The streets of France resonate with the sound of work horses

The clip-clop of hooves marked the start of morning rubbish collection in the Breton town of Hennebont, as Dispar, a Breton draft horse, pulled a small cart towards the rubbish bins on a central street.

“This job is much more enjoyable with an animal,” said Julien, 38, who usually worked emptying bins on a motorized garbage truck in another city. “People see you differently, they greet you instead of whistling. This is the future, save pollution, gasoline and noise. And it makes people smile. Normally I would be constantly breathing exhaust behind my truck, so it feels much healthier.”

Faced with climate change, 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, a real estate agent in Hennebont, always left her office to watch the horse-drawn carriage go by. She said: “When I hear the sound of the hooves, it is total happiness for me. It brings a kind of gentle calm in these hectic times. Bring 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 increased nearly 20-fold and is still increasing. Up to 200 urban areas have used draft horses in recent years. The most frequent tasks are garbage collection and pulling carriages that take children to school.

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In the southern town of Vendargues, where horse-drawn school wagons are so popular that waiting lists have reached 100 families, a study found that they had improved children’s relationships with learning. Some children who could walk or cycle to school preferred to ride a horse-drawn carriage, even though it took longer, because they found it “quiet”.

Municipal draft horses have also been used for the maintenance of green spaces, public transport to markets, local forestry work and the collection of Christmas trees for recycling. In parallel, there has been an increase in the agricultural use of horses and donkeys, with hundreds currently used in vineyards and for horticulture. Carriage driving, 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 said, horses bring a “feel good factor.”

The towns argue that they are not moved by nostalgia. In the early 20th century, there was one horse for every five people in France, and draft horses often did dangerous work in industry or in mines.

Vanina Deneux-Le Barh, a sociologist at the French Institute of Horsemanship and Equitation said: “It’s not a return to the past at all. It is an approach to sustainable development, about respecting nature and well-being in new and innovative ways, for example with electrical assistance for horses going up slopes, or with advances in new types of harnesses.”

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. His municipal Breton draft horses, Dispar and Circus, are 8 and 9-year-old brothers who weigh around 900 kg (1,984 lb) each and live outdoors in a spacious paddock with limited working hours. His slow pace of 3.7 to 5 mph (6 to 8 km/h) includes transporting children from an after-school club to the soup kitchen, taking shoppers to the market, activities at a local nursing home and collecting trash. But much of their time is spent resting.

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Morgane Perlade, carriage driver, coordinates Hennebont’s unique service to employ horses in all areas of urban life: “The presence of a horse rehumanizes a city. If the council wants to carry out a survey on the rehabilitation of a development, it may not get many responses. But if we bring a horse to the urbanization, everyone will come to speak and answer the survey”.

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

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

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

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

– The Guardian