“Hector, yo hooo!”: In the vineyards of the northern Gironde, Audrey Pic confidently guides a draft horse harnessed to a harrow. At the Ecole du Cheval Vigneron, she trained in a practice that returns to the vineyards for environmental reasons.
“The power of the animal is insane,” enthuses this young woman from Bouches-du-Rhone, who is learning to master the turn at the end of a row with her “schoolmaster,” Breton horse Hector, under the watchful eye of a trainer.
“Keep the outer rail tight,” advises the latest, Frank Favero, in a green jacket and leather hat. “It wasn’t very academic!” he said after the maneuver.
Apart from the technical aspect, he teaches the trainee to “pair” with his horse for “optimal safety”.
In the end, Audrey wants to get a horse and “help friends who have hectares of vineyards in Vaucluse.”
The school was created by the French Working Horse Society (SFET) because “more and more estates are returning horses to their vineyards,” explains Sophie Parel, training specialist.
Since 2020, the institution has trained about forty people, having undergone an initiation in Saint-Savin, like Audrey, or an advanced training at Château Sutard (Saint-Emilion).
The horse is responding to “the growing demand from growers to find ways to conserve their soil while trying to preserve its quality and life, with less herbicides and less compaction,” Clemence Beneset explains to AFP. , engineer of the French Institute of horses and riding. (IFSE).
At least 300 vintners use horse-drawn vehicles on parts of their estate, she says, and that’s not a complete number. The vast majority do not own a horse and use the services of providers.
The horse is slower than the tractor, but allows “more precise work,” says Ms. Benese. “We can train the horse to stop at the slightest resistance and not tear the vines, and therefore force him to work on twisted old vines or very fragile young plants.”
“Touch the tongue”
At the Château de Rouyac (Pessac-Léognan), where the Titan, the massive white Percheron, rules, the horse “is not a stylistic effect,” says boss Laurent Cisneros.
He explains that it is “our partner in achieving sustainable control over our terroir.” “It is also a treat for the eyes and ears of the locals. Everything is done in peace and quiet.
And in terms of carbon footprint, “we made our calculations: almost 60% of the area occupied by workhorses reduced our emissions by 15%.”
At Château Nodot (Blaye – Côtes de Bordeaux), 39-year-old Jessica Aubert reintroduced the horse in addition to the tractor “in keeping with an ecological approach” and because she wanted to “combine passion and work”.
This Girondin, who worked in finance before taking over the family property, is now biodynamic, but laments the “rather exorbitant” cost of horse pulling tools. “Some are worth as much or even more than what you put on a tractor…”. As a result, his tools are “not ergonomic enough”.
With two of her accomplices, Hugo Percheron and Diamant, a full-blooded Spaniard who was used for mopping and maintenance work and whom she rewards with alfalfa croquettes, Ms. Aubert developed a “strong bond.”
In addition to her voice, she communicates with them through gestures or “tactile language”, such as when she stops a portly Hugo with a simple touch on the shoulder. “There are no limiters, I don’t pull on the lanyard, they don’t have a bit.”
“The horse should have a good time too,” she says again, “we know we’ve won when the horse returns to the meadow slower than it left it.”