Animal Draft And Its Multiple Heritage: A French Problem?

Utilitarian harnessing methods are invariably the pertinent expression of an activity (agricultural, industrial, commercial) in a particular environment (that may be economic, geographic, technical and cultural, all at the same time).

Fig. 1 – two-horse tip-cart plan taken from the Moniteur de la Maréchalerie et du Charronnage (French journal published under this title between 1909 and 1925), workshop drawing on tracing (62×43 cm.)

Innovation has been a permanent feature over the last 2500 years and applies to material (harness, vehicles, tools), zootechnics, architecture, urbanism, agronomy… Over the course of time, techniques and know-how have developed, converged, been substituted one for another, or traveled (with population movements, itinerant apprenticeships, trade) and have survived in niche environments.

These parameters lend the subject of “animal draft” a patrimonial dimension that, above all, calls for a dynamic approach.

Fig. 2 – Familiar shape of a milk-delivery horse collar: pointed “ears” (the hames), bright colours, fixed shake-bells. From the catalogue of the Renaud collar-makers, 1905. Léon Renaud was a renowned work-harness-maker located at 10bis and 12 rue Saint-Maur in Paris (11th District)

Long neglected by historians and many museum keepers, the heritage/s of animal draft “à la française”, bearers of testimony to the needs, tastes and the know-how of their time, generally partake of a paradox: a past wealth and prestige equaled only by how little is now known of them, and their present fragility.

An erroneous assumption long sealed the fate of working vehicles and harness: since they seemed to be ubiquitous, they were once believed to be of unlimited availabity, whereas, very few of these objects, cumbersome and hard to handle, difficult to engage the public with, have actually made their way into museums. How many were abandoned, broken up and burned? Today, how many of them stand there as decoration for round-abouts, how many others are used to show off logos (including for museums)?… All of them are condemned to disappear in the near future.

Conserving them, however paramount this is, cannot be the only thing we must do. When they stand alone and anonymous, these objects lose all meaning, and we know that, as far as heritage is concerned, not understanding something makes it very fragile. For all the objects that some collector’s benevolence managed to spare, there is now the whole issue of documentation.

Just regretting the immense losses will not change anything and the many artistic and archive traces can – at least partially – come to our rescue.

Fig. 3 – Ox-drawn vinyard harness (Garonnaise breed) in Médoc (France, Gironde)

Taking into account the type of vehicle or equipment pulled, the nature and number of animals harnessed, the way they are arranged, the harness utilized, the way they are driven, and various accessories, I estimate at around 400 the number of traditional utilitarian harness methods at work in Metropolitan France at the beginning of the 20th century… (60% are rural, 50% of those concern transport).

The backward image of animal draft was often due to the fact that the last everyday harnessing methods, as they were at the time, generally did not take into account the latest progress (in questions of harness-making, for example, a field that was highly innovative right up to the inter-war period).

We must not indulge in hasty criticism, however. Thanks to people passionate about transmission, committed professionals still make it possible to envision a future with animal draft, especially in responsible farming developments.

Fig. 4 – Villiers-le-Bel (France, Oise), 1909. Wagons used in the large grain-growing farms just north of Paris and south of the Oise do not look as massive as their counterparts in the North of France. Average interior dimensions: length 5.10m, width 1.20m, height of side rails 0.60m. A wagon of this type weighed around 2400 kg with a maximum load capacity of 7000 kg. They were usually equipped with double shafts (for harnessing 3 or 4 horses in line), unless they were hitched to oxen (4 to 6 in pairs with a head yoke).
Fig. 4a – Team of four Nivernais-Charolais oxen in front of a haystack under construction (France, Oise). The oxdriver is standing beside the hind pair (you can see his goad), a carter-carrier (who would have been driving another team, of horses, not shown) can be identified by the whip over his shoulder and is posing for the photograph beside the front pair of oxen
Fig. 5 – An Ardèche carter-carrier (France, Ardèche). The shaft-horse has a ‘plank’ collar covered with its horse-cloth; the middle horse and the leader have southern collars and their vara (covers made of sheepskin with coarse wool, dyed blue, called chabine in Berry or chabane in Brie). This tradition was also found in Dauphiné, Languedoc and Roussillon.
Fig. 6 – Ploughing in Berrichon Champagne (France, Indre, Déois) with Nivernais oxen (Charollais) and Percheron horses. Berry (France, Cher and Indre) is a stockbreeding region that had an important trade in working animals.
Fig. 7 – Grape harvest in Vauvert (France, Gard). A pastière  hitched to three strong mules in festive gear (these collars were called Sarrazins when they had votive decorations attached). The ‘ordinary’ carts used for transporting harvested grapes of Languedoc wine-growers were equipped with a kind of box with a waterproof canvas spread over them (or a vat, for the more ‘modern’ version): the pastière.
Fig. 8 – Multi-use fore-carriage (urban, in spite of the background here!), presented by its designer, Bernard Michon, at the “Trait Comt’Est ” International Meeting of Draft Horses in Magny-Cours in 2016 (France, Nièvre).
Fig. 9 – Etienne at work

Born in 1972, Etienne Petitclerc trained as a historian and has been an archivist for twenty years. Fascinated since childhood by draft horses, he began early on to study traditional gestures and know-how in stock-breeding and using working animals, through fieldwork and meetings. He is a handler, collector, independent researcher and his knowledge and documentation efforts have enabled him to take part in many international juries and regularly appear as a lecturer. He is the author of some fifty papers and two books on the French heritage of animal draft.

Etienne Petitclerc Attelées! Éditions France Agricole, 2016, pp. 342, every page with black-and-white, colour photographs, drawings, vehicles plans, bibliography, weblinks, magazine sources. You won’t believe it, unless you read it. (Editor’s comment)

The full-length article is available online in French and English under the title Petitclerc Traction animale et patrimoine Animal draft and heritage (long) at