Looking at the Paris streetscape today, with the incessant flow of beeping, screeching and belping traffic, it’s easy to imagine that the road layout was designed with cars in mind. However, whilst the Péripherique (peripheral ring road) and the Quais (distribution roads alongside the Seine) were post-war inventions to improve traffic flow, most of the city was designed with another form of transport in mind – the horse.
The streets of almost any city are aggressive and selfish zones today, with individuals enclosed in metal cocoons separating themselves from the other road users. Desperately nudging forwards, ever onwards, through orange lights and across pedestrian crossings, the car user is reluctant to share their road space with anybody. They silently yell at motorbikes, bicycles and roller-bladers, but what would their reaction be to the sight of a horse on the macadam alongside them? Despite what we may assume, such an occurrence is possible in Paris as no law exists which forbids the riding of a horse through the streets of the city.
It is very likely that anybody attempting to do so though would be stopped and escorted out of the city. It would be cruel to subject a horse to the traffic of Paris, and there is also the problem of dealing with the ‘pollution’ of this form of transport. A rider could be fined for failing to clean up after their animal! Today the only horses you are likely to see in Paris will almost certainly have a soldier or policeman perched up on top. Around 500 are still housed at the Garde Républicaine near the Bastille and over 1000 at the Ecole Militaire. Go a little further out and you may see them racing around the tracks of Longchamp or Vincennes too, but the simple working horse has long since disappeared from the cityscape. A century ago though the situation was entirely different. In 1900, it is estimated that there were 98,000 horses in the capital, over 50,000 people employed in related trades and 20,000 establishments involved in the provision of horse-drawn coaches and carriages.
It seems incredible that such industry should leave behind so few traces in a city which is itself little changed from this period. Look more closely though, beneath the renovations and conversions, and the surviving features begin to show themselves. Perhaps the most obvious detail are the arched doorways in many 18th and 19th century buildings – known as the Portes Cochères – which were designed to be large enough to let through a horse and carriage.
Through one of these portes, at 10 Avenue de Messine, stables have been converted into garages, but the metal rings where the horses were tied are still visible (picture at top). Here the motorcar has even stolen the horse’s bed!
At the Square d’Orleans, where George Sand and Frederic Chopin lived, a sign warning horse riders to 'Traverser au Pas' (cross the square walking!) – the 19th century equivilent of the drive with care message!
The victory of the motor engine over pure horsepower deleted many features from city life, some less expected than others. As the American composer Elliott Carter recently remarked in a BBC Radio 4 interview, Mozart, Beethoven and Heiden were deeply influenced by the sounds that were the backdrop to their daily existence. As he pointed out, "they were surrounded by the hooves of horses, the clac-clac-clac of horses. It's a whole world of sound that no longer exists at all for us". What are composers today influenced by? Carter continues, "the sounds that I hear are the sounds of airplanes and automobiles, mostly continuous sounds that change in one way or another as they progress, and this is what I've tried to do in my music". The rhythm of our lives today is the hum of the motor engine.
Perhaps more happily for the equine race, other changes in society have removed them from the Paris cityscape in another way. A generation ago horse butchers were commonplace throughout the city, but now an industry website lists only 15 such establishments in the capital. It is estimated that only 2% of the population today consume this type of meat despite apparent health arguments, and it is not something you would ever expect to see appear chalked up on a restaurant’s menu board in the city.
Will we ever see the return of this beast to the city? There are several action groups pressing for a return of the horse in the city, arguing that it is both ecologically sound and an additional attraction for tourists, but it is unlikely that they will achieve anything greater than carriage rides around the Eiffel Tower. Could the city reinvent itself again and welcome them back? In terms of infrastructure, everything that is needed is already in place – if you know where to look!