The Belgian heavy horse is, as the name suggests, from Belgium, a small European country with abundant rainfall and very fertile soil, making it ideal for providing the large amounts of quality hay and grain required to feed and keep a heavy breed of horse.
Although the Belgian appears on the list below of heavy horses in the UK, it isn't as well known as the Shire, Clydesdale or Suffolk Punch.
- The Shire
- The Suffolk Punch
- The Clydesdale
- The Percheron
- The Belgian or Flemish
- The Friesian
- The Dutch Draft
- The Jutland
A Brief History
Belgium is in the area of western Europe where these big black horses, known as Flemish or Belgian, originated. They were actually referred to as the great horses by medieval writers. These were the same animals that carried fully-armoured knights into battle, their size and strength making them ideal for such tasks. The Belgian/Flemish breed was around in this part of Europe during the time of Caesar. It was these animals that set the genetic material from which virtually all draft horses began.
They weren't all black, however. Colours ranged from bay, bay-brown to chestnut, and even a few greys. There were no set colours for the Belgian when the breed was being refined, as breeders concentrated on producing a stocky, amenable and strong workhorse.
The Belgian heavy horses were exported to all corners of Europe, as there was a need for a large draft horse for use in farming and industry in general. There was never a need to import any other breeds into Belgium itself, as this was the country of origin for the heavy horse breed. All they had to do was refine and fix the genetics they already had.
The Belgian government played a leading role in pushing the exports. By holding a variety of shows throughout the country, they held what was called the Great National Show in Brussels, which became an international showcase for the breed. By the time this show was over, the Belgian horse was an established breed and sought after the world over.
As a result of this there followed an improvement in the breeding methods which meant a fixed breed type was established. The draft horse of Belgium became a national treasure and much sought-after at home and abroad. For example, in 1891 Belgian draft horses were exported to Russia, Italy, Germany, France, and the old Austria-Hungary empire for use in government stables. The export market proved extremely profitable to breeders for decades.
In February 1887 the American Association for the Belgian Horse was founded in Wabash, Indiana. It took a while for this breed to gain the popularity that the Percheron, Clydesdale and Shire horse breeds had won in America.
It was the Belgian government again that played a role in getting the breed established in America. In 1903 they sent an exhibit of horses to the St Louis World's Fair, and also to the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. It was an effort that was surrounded by controversy at the time, over which type of draft horse was best for the Americans, but it also created a great deal of interest in the breed.
It was after these two main shows in the USA that acceptance of the breed grew. In 1910 there were a total of 1,773 horse registrations, with every major importer offering Belgian draft horses as part of their stock. A similar figure was reached in 1913. Membership of the Association grew each year until the onset of World War I in 1914, when all imports ceased. Fortunately, enough stock and new breeders had been established in the USA so the breed could be continued and expanded without the need to rely on imports.
As with all heavy horse breeds, the Second World War saw a decline in their commercial use, as mechanisation and the need to produce food more quickly grew. Their numbers dropped dramatically as a result. However, in the USA the breed is thriving, as well as in its country of origin. They are used mainly for showing and some advertising campaigns for various companies, but some have been put back into work for use in forests. The numbers are currently stable, and the Belgian horse breed is safe from extinction for now.