In Gironde, a school supports the return of the horse to the vineyards

“Hector, yo hooo!”: In the vineyards of the north of the Gironde, Audrey Pic steers a draft horse tied to a harrow. At the Ecole du Cheval Vigneron, she followed a practice that is making a comeback in the vineyards for ecological reasons.

“The power of the animal is insane,” says this young woman from Bouches-du-Rhône, who learns to master the U-turn at the end of a row with her “schoolmaster”, the horse Hector, a Breton, under the watchful eye of a trainer.

“Hold the outer conductor well,” advises the latter, Franck Favereaux, green jacket and leather hat. “It wasn’t very academic!” he said after the maneuver.

In addition to the technical aspect, he teaches the trainee to “pair” with his horse for “optimal safety”.

Audrey Pic in training on May 20, 2022 at the Winegrower Horse School in Saint-Savin, Gironde (AFP – Thibaud MORITZ)

Ultimately, Audrey wants to buy a horse and “help friends who have hectares of vines in the Vaucluse”.

The school was founded by the French Working Horse Association (SFET) because “more and more estates are reintroducing the horse into their vines,” explains Sophie Parel, training officer.

Since 2020, the establishment has trained about forty people, in initiation in Saint-Savin, such as Audrey, or in further training at Château Soutard (Saint-Emilion).

The horse is responding to “an increasing demand from winegrowers to find ways to maintain their soil by trying to preserve its quality and life, with less herbicides and less compaction,” explains Clémence Bénézet to AFP. , engineer at the French Institute of Horses and Riding (IFCE).

According to her, at least 300 winegrowers use horse traction on part of their estate, a non-exhaustive figure. The vast majority do not own a horse and use service providers.

Franck Favereaux trains Audrey Pic on May 20, 2022 at the Winegrower Horse School in Saint-Savin, Gironde (AFP - Thibaud MORITZ)
Franck Favereaux trains Audrey Pic on May 20, 2022 at the Winegrower Horse School in Saint-Savin, Gironde (AFP – Thibaud MORITZ)

The horse works slower than the tractor but allows “more precise work”, Mrs. Bénézet slips. “We can train the horse to stop at the slightest resistance and not tear the vines and thereby make it work in old twisted vines or very fragile young plants.”

– “Touch Language” –

At the Château de Rouillac (Pessac-Léognan), where Titan reigns, a massive white Percheron, the horse is “no stylistic effect”, assures the boss Laurent Cisneros.

It is “our partner in achieving sustainable control of our terroir”, he explains. “It is also a feast for the eyes and ears of local residents. Everything happens in silence and serenity.”

And as for the carbon footprint, “we have made our calculations: with almost 60% of the area worked by workhorses, we have reduced our emissions by 15%”.

Jessica Aubert, winemaker and owner of Château Nodot, leads Diamant, a purebred Spaniard, to her vineyards on May 19, 2022 in Saint-Christoly-de-Blaye (AFP - Thibaud MORITZ)
Jessica Aubert, winemaker and owner of Château Nodot, leads Diamant, a purebred Spaniard, to her vineyards on May 19, 2022 in Saint-Christoly-de-Blaye (AFP – Thibaud MORITZ)

At Château Nodot (Blaye – Côtes de Bordeaux), Jessica Aubert, 39, reintroduced the horse alongside the tractor, “in an ecological and ecological approach” and because she wanted to “combine passion and work”.

However, this Girondine who worked in finance before taking over family property, now Biodynamic, laments the “pretty prohibitive” cost of horse traction equipment. “Some are at least as expensive, or even more, than what you put behind a tractor…”. As a result, his tools are “not ergonomic enough”.

With her two accomplices, Hugo de Percheron, and Diamant the purebred Spaniard, used for cleaning the floors and maintenance work and rewarding them with alfalfa croquettes, Mrs. Aubert has developed a “strong bond”.

Jessica Aubert, winemaker and owner of Château Nodot, and her horse Diamant, a purebred Spaniard, on May 19, 2022 in Saint-Christoly-de-Blaye (AFP - Thibaud MORITZ)
Jessica Aubert, winemaker and owner of Château Nodot, and her horse Diamant, a purebred Spaniard, on May 19, 2022 in Saint-Christoly-de-Blaye (AFP – Thibaud MORITZ)

In addition to the voice, she communicates with them through gestures or “a tactile language”, such as when she stops the burly Hugo with a simple touch on the shoulder. “There are no restrictions, I don’t pull the string, they have no bits”.

“The horse should also have fun”, she says again, “we know we’ve won if the horse comes back into the pasture slower than it came out”.

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