The Percheron Heavy Horse

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The origins of the Percheron Heavy Horse are not known for certain. With no accurate records, there are plenty of rumours and myths, such as its being related to the Boulonnais horse, which was used in the Roman invasion of Brittany, or that Charles Martel took captured Arabs and Barbs home to breed them to his warhorses after his victory over the Muslim Umayyad Arab Caliphate1 at Poitiers in 732 AD.

The modern Percheron Heavy Horse is one of the most elegant of the draft breeds, with a fine head, arched neck, and long stride, owing to a heavy Oriental influence. Percherons are usually a rocking-horse dapple-grey, though there are many blacks, and the French breed society will also accept bays, chestnuts, and roans, provided their ancestry can be traced. They normally range in size from 15.2 to 17hh, though the biggest horse ever registered was a Percheron - Dr Le Gear, foaled in 1902, who stood 21.1hh2 and weighed over 1,300kg.

A Brief History

The first known records for this breed do show that from the 8th Century onward, the Percheron came from an area called Le Perche, which is a district of Normandy, France. This area is actually known to be one of the oldest horse breeding areas in the world.

Percherons were used primarily for draft work such as pulling ploughs, carts and the like. In the 8th Century, however, Arabians and other oriental breeds were cross-bred with the native heavy horse, thus producing the first of the Percheron that was used for light draft work and riding.

In the Middle Ages, Spanish blood was introduced to the Percheron horse breed by the Comte de Perche and later the Comte de Rotrou, who used Andalusian stallions with the Percheron mares. This was done to improve the breed, and efforts were made again in the 18th Century when Arabs and English Thoroughbreds were also used. The Royal Stud at Le Pin made Arabian stallions available to breeders of Percheron horses. In 1820, two grey Arab stallions were imported and were used for breeding on the existing stock. It is from this that the present-day grey colour of the Percherons comes. All today's Percherons can have their ancestry traced back to a horse called Jean Le Blanc, who was foaled in 1823.

The Percheron, like most heavy horse breeds, served primarily as a work horse. It was used on farms, pulling carts and was also used as a warhorse. During the First World War, it was used to haul large guns and ammunition carts.

Countries as far afield as North and South America, along with Britain and other European countries, imported the Percheron. However, they wanted it mainly as a workhorse and preferred the heavy draft version to the light draft then used in Le Perche. By the middle of the 19th Century, the older bloodlines of the Percheron had almost vanished and heavy mares from places like Brittany were mixed with the last of the old breed. As the area around Le Perche was mainly rural and needed workhorses, breeding for the heavier Percheron started again, and this is the type of Percheron we see today.

The Percheron was first imported to the United States in 1839 by Edward Harris of Moorestown, New Jersey. Two particular stallions called Normandy and Louis Napoleon were exported to Ohio, USA in 1851. Louis Napoleon was later sold to a family by the name of Dunham in Illinois, a family that was to become instrumental in forming the Percheron Association of America.

Despite the country's French connections, the first Percherons to be exported to Canada came via the United States. Since they did originally come from France, the Percheron breed remained pure, genetically speaking. The ancestry of registered Percheron horses in both Canada and the United States can be traced back directly to stock originating in Le Perche.

The British Percheron Horse Society was founded on 23 January, 1918, and Lord Lonsdale was elected as the first president of the society. Its aim was to establish the Percheron breed in the United Kingdom, to maintain the purity of the breed, and to promote breeding. The society also started a stud book to record the animals bred. Stallions and mares imported from the Le Perche district were used to breed from, thus maintaining the purity throughout the process. As a result all British-bred Percherons can have their ancestry traced through the society.

As with most heavy horse breeds, the Second World War saw a rapid decline in their commercial use as mechanisation began to be regarded as being quicker and more efficient. This was even more pronounced in America, where the Percheron was all but forgotten. It was the Amish people and a handful of farmers dedicated to the preservation of the Percheron that ultimately prevented the breed from dying out.

Despite all the changes in breeding over the centuries, the Percheron remains one of the favourite heavy horse breeds. There are still the two types, the heavy draft and the lighter draft. The horse is known for being amenable, energetic and elegant, hence its popularity today. The total numbers are down from their heyday but concerted efforts by breeders have ensured the survival of the breed.

Other Heavy Horses

Below is a list of heavy horse breeds, the Shire at the top of the list, being the most popular and best known.

The numbers for each of the above breeds varies (as of 2008) but overall, they are historically very low. There are renewed efforts underway to preserve the various breeds via an assorted array of clubs, societies and individuals.

1The Umayyad Caliphate was historically the sixth-largest empire, and had started encroaching on Frankish territory in an attempt at expansion.2About 214cm or seven feet! (Measured at the withers, the highest point of the back between the shoulder blades.)

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