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‘A gentle calm’: France’s streets once again echo to sound of working horses

Dispar, a Breton draft horse, pulls refuse collectors in Hennebont, Brittany.
Dispar, a Breton draft horse, pulls refuse collectors in Hennebont, Brittany. Photograph: Thomas Louapre/The Guardian

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

“This job is so much nicer with an animal,” said Julien, 38, who usually worked emptying bins on to a motorised rubbish-truck in another town but was training in horse-drawn techniques. “People see you differently, they say hello instead of beeping. This is the future, it saves on pollution, petrol and noise. And it makes people smile. Normally, I’d be constantly breathing in exhaust fumes behind my lorry, so this feels much healthier.”

Faced with climate breakdown, the energy crisis, and modern stress levels, there is a growing movement in French towns 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 in Hennebont, always stepped out of her office to watch the horse-drawn bin cart pass. “When I hear the sound of the hooves it’s just total happiness to me,” she said. “It brings a kind of gentle calm in these frantic times. It brings a bit of poetry into daily life, a reminder that things can be more simple. If I could live in a world without cars, I would.”

Since the first trials to reintroduce draft horses for municipal tasks in the mid-1990s, the number of French towns and urban areas using them has multiplied by almost 20 and continues to rise. Up to 200 urban areas have used draft horses in recent years. The most frequent tasks are rubbish collection and horse-drawn carriages taking children to school.

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

Julien picks up a rubbish from a public bin during a horse-drawn collection in Hennebont.
Julien picks up rubbish from a public bin during a horse-drawn collection in Hennebont. Photograph: Thomas Louapre/The Guardian

Municipal draft horses have also been used for the maintenance of green spaces, public transport to markets, local forestry work and collecting Christmas trees for recycling. Most towns using draft-horses are middle-sized, with many across northern France. In parallel, there has been an increase in the agricultural use of horses and donkeys, with hundreds currently used in vineyards and for market gardening. Carriage driving, which was once a man’s domain, is increasingly attracting women.

Local politicians like the symbolism of a horse to show they are acting for the environment. As one said, horses bring a “feel-good factor”. But the use of draft horses remains driven by individual towns, and some local figures would like to see the state give more centralised backing and name horsepower as an official form of alternative energy.

Horse-drawn carriages on a busy boulevard in eastern Paris in 1900.
Horse-drawn carriages on a busy boulevard in eastern Paris in 1900. Photograph: AP

Towns argue they are not driven by nostalgia. At the start of the 20th century, there was one horse for every five people in France, and draft horses often did perilous work in industry or down mines.

“It’s absolutely not a return to the past,” said Vanina Deneux-Le Barh, a sociologist at the French Institute for Horses and Riding. “It’s a sustainable development approach, about respecting nature and welfare in new, innovative ways – for example with electric assistance for horses going up gradients, or with progress in new types of harnessing.”

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

Morgane Perlade, a carriage driver, coordinates Hennebont’s unique service to employ the horses across all areas of urban life. “The presence of a horse rehumanises a town,” she said. “If the town hall wants to conduct a survey on the renovation of a housing estate, they might not get many replies. But if we bring a horse along to the housing estate, everyone will come over to talk and answer the survey.” For cultural events and festivals, “if we offer horse-drawn transport, all the places are filled”, Perlade added.

Morgane Perlade, a carriage driver and rider, coordinates Hennebont’s unique equine service.
Morgane Perlade, a carriage driver and rider, coordinates Hennebont’s unique equine service. Photograph: Thomas Louapre/The Guardian

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

“We feel that we’re building the famous post-covid world,” said André Hartereau, a former mayor now involved in the local authority’s running of Hennebont’s national stud farm. Horses could neither provide all the answers to the emissions problem, nor replace all vehicles, he said, “but what we can do is considerable … A horse has no carbon imprint on the environment, it’s not a ruminant like a cow. Costs can be lower than investing in motorised transport. The constraint for towns is being able to provide adequate space for the horses.”

Employing horses in urban settings is also seen as a way to protect France’s nine draft-horse breeds, whose numbers are declining. French draft horses continue to be bred in part for the meat market, including export to countries like Japan, but in France consumption of horse meat is declining.

At the local care home, residents have regular visits from Hennebont’s municipal horses. “Some people here who rarely speak in phrases will say full sentences when speaking to a horse,” said Magali, a care-home coordinator. She said that when the horse and cart came to transport residents to cultural events, they would dress up smartly, in a way they did not do for the minibus. “It’s special,” Magali added.

Residents say watching a horse pass through makes them happy.
Residents say watching a horse pass through makes them happy. Photograph: Thomas Louapre/The Guardian

Bernadette Lizet, an ethnologist and historian of draft horses, said their return to the urban landscape was rooted in growing global concern to protect biodiversity. Draft horses remain popular with the public, because “they still represent a link between generations”, said Lizet. “Horses disappeared from farming 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 crossing the town makes me happy for my grandchildren.”

Maurice Lechard, a town hall official from nearby Inzinzac-Lochrist, who was observing the horse training, said equine therapy was proven to make people feel better. “Having horses in a town means sprinkling a bit of that across everyday life.”

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