About Poitevin (Mulassier) Horses
Poitevin (also known as Mulassier "mule-breeder",
Poitevin Mulassier, or Trait Mulassier) are a draft horse from the Poitou area
of France. They are a late-maturing breed with strong bones, known for its calm
nature. They are found in many solid coat colors, the result of crossbreeding
with several other European draft breeds throughout its history, and are the
only French draft horse to be found in bay dun. Today, Poitevins are used
mainly for driving, although some are used for riding and equine therapy.
Poitevin stallions were generally sold as two-year-olds at
the summer fair in Vendee and the winter fair in Saint-Maixent, as well as to
horse merchants in Berry, Beauce, Perche, and the Midi. In these areas, they
were used for agriculture. In Paris, they were used for pulling omnibuses, and
the French military used the Poitevin for pulling artillery. At the beginning
of the 21st century there has been a new demand for mules for leisure purposes,
but this demand cannot be filled by Poitevin mares until their numbers have
recovered to a sufficient level.
Today, Poitevins are used mainly for driving, both in
competitions and for leisure use. They are used to pull carriages for tourists.
Members of the breed can be ridden more comfortably than other draft breeds due
to their slimmer build. They are also used extensively for equine therapy in
France. The Poitevin is used for light agricultural work in vineyards, and for
maintenance of natural wetlands. The council of Ille-et-Vilaine acquired a herd
of Poitevins to maintain the marshes in the area. The Poitevin also has been
used in movies, as a mount for forest monitors in Melun, harnessed for urban
work in Poitier and Niort, and for the collection of waste on the island of Re.
Enthusiasts claim descent from the horses painted on the
cave walls of Lascaux, though this has not been verified by scientific studies.
Horses have been recorded in the area since at least the 10th century, and the
regional type was preferred by magistrates and clergy in medieval times. The
Poitevin breed as it is known today began to take shape in the early 17th
century, as engineers began draining the French marshes and brought with them
their draft horses, which were crossed with native horses. Since early in its
history, the Poitevin has been used extensively for the breeding of mules, and
although commonly called a draft horse, was not favored for agricultural
purposes. During the 19th century, the population of the Poitevin increased,
reaching 50,000 pure and crossbred mares by 1867. Crossbreeding with other
draft breeds led to concerns about the purity of the Poitevin population, but a
small group of breeders worked to preserve the remaining purebred population.
A studbook was created for the breed in 1884, and was closed
in 1922. A breeders' association was created in 1923. The first half of the
20th century saw declining populations of horses and mules due to increased
mechanization, and, by 1945, Poitevin breeding was oriented towards the
production of meat. The population dropped precipitously, and between 1970 and
1990 varied between 250 and 300 animals, with still lower levels seen in the
early 1990s. A genetic study released in 1994 showed genetic bottlenecking and
a severe risk of inbreeding, and led to the establishment of a conservation
plan. Despite a slight increase in popularity at the beginning of the 21st
century, the Poitevin is still in danger of extinction, with a slightly downward-trending
The Poitevin breed was created in the marshes of the Poitou
region, especially around Lucon, La Rochelle, Melle and Niort. They were
developed through a mixture of human and natural selection to the marshy area
that it inhabited. Although described as a draft horse, they were not selected
for draft purposes, and were never popular for that use.
Remains of prehistoric horses have been found in the Poitou
region, with Mesolithic remains (20,000 to 5,000 BC) located near Surgères and
Échiré. Some enthusiasts claim that the Poitevin horse is descended directly
from these horses, based on physical similarities, and claim a common origin
with the Tarpan horse painted on the Lascaux cave walls. However, this has not
been confirmed by scientific studies, and numerous claims by other horse breeds
of this same relationship have been invalidated by further research. Other
horses were probably brought to the area by migrating Celts, and there is a
record from the 10th century of a bishop from Rome asking the Count of Poitou
for a mare from the region. These horses, like mules, were a favorite among the
magistrates and ecclesiastical personnel in the medieval era, and were sold
around Niort, Saint-Maixent, Auvergne, Dauphine, Languedoc and in Spain. The
number of horses in the area, however, was not well known before the 17th
The Poitevin breed as it is known today began to develop in
1599 when King Henry IV of France requested that Dutch and Flemish engineers,
led by Humphrey Bradley, begin draining the Poitou marshes. They brought with
them Friesian, Brabant and a type of Flemish work horse that was well known in
the 13th century. These horses stood
under 16.3 hands (67 inches, 170 cm) and weighed up to 1,200 kilograms (2,600
lb). They were crossed with native Poitou mares, and this crossbreeding created
a large, slow type, similar to the Flemish work horses of the Dutch marshes.
This type was the forerunner of the modern Poitevin breed.
At the end of the 18th century, the French government tried
to impose a system of crossing Poitevin horses with lighter-weight Norman and
Thoroughbred horses to create cavalry horses. Despite financial incentives,
private breeders protested because they felt that the resulting crossbred
horses created poor quality mules upon further breeding. The changes also
affected the characteristics of the breed that had been developed for work in
its marshy homeland, including large hooves and a calm manner. Some sources
argue that at this point the breed was employed for agricultural and logging
uses. Others state that they were not pulling horses, and were instead used
almost solely for the production of mules.
Poitevin mares were crossbred with Poitou donkeys to create
the famous Poitou mule, a large, hardy breed. As mules are hybrids, and thus
sterile, they can only be created through crossing a donkey and a horse. The
industry of mule breeding in Poitou has existed since at least the 18th
century, when it was opposed by the government stud farm administration that
was attempting to breed cavalry horses for French troops. At the beginning of
the 19th century, the government prohibited breeding mules from mares taller
than 11.3 1/4 hands (47.25 inches, 120 cm), and threatened to castrate all
donkeys in the region. In the 1860s, equine historian Eugene Gayot described a
horse that he called the "poitevine mulassière", and stated that the
main purpose of this breed was to produce mares from which to breed mules. He
added that this breed was also called the Poitevin. Mares of many breeds were
used to produce mules at that point in history, but Gayot noted that the heavy
mares from the Poitou marshes produced the best mules, likely because the
Poitevin mares bequeathed to their descendents the same heavy bone structure.
Although the Poitevin was not the only breed of horse used
for the production of mules, the Poitou mule was known worldwide. They were in
high demand in the United States from the late 19th century until the beginning
of World War I. During the 1920s, livestock production began to decline. In the
Deux-Sèvres region, especially in the district of Melle, near Luçon and
Saint-Maixent, mule breeding began to be concentrated in ateliers (workshops),
which were relatively expensive for breeders.
Poitevin colts and fillies were sold at fairs in Marans,
Nuaille, Surgeres, Rochefort, Pont-l'Abbe and Saujon. In 1867, there were
50,000 pure and crossbred mares. By the early 20th century, there were tens of
thousands of Poitevins in France, but this period saw the beginning of the
breed's decline. Poitevin colts, which were not used for the breeding of mules,
were considered "soft" and less valuable than the major draft horse
breed of the 19th century - the Percheron. Some horse dealers purchased young
gray Poitevin horses, fed them heavily to make them larger and stronger, and
then sold them at the age of four as Percherons. These "Percherons"
were transported to areas such as Saintonge, Yonne, Nivernais and Gatinais.
In the early 19th century, the breed was crossed with the
Percheron, and with the Boulonnais between 1860 and 1867. During the same time
period, crosses were made with the Breton, a practice supported by some
breeders and denounced by others. Farmers in the region also began to add
Breton blood into the Poitou mule, giving that animal a more square head and
shorter ears. In the Poitevin horse breed, the crosses resulted in the body
becoming longer and lighter, the legs longer and with less bone, and gray
becoming more common as a coat color. In 1860, Eugene Gayot called the mares of
the breed "heavy, common, soft and of medium size". Breeders chose
horses with large joints, thick coats and a high croup, and had a preference
for a black coat color.
In 1861, there were concerns that the old-style Poitevin was
becoming extinct, and questions about whether the Poitou mule retained the
quality that it previously had. The large Poitevin mares became rarer, due to
large amounts of crossbreeding and a lack of care shown towards breeding stock
selection. Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred crosses, especially at the stud farms
in Saint-Maixent and La Roche-sur-Yon, created the Anglo-Poitevin type, a
half-blood used by the army. The continued draining of the marshes also
influenced the breed. Many Poitevins at this point were actually a mix of
Breton and old-type Poitevin bloodstock. However, a distinction persisted
between the real Poitevin and mixed-blood horses, and farmers who preferred the
former preserved the type, which formed the base for the creation of the breed
The studbook for the Poitevin horse was created by the Societe
Centrale d'Agriculture des Deux-Sevres on June 26, 1884, with a horse section
and a donkey section. The first edition was released December 31, 1885, setting
the physical criteria for the breeding and ending the practice of promoting
crossbred horses as purebreds. It also marked the end of government
intervention against the mule breeding industry, although bonuses were paid to
encourage farmers to breed purebred horses. In 1902, a breeding syndicate to
promote Poitou mules was created, but disappeared after a lack of advertising
by stock breeders. On August 6, 1912, the French government released a decree
officially supporting the mule breeding industry, backed by the purchase of mules
by the French National Stud and bonuses given to the best stallions.
After several revisions, the studbook was closed in 1922
after registering 424 foundation horses. The closing of the studbook brought
about additional purebred breeding and selection based on conformation, color
and working ability. In 1923, an association of Poitevin breeders was founded,
but declining livestock production pushed the group to reorganize in 1937 in
order to gain more support from the government, through bonuses and subsidies.
In the first half of the 20th century, the mule breeding
industry collapsed with the advent of mechanization. By 1922, Poitevin foals
became difficult to sell, and the population dropped dramatically as there was
no economic incentive for breeding. A continued breeding of mules caused the
breed to decline faster than other draft breeds, as purebred horses were not
bred as often. By 1945, breed selection was oriented towards the production of
meat, as the only remaining economic opportunity for farmers. The conformation
of the breed changed slightly to become shorter, but the Poitevin remained
unprofitable for horse meat, as breeders preferred to invest in herds of
Comtois and Breton horses, which were faster growing and higher yielding.
By 1950, there were only about 600 mares and 50 stallions
left in the breed. Increasing mechanization and competition with other
livestock hurt the Poitevin, as did a lack of promotion and protection. Between
1970 and 1990, the population of the Poitevin varied between 250 and 300
animals, with an average of 20 new horses entering the studbook each year. By
the early 1990s, population numbers fell to the lowest in history. Sources are
unclear on the number of living Poitevins in the early 1990s, but by 1996 one author
says there were 64 newly registered foals and 28 approved breeding stallions,
while another gives a total population of 293 horses in 1997.
The breed owes its survival to a small group of enthusiasts,
working with the French National Stud. A genetic study performed in 1994
revealed a genetic bottleneck in the mid-1900s, with the entire modern
population of Poitevins tracing to one stallion, named Québec, foaled in 1960.
There is a significant risk of inbreeding, leading the Unité Nationale de
Sélection et de Promotion de Race to promote a plan of managed breeding in
1998. At the same time, crossbreeding with Friesian and Belgian horses was
suggested to increase genetic diversity using morphologically and historically
similar breeds. The French government distributes bonuses to the owners of the
best stallions, a program more important to the Poitevin than to other draft
breeds because of the significant possibility of extinction.
The Poitevin had a slight increase in popularity at the
beginning of the 21st century, and could count approximately 100 farms
perpetuating the breed. The association had around 300 members, as well as 83
stallions and 189 mares registered. However, by 2006, the Poitevin was still
considered the most endangered French horse breed, with less than 100 births
per year and a slightly decreasing population. There is almost no crossbreeding
done with outside breeds, in order to maintain the numbers of purebred stock.
In 2008, a second genetic study was conducted in partnership with the Institut
national de la recherche agronomique; this study considered the Poitevin and
four other French breeds to be endangered. It suggested making these breeds a
conservation priority in order to maintain maximum genetic diversity among the
French horse population.
The studbook for the Poitevin is based in Niort, and the
breed is the subject of a conservation breeding plan, the goal of which is to
eventually revive the production of Poitou mules. The conservation plan
includes an experimental infusion of blood from the Boulonnais, and is followed
by 70 percent of breeders. L’association nationale des races mulassières du
Poitou manages the studbook for the Poitevin horse, the Poitou donkey and the
Poitou mule, and is recognized by the French Ministry of Agriculture. Its goals
are to ensure the selection of breeding stock that meet the physical
characteristics expected of the breeds, to maintain the studbooks, and to
promote the breeds. There is a breed show held annually in the Poitou region.
The Poitevin breed has very low numbers. In 2011, there were
71 new foals registered with the studbook. The same year, 227 mares were
covered, with 171 being bred to Poitevin stallions. There were 33 stallions
registered and 80 active breeders. These numbers represent a decrease from the
previous year. Over the past decade, the highest number of foals registered was
113 in 2008, and between 80 and 90 foals were registered in the other years.
The majority of breeding farms are located in the Poitou area, including Vendée
(especially around Fontenay-le-Comte and Lucon), Deux-Sèvres (especially near
Melle), Vienna and Civray, and some in Charente, near Ruffec. There are
National Studs located in Saintes and Vendee. There are a few breeders in
The breed is accessible to the public at l’Asinerie
nationale de la Tillauderie, an experimental farm in Dampierre-sur-Boutonne in
Charente-Maritime, and at the Saintes National Stud. Members of the breed are
exhibited at the annual Paris International Agricultural Show. Approximately a
dozen horses are exported each year, mainly to Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
A few breeding stallions have been exported to the United States. Breeders in
the US have become interested in the conservation of the breed as a draft animal,
as opposed to many Europeans, who are looking for a leisure animal. A stud farm
also exists in Sweden, and one in the United States.
The body of the Poitevin is slender for a heavy horse and
longer than other French draft breeds. It stands 15.3 to 17.1 hands (63 to 69
inches, 160 to 175 cm) high, with stallions averaging 16.2 hands (66 inches, 168
cm) and mares 15.3 hands. The heavy clay and rich minerals of its homeland help
it to develop strong bones and it is late to reach physical maturity, generally
around 6 to 7 years.
The head is long and strong, with a convex profile and
thick, long ears. The neck is long and the shoulders are sloping. The chest is
broad and deep, the withers prominent, the back long and broad, and the
hindquarters strong. The legs are well developed and powerful, with large
joints. The Poitevin has large hooves, an advantage in wet environments, as an
adaptation to the alternately hard and waterlogged marshes upon which it
developed. The lower legs are well feathered, and the mane and tail are long
and thick. The Poitevin is gentle, calm and robust. Historically the breed has
been known for its slow movement and disinterest in pulling, although it can
produce significant power if necessary. The breed enjoys human contact, and shows
intelligence, although it can also be stubborn. Prolonged effort is its weak
point, as the Poitevin sometimes lack endurance.
The Poitevin is found in a wide variety of colors, which are
partly the result of the many breeds that influenced it. It is the only French
draft horse that can be found in bay dun, a tan body color with black mane and
tail and primitive markings. This color likely comes from the Spanish horses
that influenced the Flemish horses that later contributed to the breeding of
the Poitevin. The most popular colors are pure black and seal brown (the latter
called black pangare by the breed registry, although these horses are
genetically brown, not black with pangare markings), which came from the
influence of Flemish and Friesian horses. The breed standard accepts all
colors, except for pinto and leopard spotted, and it is common to see gray, bay
and bay roan horses, the last probably being inherited from the Brabant breed.
Chestnut and chestnut roan are also seen, both being a legacy of Breton crosses
in the breed.