Poitevin (Mulassier) Horses
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Poitevin (also known as Mulassier "mule-breeder", Poitevin Mulassier, or Trait Mulassier) are a draft horse from the Poitou arearnof France. They are a late-maturing breed with strong bones, known for its calmrnnature. They are found in many solid coat colors, the result of crossbreedingrnwith several other European draft breeds throughout its history, and are thernonly French draft horse to be found in bay dun. Today, Poitevins are usedrnmainly for driving, although some are used for riding and equine therapy.rnrn 

rnrnPoitevin stallions were generally sold as two-year-olds atrnthe summer fair in Vendee and the winter fair in Saint-Maixent, as well as tornhorse merchants in Berry, Beauce, Perche, and the Midi. In these areas, theyrnwere used for agriculture. In Paris, they were used for pulling omnibuses, andrnthe French military used the Poitevin for pulling artillery. At the beginningrnof the 21st century there has been a new demand for mules for leisure purposes,rnbut this demand cannot be filled by Poitevin mares until their numbers havernrecovered to a sufficient level.rnrn 

rnrnToday, Poitevins are used mainly for driving, both inrncompetitions and for leisure use. They are used to pull carriages for tourists.rnMembers of the breed can be ridden more comfortably than other draft breeds duernto their slimmer build. They are also used extensively for equine therapy inrnFrance. The Poitevin is used for light agricultural work in vineyards, and forrnmaintenance 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.rnrn 

Enthusiasts claim descent from the horses painted on therncave walls of Lascaux, though this has not been verified by scientific studies.rnHorses have been recorded in the area since at least the 10th century, and thernregional type was preferred by magistrates and clergy in medieval times. ThernPoitevin breed as it is known today began to take shape in the early 17thrncentury, as engineers began draining the French marshes and brought with themrntheir draft horses, which were crossed with native horses. Since early in itsrnhistory, 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 population.

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 Surgares and Echire. 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 century.

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 mulassiare", 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-Sevres region, especially in the district of Melle, near Luason 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 bodyrnbecoming longer and lighter, the legs longer and with less bone, and grayrnbecoming more common as a coat color. In 1860, Eugene Gayot called the mares ofrnthe breed "heavy, common, soft and of medium size". Breeders chosernhorses with large joints, thick coats and a high croup, and had a preferencernfor a black coat color.rnrn 

rnrnIn 1861, there were concerns that the old-style Poitevin wasrnbecoming extinct, and questions about whether the Poitou mule retained the quality that it previously had.

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