Feature

Horses Return to French Vineyards, Bringing Joy

French vignerons are turning away from tractors, back to horses

Sophie Kevany By October 18, 2021
horses on a vineyard
Left: A horse plows between young vines. Photo by Jean-Philippe Fourney, courtesy of the Var Chamber of Agriculture. Right: Mounds of earth created around the feet of vines in fall. Photo by Jean-Philippe Fourney, courtesy of the Var Chamber of Agriculture.

Draft horses, with their solid, peaceful presence and steady paces, did not return to France’s vineyards to cure the isolation of the vineyard tractor driver, but their presence has stemmed it nonetheless, bringing beauty, joy, and companionship to those working the rows.

The horse returns

About 300 French vineyards now use horses, according to a 2020 study, the first of its kind. And the number is expected to rise. One reason is the new nationwide training program, launched in 2020 at the Ecole Nationale du Cheval Vigneron, or the National School of Vineyard Horses, that trains vineyard horses and plow-hands. The other, less tangible reason, is it seems that horses are a cure for underappreciated worker isolation.

“We really notice that people stop and talk to someone with a horse in a way they would never do if that person was in a tractor,” said Olivier Brunel, the technical director of Bordeaux’s Château Soutard in Saint-Émilion.

The château is now home to one of the Ecole Nationale du Cheval Vigneron’s training models, Introduction to Equine Traction in Viticulture. Soutard also has two Percheron, a famous breed of French draft horse, perhaps best known for pulling the Disneyland streetcars.

While Villa and Uranus have been working Soutard’s vineyards for seven years, it’s getting harder to find experienced horses and plow hands as demand rises. The shortage was one of the reasons Soutard welcomed the school to its property.

Soutard’s horses are mostly used for plowing between the young vines that are part of the estate’s new plantation program. “With young vines, we think it is very important to avoid any contact with the tools, and really you can only do that with horses,” Brunel said. “It’s also a very beautiful thing, to see horses working in the vines. And it helps bring life to the château. Plus, there is a real rapport between the animals and the people here.”

The poetry of what Brunel says is repeated everywhere; first, the practical advantages are described, then a discussion about the joy of horses swiftly follows. 

Reviving old skills

Estimates vary, but most agree the switch to horses began in the early noughties. “The big return to horses started happening about 15 years ago in France, and in Bordeaux about 10 years ago,” said Fred Fardoux, whose business, Ecosylva, he co-founded 11 years ago with one of Bordeaux’s best-known winemakers, Bernard Magrez, offers vineyard horse services. “But there were always a few small French vineyards with horses, often because they had land that was too difficult for a tractor.” 

The same can be said for the horse breeds, as well as the tack — equipment used to harness and guide the horses — and the tools. None of it ever completely died out, mainly because horsepower remained valuable in several agricultural areas, like forestry. Even so, not all of the tack and tools were immediately accessible or properly adapted to vineyards, said Fardoux, who had to hunt through a few old barns in the early days, looking for the right equipment to update and use.

At Soutard, Brunel said much the same. “Yes, we had some old tools and we had an artisan help us adapt those and make some new ones. A company called Viti meca,” he said. The harness and tack weren’t so difficult to find, either. “Nor was it hard to find the right breeds of horses. But trained horses that can work in the vineyards, that is much harder.”

Fardoux, who started his horse career in the Belgium forests, works with the Trait du Nord breed, and has eight experienced vineyard plow horses. 

To hire Fardoux’s horses and plow hands costs between $410 and $702 per 2.47 acres, “depending on the different types of plowing and the different types of vineyard and soil.”

Fardoux currently has just two principal clients: Magrez’s 42 châteaux and Château d’Eck in Bordeaux’s Pessac-Léognan, owned by the Champagne-producing Michel Gonet family.

Once he’d addressed the issues of tack and tools, Fardoux said the next big challenge was people. Because he couldn’t find them, his attention turned to training. Transmitting his knowledge to others remains his most important task, he said.

Asked about the cost of a horse versus a tractor, Fardoux offers a few estimates. “To buy a horse that has some experience of working the soil costs between €3,000 and €6,000 ($3,500 and $7,000),” he said. “And then for all the equipment you need for the horse, about €3,000 ($3,500) and the tools, the plow and so on, that could cost between €4,000 and €20,000 ($4,700 and $23,500).”

None of which sounds cheap, but to put things in perspective, Fardoux said a new environmentally-friendly electric tractor costs about $411,000.

Describing what it feels like to work with horses, Fardoux is brief but to the point. “It’s a living being. There’s a relationship, one that brings a great sense of peace and well-being. It’s really a joy to work with horses.” 

Fardoux is so protective of that human-equine connection that he asks his team to develop not only their horse and plowing skills, but also their mental well-being. “In my team, I ask everyone to do some personal therapy,” he says. “That is really important when you are working with animals — to be good in yourself. So, therapy sessions, yes, and the aim is to create a therapeutic workspace.” 

The work the horses do is good for the environment, good for the soil, and good at helping winegrowers adapt to climate change.

Good for the environment

On the environmental side, winegrowers want to reduce the chemical products they use, said Clémence Bénézet, research engineer in horse-drawn traction at the French Horse and Riding Institute and one of the authors of the 2020 study. For example, she said, in some vineyards, mechanical weeding of the soil using a tool pulled by a horse can be a useful alternative to weedkiller. 

Then there are the potential emissions benefits, because horses don’t use diesel. “We are working on measuring the carbon savings, and the aim is to see if we can have carbon zero, or carbon negative wines thanks to using horses. We might even sell the carbon credits,” said Fardoux.

And then of course there’s the soil, which needs to be loose, crumbly, aerated, and full of micro-life, all of which is jeopardized by the weight of a tractor.

Looser, livelier soil is better able to absorb and cope with heavy rainstorms, and it allows the vine roots to grow longer and find water more easily. “Because root development is not constrained, mineral assimilation is more favorable. The vines are healthier; they can age longer and provide rich and concentrated grapes,” said Mathieu Bessonnet, technical director of Bordeaux’s Château Pontet-Canet, which keeps 10 Percheron horses. 

Nor do horses vibrate and cause soil erosion as tractors can do, said Garance Marcantoni, viticulture advisor at the Var Chamber of Agriculture. Plus, she said, they can be used in more challenging weather conditions and on more difficult terrain.

All of which makes perfect sense in a world increasingly prone to drought and downpour. Yet, having outlined the many concrete benefits, Marcantoni swiftly harks back to the pleasure of working with horses. The people who work in the vineyards, she says, “enjoy the horse’s company.”