We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land …
These delightful sentiments from the familiar harvest festival hymn continue to conjure up wistful images of Constable country as we ooh and ahh at the pulling power of the heavy horses – whether it be their prowess at ploughing or the genuine affection we feel for these genial giants of the equestrian world.
But whoa back a bit. While not wanting to shatter the illusion in quite the same way as John Betjeman – “We spray the fields and scatter the poison on the ground” – there is a danger that such delightful creatures as the chestnut (sic) Suffolk Punch, widely regarded as the rarest of the heavy horse breeds, could disappear within ten years: so, too, could the Shire. Even the Clydesdale is at risk.
From the high peak of the horse-drawn world of the 1880s, when around 3.5 to 4.5 million were at work in agriculture, forestry, transport and the military the heavy horse population has plummeted, with their possible extinction by the end of the 1960s.
And with the situation only marginally better today, the accompanying images are a reminder of what we could lose especially in Keat’s season ‘of mellow mists and fruitfulness.’
As a horse rider of some 50 years, and author of several books and numerous features on horse-riding holidays, I fear many of us still fail to grasp the looming threat to our gentle giants. After all, Shire horses played a starring role at the Olympics opening ceremony.
‘ It is still amazing how little awareness there is about how endangered these horses are,’ said Jo Ambrose of the Working Horse Trust (www.theworkinghorsetrust.org), themselves currently under threat of having to quit their charitable trust headquarters at Eridge, near Tunbridge Wells.
A lot of blood sweat and tears, she added, had gone into this unique project to protect a variety of heavy horse breeds, including two Ardennes who took part in the Sevenoaks Heavy Horse & Rural Crafts Show in September – their 21st and as popular as ever.
Done up to the nines in brass and multi-coloured ribbons, the equines quickly stole the show, first strutting their stuff in the show ring – not just in hand but proving their growing popularity for being ridden too, before taking part in the keenly contested ploughing contest. Furrows were neatly sliced amid applause from a family audience sometimes keener to stroke the horses then listen to an enlightening commentary on their role.
The fact that so many traditional heavy horse breeds remain is thanks to both to the trust and various specialist breed societies or private owners who, with no government funding for national studs, are fighting to stave off their eventual demise.
Ironically, their continued high profile appearance at charity events – perhaps advertising the very breweries they would once have been working for – along with appearances at shows, in TV or film roles, even at weddings and funerals, all too often give a false impression of their number.
Britain is not alone: the trust’s Ardennes also took part in La Route du Poisson which began in 1991 as a bi-annual re-enactment of the fish run from Boulogne to the Parisian restaurants through a relay of horse-drawn vehicles, known as Ballons de Mareé. These were drawn by the powerful Boulonnais breed from the area.
Originally funded by the French Ministry of Agriculture, it followed a plea not to just to preserve the local Boulogne breed but to retain pride in a living part of French rural heritage – roughly the same line as taken by Britain. It still draws the crowds, with ten pairs, or 20 horses, from the UK alone taking part in this year’s event from September 20 to 23. Teams from Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, as well from other French regions, were also represented. Each carriage is loaded with 5kgs of fresh fish. Pulling a traditional flobart (fishing boat) also forms part of the fun.
Sadly, however, financing the event, which wends its way over 300 kms, around 187 miles, has become decidedly shaky in the last few years, with gaps appearing in the original two-year cycle.
Hopefully, interest was taken by the BBC Country File team and the presence in France of horse owner, actor and presenter Martin Clunes – not just TV’s Doc Martin, but the president of the British Horse Society and the face behind many equine related TV programmes – will help boost interest in the gentle giants both sides of the Channel.
Certainly autumn would not be the same without them… To quote the Horse’s Prayer:
‘ I’m only a horse, dear master,
But my heart is warm and true
And I’m ready to work my hardest
For the pleasure of pleasing you.’
Hoofnote: the Boulonnais also makes a brilliant riding horse, as do some of the other heavies. I know. I ride one occasionally at my local stables at Chelsfield, Kent.
* John Ruler is also the author of the Bradt guide to Nord-Pas de Calais. www.bradtguides.com