tA clip of the hooves marked the beginning of the morning rubbish collection in the town of Hennepont in Brittany, as Despars, a Breton draft horse, pulled a small cart toward the waste bins on a central street.
“This job is much nicer with an animal,” said Julian, 38, who usually worked emptying trash cans into a motorized garbage truck in another town but was practicing horse-drawn techniques. “People see you differently, they say hello instead of whistling. This is the future. It saves pollution, gasoline and noise. And it makes people smile. Normally, I would constantly breathe exhaust fumes behind my truck, so I feel healthier.”
In the face of climate breakdown, 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, the real estate agent in Hennepont, would always come out of her office to watch the horse-drawn garbage cart pass by. “When I hear the sound of hooves,” she said, “it is just pure happiness for me.” “It brings a kind of gentle calm in these trying times. It brings a little poetry to everyday life, and it’s a reminder that things could be simpler. If I could live in a world without cars, I would.”
Since the first experiments with the reintroduction of draft horses for municipal tasks in the mid-1990s, the number of French cities and metropolitan areas using them has doubled by about 20 and continues to rise. As many as 200 metropolitan areas have used draft horses in recent years. The most common tasks are garbage collection and the horse-drawn carts that take the kids to school.
In the southern town of Vendargues, where school horse-drawn carriages are so popular that waiting lists used to reach 100 families, a study found that they improved children’s relationship with learning. Some children who can walk or cycle to school prefer horse-drawn carriage travel, even though it takes longer, because they find it “soothing”.
Municipal draft horses have also been used for green space maintenance, public transportation to markets, local forestry work, and Christmas tree collection for recycling. Most of the towns that use draft horses are of medium size, many of which are in northern France. In parallel, there has been an increase in the agricultural use of horses and donkeys, with hundreds currently used in vineyards and market gardening. Carriage driving, once the domain of men, is increasingly attracting women.
Local politicians love the horse symbolism to show they are working for the environment. As said, horses bring the “feel-good factor.” But the use of draft horses is still driven by individual cities, and some local figures would like to see the state give a more centralized subsidy and name horsepower as an official form of alternative energy.
Cities say 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 risky work in industry or in the mines.
“It’s not at all a return to the past,” said Vanina Dino Le Barre, a sociologist at the French Institute of Horses and Riding. “It is a sustainable development approach, about respecting nature and well-being in new and innovative ways – for example with electric assistance for horses going uphill, or with advances in new types of harness.”
Hennepont, a town of 15,000 inhabitants in western Brittany, is the latest to introduce a new training scheme for municipal horses, carriage drivers and local authority workers. Breton’s municipal draft horses, Despar and Circus, are brothers aged 8 and 9 weighing about 900 kg (1,984 lb) each, who live outdoors in a wide paddock with limited working hours. Their accelerated pace, at 6–8 kilometers per hour (3.7–5 mph), includes transporting children from an after-school club to the canteen, transporting shoppers to the market, activities at a local nursing home, and garbage collection. But much of their time is spent resting.
Morgane Perlade, a carriage driver, coordinates Hennebont’s unique service of employing horses in all areas of urban life. “Having a horse restores the humanity of the city,” she said. If the city council wanted to conduct a survey about renovating a residential property, they might not get a lot of responses. But if we bring a horse into the housing area, everyone will come to talk and answer the questionnaire.” As for cultural events and festivals, Birlid added, “If we provide horse-drawn transportation, all the places are full.”
Attitudes towards garbage collection have changed, with locals separating their glass bottles to make it easier for the horse-drawn workers. “I’m not sure they would do the same for Ben Lorre’s truck,” Perlaid said.
“We feel like we’re building a famous post-Covid world,” said Andre Hartew, a former mayor who is now involved in the local authority management of the national stud farm in Hennepont. Horses can’t provide all the answers to the emissions problem, nor can they replace all vehicles, he said, “but what we can do is significant… A horse doesn’t have a carbon footprint on the environment, it’s not a ruminant like a cow. The costs can be lower than investing in Automated transportation. The limitation for cities is the ability to provide enough space for horses.”
The use of horses in urban areas 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 partly for the meat market, including for export to countries such as Japan, but in France horse meat consumption is declining.
At the local nursing home, residents receive regular visits from Hennepont Municipality horses. “Some people here who rarely speak in phrases will say whole sentences when talking to a horse,” said Magali, a foster home coordinator. When the horse and buggy came to take residents to cultural events, she said, they dressed smartly, in a way they did not with the minibus. “It’s special,” Magali added.
Bernadette Lisette, an ethnologist and draft horse historian, said her return to the urban landscape was rooted in the growing global interest in protecting biodiversity. Draft horses are still popular with the public, as they “continue to be a generational link,” Lisette said. “Horses have disappeared from agricultural life in France relatively recently, it’s the sixties, seventies and even eighties. Their presence represents a connection between the old and the young.”
“Just the sound of a horse crossing town makes me happy for my grandchildren,” said Véronique, 73, a Paris pensioner to Hennebont.
Treating horses has been shown to make people feel better, said Maurice Lechard, a municipal official from nearby Enzinzac-Locrest who has been monitoring the horses’ training. “Having horses in a city means sprinkling a little of that into everyday life.”