...and on the eighth day, God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.
The forested region in southeast Belgium that stretches into Luxembourg and France sustains a rather harsh climate. The Ardennes have long, cold and snowy winters and short, hot summers. The draft horse that evolved here was obligated to work very hard all year long, thus it had to be durable and tough.
There is a rugged terrain with valleys and steep-sided hills, and the horse evolving here developed energy and strength.
The eventual result for this equine enduring many years of hard work in a harsh climate became known as the “Ardennais,” breed and is considered to be the forefather of the modern Brabant, or Belgian Heavy Draft.(1)
The Ardennais Draft can trace its roots back to the Solutre horse, whose remains were found at the base of cliffs in great quantities in Macon, France. This was possibly due to man driving them over these cliffs so the horses could be consumed for meat. The name comes from the Ardennes region, hence Ardennais, its true birthplace.(2)
The origins stretch back to the Quaternary period and animals that lived in the Rhone , Meuse and Saone River basins.
One of the first horses to ever be domesticated on the entire planet, its weight and size have developed over time.
Roman archives have listed the Ardennais Draft in Caesar’s armies, as it had made a good reputation for itself as a hard worker.
Later, in the nineteenth century, breeders purified the lines by eliminating all outside crosses and strictly using animals born and raised in the local region.
The Ardennais Draft has a calm and obedient nature, is an easy keep and works very hard. Enthusiasts call it the perfect work horse. It is dexterous and skillful with tasks and possesses a large head with alert and friendly eyes.
Its body is muscular and compact, with a rather long gait. It comes in at 16.1HH and weighs about a ton.
The Ardennais Draft was also used in the military. In 1812, when Napoleon was retreating from Russia, the Ardennais was the only horse capable, though with tremendous difficulty, to haul the heavy equipment and artillery back to France.
In the nineteenth century, the Ardennais was crossed with Arabians and Percherons, which developed into three major bloodlines that make today’s modern Ardennais Draft: An old type raised in the Lorraine and Vosges, and very much reduced in numbers, the Auxois, a heavy draft horse and the Trait du Nord from the North, a strain that has been made heavier by adding Belgian bloodlines to the breeding. (3)
Speaking of the Auxois Heavy Draft, the Burgundy region in France is a fertile agricultural area that is rich in soil and grazing land for the famous Charlois beef cattle. It is a tourist area also known for fine wine, and is the birth place of the Auxois breed of horse.(4)
Heavier than a light saddle horse, but not as heavy as the Ardennais., the Auxoix is a mix of Ardennais and an old, old breed known as the Bourguignon.
Very little is known about the Bourguignon, except that it added a lighter touch to the heavy draft blood of the Ardennais, and it was used in harness out in the woods and fields.
Documents referring to the oldest racetrack in France are on file in the town of Semur-en-Auxois on the Cote d’Or.
Local history dictates that an annual footrace was held each year for the town folks, taking place at a country fair on the day after Pentecost. The prize of winning the footrace was a pair of knitted hose, “supplied by the shopkeepers and paid for by the guilds.” (5)
In June of 1639, the town magistrates decided to sponsor a horserace, in addition to the footrace.
By 1652, the prize the winner received a gold ring worth fifteen pounds, the runner-up won a sash of white taffeta and third prize was a pair of gloves.
This is how the “Course de la Bague,” or the “Race of the Ring,” was born.
Since this time, except for the period between 1794 to 1804, when horses were requisitioned by the army for war, this race has been an annual event.
The date has since been changed to May 31 of each year. In 2002, local heavy draft horses were added to the race for the first time.
The Auxois comes in at 15.3HH to 16.2HH and its colors are roan or bay.
The Auxois Horse Breeding Society, which was established in 1900, set up a stud book, which continues today.
In 1993, milk from Auxois mares was marketed and sold for the first time as a remedy for certain digestive ailments.
While many French heavy draft horses have faced the butcher’s block to be slaughtered, the Auxois Draft continues to thrive.
Plowing our way towards Autumn on a French Heavy Draft, to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, “Happy Trails to You.”
1-5: “”Horses,” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Jean-Louis Gourand