France’s big hitter in the draught horse world

A breed apart … (Picture courtesy of  La Semaine  dans La Boulonnais)


WHAT sets the Boulonnais, little known in Britain, apart from other draught horses ? Two words: Their ancestry. Originally descended from horses imported by Julius Caesar’s  legions to Pas de Calais, France,  ready to invade the British coast, it was left to the  Crusades and the Spanish occupation of  Flanders to introduce a considerable  amount of Oriental and Andalusian blood into the Boulonnais region.  The Mecklenburger from north-eastern Germany further shaped the breed. Their ‘speed, elegant build, refined head, silky coat and thick mane can all be attributed to this hot-blooded ancestry’.  Not surprisingly 17th century  businessmen from Picardy and Haute-Normandie  chose them largely for pulling fish delivery carts from Boulogne ( from where the breed  gets its name) to Paris (SEE Route du Poisson BELOW)

Patrolling the Calais beaches during the summer are la Garde Terres et Mers de Calais. a partnership between the town of Calais, its police, and the charity Les Sabots du Coeur (of which more in a later post.  )  

 Today, the Boulonnais is found in several northwest departments of France, notably Pas de Calais,  Le Nord (Dunkerque and Hazebroucq), the Somme, Seine-Maritime and Oise i.e. roughly what is now the Hauts de France region. They are primarily bred on government-funded studs in order to prevent this energetic and lively breed, with a splendid gait, from dying out. As a working draught horse, it is much admired for its elegant teams in harness.

It also has a reputation for improving other draught breeds despite there being well under 1,000 worldwide. The fact that La Semaine newspaper reported renewed interest in the breed is an encouraging sign.

There are now two types: the small sized  17th and 18th century 15 to 15.3 hands high fish cart horse with bags of endurance but  now very rare and the large Boulonnais, a powerful horse often weighing over a ton developed in the 19th century to work in the beet fields. The Boulonnais is grey in colour, ranging from a very light to a dark dappled shade. An occasional chestnut can also be seen.

RIGHT …  clearing the same beaches of rubbish.

(Photos: La Voix du Nord Calais)



IT’s back with a bounce – with the betting no doubt being on the Boulonnais team  as the winner. I’m talking about Le Route du Poisson (the Fish Run) which re-enacts the 19th century tradition of bringing fresh fish from Northern France to Paris and the Ile-de-France by horse and cart a distance of 300 kms, around 197 miles, with competing teams loaded with fish vying to get there first,

Originally funded by the French Ministry, following a plea not just to preserve the local Boulogne breed but retain pride in French rural heritage, it drew competitors from both France and other European countries, including Britain. In 2012 the funding abruptly stopped – but in January last year the Route du Poisson Association, newly created from past and present enthusiasts,  will be bringing  back from  September 21- 26  what  in 2012 attracted ten pairs, or 20 horses, from the UK alone. Among them were  Daniel Brown, a  carriage driver and teacher  from Dorking, Surrey and his wife  Jessica pictured with their  two Suffolk Punch horses. Also there was actor Martin Clunes as president of the British Horse Society. Sadly, the Brits, though eager to to take part in what I found  was a joyous occasion for  horse lovers and visitors alike are currently being hampered by post Brexit regulation and  higher transport costs. This would mean missing  a rich programme  for what is regarded as a reinvention of the first run back in 1991. With an anticipated entry of up to 20 teams, each will be made up of 10 to 11 pairs of which at least seven will be posted on the road  ready to cover the 21 stages between Boulogne and the Champs de Mar, Paris, which enveloping the Eiffel Tower in a cloak of green  is well in harmony with other surprises  planned by the organisers.



A surge of interest, and national pride, in the breed is symbolised by the Maison du Cheval Boulonnais, Samer (above)  40 kms from Calais, and 8km from Neuchatel-Hardelot. Though Covid 19 means it is currently closed to the public, the turning over three years of what was once the large 19th century Suze Farm into an educational, tourist and leisure centre  was fulfilled when it opened last year..  A saddlery, training rooms and stables go hand in hand with a restaurant on the 19 hectares of the site; there are also paddocks, both a grass and a sand quarry as well as an indoor area.

One of the first contracts for a period of six months went to Amandine Debove who took up residency with ten horses. The 21-year-old, originally from nearby Montreuil, had the task of ‘ bringing the places to life, particularly in the equine area’. Another professional, based in Samer, is Dominique Foret a saddler who specialises in unique items for working horses. A refreshment bar last year went towards buying a horse-drawn carriage allowing the transport of people in wheelchairs.


“ Very pleasant family outing, the horses are accessible and can be stroked to the delight of young and old alike. Clean stables, an interesting visit I would  recommend.”

(Photos: Courtesy of Maison du Cheval Boulonnais )

Further information:;;;; The not for profit Boulonnais Draught Horse Society UK was founded in early 2015 after a small group of owners recognising a lack of UK information and support set out to to promote and preserve the breed by sharing information and experiences.

© John Ruler