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I recently watched a French horse-driving competition on the television when my grandson pointed at a Boulonnais horse. He was fascinated by its sleek body and powerful looks, so I decided to learn more about it.
The Boulonnais horse is a noble-looking French draft horse. Also called the “White Marble Horse” for its grayish-white color and delicate appearance, it is powerfully built, very friendly, with a lively aptitude for physical tasks. Boulonnais horses typically stand between 14.3 to 16.3, hands tall.
A once famous and majestic breed, the Boulonnais is now a rare sight. The history of this horse breed’s tragic past, Parisian background, and endangered status makes it all the more interesting to learn about.
Origins of the Boulonnais horse.
The exact origins of the Boulonnais are unconfirmed. One theory is that the Boulonnais emerged from cross-breeding of native French mares with stallions brought by Julius Caesar around 55 BC, before the invasion of England.
The Boulonnais horse traces back to the Crusades during the 12th century. During this time, it’s believed that the strong warhorse was developed by crossing existing French breeds with German and Arabian breeds brought earlier in the region by invading Romans.
The Boulonnais horse originated in the county of Boulogne in France by the Count of Boulogne. Although the horse was developed for French knights to ride in battle, it soon became a favorite of ordinary people.
The early Boulonnais horses were of various shapes and sizes, including some that were heavy-set while others had slimmer builds. Eventually, all these variations came together to create the single breed we see today.
The Boulonnais was valued as a draft horse and became endangered post-war.
Across the country of France, the locals valued the Boulonnais horse as a beautiful and proficient workhorse. It was used for both everyday transportation and by the French army for pulling artillery and wagons.
Up until the 18th century, bay, black, and light gray Boulonnais colors existed side-by-side. However, because merchants commonly used the horse to transport fish over long distances during the night, they preferred using horses with light gray coats for their visibility.
The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the Boulonnais horse become more massive, as the Industrial Revolution called for horses with both heavy and athletic physiques. In the late 19th century, it spread across France and several parts of Europe.
The Boulonnais was introduced in the US in the early 20th century and was officially registered as a “French draft breed.” By that time, the breed had an estimated population of over 600,000 in France.
Unfortunately, the Boulonnais horse became nearly extinct following World Wars I and II. During the wars, broodmares became scattered, and many members were taken as warhorses.
Post World War II, it’s estimated that fewer than a thousand Boulonnais horses were left alive. Most of these were in France and a few in other European regions.
The Boulonnais horse was categorized as a “meat horse”. This likely saved it from extinction.
For most of history, Boulonnais horses were recognized for their physical prowess. In the 1970s, however, the Boulonnais and several other French draft horses were re-categorized from draft horses to meat horses.
Although the idea of eating horses isn’t popular in the US, horse meat is savored in many nations of the world. It’s believed that the decision to categorize the Boulonnais as meat horses is what prevented their extinction.
French breeders were encouraged to preserve the Boulonnais as consumers regarded it as some of the best meat on the market. Consequently, the average Boulonnais horse gained a significant amount of weight in the 1980s.
Today, the estimated population of the Boulonnais is still less than 1,000, and most studs are government-funded. The French national stud considers the Boulonnais to be one of several endangered horse breeds.
Almost all of the Boulonnais population is located in France. Small groups are also found in Brazil, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and North America, where they are often bred or used for logging.
Size and physical characteristics of the Boulonnais horse.
I remember seeing a picture of a Boulonnais stallion that my cousin took in France. The first thing I took in was how muscular the horse was, and yet it looked so elegant!
The Boulonnais is a little on the short side compared to many other draft horse breeds, an average height for a draft horse. An adult Boulonnais usually stands somewhere from 14.3 to 16.3 hands, though some can be taller.
The average weight of a Boulonnais horse ranges from 1,400 to 1,650 pounds. This is roughly the peak weight you can expect from a 16-hands tall draft horse (other draft breeds can get a lot more massive!).
It has a relatively short head and a broad forehead. The eyes are prominent, and the ears are small and upright. The neck is muscular and smoothly arched.
The withers are well-placed, and the shoulders are more sloped as compared to other draft breeds. The back is short, deep, and straight. The hindquarters are rounded and robust and the tail is set high.
The chest of the Boulonnais is broad and deeply set with a well-rounded rib cage. The legs are short, very solid, and have flat joints. The lower legs lack the typical feathering that is usually found in draft horses.
Overall, the Boulonnais horse has a very straight profile. Its Oriental bloodline gives it a majestic demeanor. The intricate veins on the skin give it a “polished” look. The mane and tail are silky and bushy.
The Boulonnais is a strong and agile breed. It has a splendid and energetic gait that is useful for pulling carriages and working on farms.
Nowadays, the Boulonnais participate in a 24-hour carriage race called the “Route du Poisson” (the Fish Route) every three years. The event commemorates French draft horses’ traditional transportation of fish to Parisian markets (which took almost 24 hours).
What color is a Boulonnais horse?
Most Boulonnais horses have a gray coat color. However, the French breed registry also allows the rare chestnut and black colors.
Interestingly, in the 18th century, most Boulonnais horses were either bay or black. However, the gray coat color became dominant as the horses were used to haul fish overnight, and gray is easier to see in the dark.
The temperament of the Boulonnais horse
Looking at a Boulonnais horse, it’s easy to be intimidated by its size. However, the temperament of the Boulonnais is an ideal example of how friendly horses can be.
Boulonnais horses are known to be social, docile, and easily trainable. They remain alert and energetic during physical activities.
Like most draft horses, the Boulonnais horse is gentle towards humans. You don’t need to be extra cautious when dealing with them, regardless of how familiar you are with horses.
Below is an informative YouTube video about the Boulonnais horse breed.
What are Boulonnais horses used for today?
The Boulonnais is a hardy breed that can be used for almost any purpose. Today, they are used for fieldwork and general riding. Many Boulonnais horses are also bred and raised for meat.
Are there any Boulonnais horses in the US?
Though people occasionally import Boulonnais foals from Europe, there aren’t any established breeders in America. In fact, most horse riders in the US aren’t familiar with the Boulonnais breed.
What is the Araboulonnais horse breed?
The Araboulonnais is a new horse breed created in France by cross-breeding the Boulonnais and Arabian horses. The breed originated in the mid-20th century and is more refined than the Boulonnais and heavier than the Arabian breeds.