France shows a large diversity of horse breeds, 21 of which have a French origin or have been bred in France for at least a century. At least 15 populations have disappeared during the last 50 years, and eight indigenous breeds are still considered as endangered or endangered-maintained. Among those breeds, the majority are draft breeds, namely the Ardennais, Auxois, Boulonnais, Poitevin and Trait du Nord breeds.
The Boulonnais is a heavy draft breed found principally north of the river Seine, and near the sea coast in northwestern France. Its home is in the region Boulogne-sur-Mer in the department of Pas de Calais, in the localities known as High Boulonnais, Low Boulonnais, and Calaisis, but it is also found in other neighboring districts. It is believed to have descended from Roman horses brought to Europe when Caesar invaded Great Britain. Much later, Oriental and Spanish horses were added to the mix. Like other draft horses, the Boulonnais was firts used as a warhorse. Over time, two types of Boulonnais were developed to fit the particular needs of different people. A smaller Boulonnais, about 15 5o 15.3 hh, was used primarily to pull fish carts. A larger type of Boulonnais, standing 15.3-16.3 hh, was developed for farming beets in the 19th century.
Boulonnais horses are strong, but they also have elegance from their Arabian and Barb ancestors. They resemble the Percherons, and generally are larger, coarser and less active than their relatives of La Perche. The breed differs from the Percheron in that it is a horse for heavy draft, especially fitted for a heavy load at a slow pace.
Boulonnais horses are usually gray, but breeders are now trying to introduce black back into the breed. Black Boulonnais horses were common 200 years ago. The neck is short and muscular, broad and quite arched; the withers are wide, low and muscular; the back short and straight; the head is small and square; the eyes are large and lively. The mane and tail has thick, silky hair. Legs are huge and carry little feather.
During the twentieth century, horse breeding has undergone large changes in Europe. Previously considered as an agricultural, industrial and war tool, horse is now essentially bred for hobby riding. Draft horses, in particular, have been less and less used as utility horses, and many draft breeds have undergone a dramatic decrease in population size: according to the Haras Nationaux, out of the nine French draft breeds, six have annual births below 1000. Measures for conservation have been applied in France for several years but such measures are in general expensive. The American Boulonnais Horse Association is promoting the breed in the United States. American breeders hope to preserve this endangered breed.
In France the Boulonnais is currently used for meat production, and about 95 percent of all male horses are butchered. Only the best stallions are used for reproduction, even though the number of purebreds is low. The Boulonnais is also used for riding and driving, as well as farm and logging work. French breeders of Boulonnais horses, such as Léon Blon, have serious concerns about the survival of the breed. He suggested that the Boulonnais could be very useful in the city helping with cleaning the streets and transportation. Although it may sound like going back in history, it may be a solution for improving the air quality in cities. Despite his size and power, this "White Marble" giant is a gentle, docile and willing worker which makes him an "everybody horse."
- The Book of Draft Horses: The Gentle Giants That Built the World. Donna Campbell Smith
- Horse-Breeding. J. H. Sanders
- Simon & Schuster's guide to horses & ponies of the world. Maurizio Bongianni
- Genetic diversity of a large set of horse breeds raised in France assessed by microsatellite polymorphism; Genetics Selection Evolution 2009, 41:5doi:10.1186/1297-9686-41-5