft breeds. It is very sure-footed and manages steep and rugged mountain terrain with ease. It is docile and willing, and quite small for a heavy breed, measuring only 14.1 to 15.1hh and weighing 500 to 600kgs. The breed is chestnut or bay in colour. The head has a straight profile, broad forehead, small mobile ears and a full forelock and mane. The neck is short and muscular, the back straight and the croup wide and sloping. The tail is set on low. The chest is wide and deep, the shoulder long and sloping. The legs are feathered and slender in proportion to the body. There is a sometimes a tendency to sickle hocks. The feet are solid and hard.
The Auxois is another descendent of the original Ardennais as well as of the old Burgundian horse. It is larger and more powerful than its ancestors with slightly finer legs. It is very strong with excellent endurance. It is quiet, good-natured and willing. It stands 15.1 to 16hh and weighs 750 to 1000kg. The coat is almost always a red roan colour although sometimes chestnuts are found. The head has a straight profile, broad forehead, small ears and a gentle expression. The neck is short, muscular and quite broad. The back is straight and the croup sloping. The shoulder is long and sloping, the chest wide and deep and the legs slender but sturdy. In the 19th century, Percheron and Boulonnais blood was introduced and later Ardennais and the Trait du Nord. Once used to draw carriages and carts, the breed largely became redundant with a subsequent drastic decrease in numbers.
The Trait du Nord is a draft breed endemic to northeast France. Its heavy build and calm temperament hark back to the Ardennais, Belgian Draft (Brabant) and Boulonnais. It is energetic but quiet, strong and hardy and stands 15.3 to 16.1hh. It is bay, roan or red roan in colour. The head is heavy with a straight profile, pronounced jaw and small ears and eyes. The neck is short, broad and muscular. The withers are wide with a short, straight back. The croup is wide and muscular and slightly sloping. The legs are short and strong, feathered below the knee and hock. The breed shows remarkable hardiness and incredible strength, pulling exceptional loads over steep hilly terrain. The stud book dates back to 1919 but its numbers are on the decline.
The Poitevin is made up of various breeds including breeds from the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark imported by the Dutch who used them in land reclamation work in the area around Poitiers. Crossed with local horses, the end result was the Poiteven, also known as Mulassier or 'mule breeder'. Crossed with the large Poitu donkey, mules were produced for draft work. In the 1950s the Poitevin was in danger of extinction but enthusiasts are now breeding the horse again. Although lethargic and lazy, it is strong, reliable and easy to handle and has good endurance.
It stands 15hh to 17hh and weighs 700 to 900 kg. It is usually bay, grey, black or palomino. The head is heavy with a straight or slightly convex profile, a full forelock and thick mane. The ears are large and thick, the neck short, broad and muscular and the back straight, broad and long. It is deep in the body with a fairly straight shoulder. The croup is fairly long and sloping, the tail full and slowing. The legs are rather thick and short with some feather.
Heavy horses invoke respect and awe with their strength and gentleness. It is to be hoped that the various heavy horse breeds of France continue to contribute to the diversity of the equine world.