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The History of the Percheron

The exact origins of the Percheron have been lost over time. Some believe they are descendants of the original horses found in the Ice Age, while others believe that the Percheron is closely related to the Boulonnais horse used in the Roman invasion of Brittany. Still others believe the breed is from Abdel Rahman's Arab stallions or part of the horses used by the invading Moors at the battle of Poitiers, which were divided among the victorious French forces.

From this point in history we believe the Percheron originated in the area of La Perche, a district of Normandy, one of the oldest horse breeding regions in the world. The breed developed from the local heavy Flemish breeds. Today, Percherons are primarily noted for their heavy draft work but in the 8th century Arabian and other oriental horses were mated with the heavy native horses and cob stock, producing the first of the Percheron horses. This lightened up the Percheron for riding and light draft work.

Around the Middle Ages Spanish blood was introduced by the Comte de Perche and later the Comte de Rotrou imported Andalusian stallions, which were used on the Percheron mares. In the 18th century, Arabs and the new English Thoroughbreds were also imported and used. The Royal Stud at Le Pin made Arabian stallions available to breeders of Percheron horses in an effort to improve the breed. In 1820, two gray Arab stallions were imported into the Le Perche area and used extensively on the existing stock, and it is from these two that the present day gray colour on the Percheron stems. In 1823, a horse named Jean Le Blanc was foaled in Le Perche and all of today's Percheron bloodlines trace directly to this horse.

The breed has served as a carriage and farm horse. It has also been used as a warhorse, and an artillery horse. It was exported to North America, South America, and Britain and was used as a working horse, and as a genetic influence on other heavy breeds. By the end of the 1800s, breeders were becoming more interested in a heavy draft horse than a carriage horse. By the middle of the 19th century, the old strains of Percheron blood had almost disappeared and the heavy mares from neighbouring Brittany were brought in to mix with the last remaining old Percheron stock. The small area of La Perche focused on agriculture around this time and began breeding for the heavier Percheron again. This is the type of Percheron that is familiar today.

Percherons were first imported to the United States in 1839, by Edward Harris of Moorestown, New Jersey. The stallions, Normandy and Louis Napoleon, were imported to Ohio in 1851. Louis Napoleon was later sold into Illinois and wound up in the hands of the Dunham family who were instrumental in forming the Percheron Association. The first Percheron imported into Canada came via the United States, but originally came from France. Hence, the Percheron remains genetically pure, with registered animals in both Canada and the United States tracing directly through all lines of their ancestry to the nucleus of foundation stock originating in La Perche.

Following World War II, the invention of the modern farm tractor nearly made the breed extinct. As America modernized and mechanized, the Percheron was all but forgotten. However, a handful of farmers, including many Amish, dedicated to the preservation of the breed and kept it alive through the next twenty years of the draft horse depression.

Throughout the centuries, the Percheron has changed type (today there are still heavy and lighter-heavy types), size, and jobs with great adaptability. Throughout this the Percheron has remained amenable, active, kind, energetic and elegant. Hence it’s popularity.

Character and Care

The Percheron is noted for its equable temperament, its intelligence, ease of handling and willingness to work. It is an elegant heavy horse due to the infusions for the Oriental-type blood throughout the centuries. Despite their great size, Percherons are active, showy and easy movers. Their stride is not as choppy as that of other heavy horses. Its action is stylish, long, free and comparatively low.

In color, blacks and grays are preferred, but browns, sorrels and bays appear and are also registerable. Although a heavy horse this elegant type shows it’s Oriental ancestry in its head and facial expressions. The head should be medium sized, have a lean, clean cut and be quite broad between the eyes, with an alert pointed ear of medium size. A large, prominent eye showing plenty of spirit is desired. Stallions should have a bold masculine head while mares have a more refined, feminine head. Percherons should have a wide, deep chest which provides for greater lung and heart capacity but one does not want the shoulders standing out prominently from the body. The shoulder should have a slope of about forty-five degrees to enable the horse to lift its head naturally. A low-headed horse is not as smart looking as one that holds its head up without effort. A nicely curved chest and a neat throatlatch go with a reasonably high head. Also, a horse with a neat, clean throat line can tolerate a lot more heat than one that is coarse and rather fleshy between the head and the shoulder.

The horse should stand squarely on its front legs. The knees should be wide, deep, flat and well defined. A post-shaped leg is not desirable because it reduces flexibility in the joints. A pastern that is fairly long and a slope at about forty-five degrees is one that usually stays sound the longest since it provides more spring to the stride. There should be a good length of flat bone between the knee and the pastern. At the bottom of this leg should be a large round foot, moderately deep and wide at the heel with a good frog to serve as a cushion. A flat foot is not desirable.

The back should be straight, broad and strong in proportion to the length of neck and shoulder height. The croup should be long and fairly level, enabling the animal to have a large, well-muscled hip. From the standpoint of power and action, it is important that the points of the hocks be turned in slightly and that the horse stand with the hocks fairly close together. The hocks should be so placed that if a line is dropped from the point of the buttock it will touch the point of the fetlock. Here again there should be a long sloping pastern. The cannon bone should be of fair length and flat but not thin. The hocks should be quite close together when the horse is walking or trotting as well as standing. The lack of feathers on the lower legs distinguishes from other heavy horse breeds.

The modern Percheron often reaches 17 –18 hands with a few even taller. Tall horses with smoothness of stride are much in demand for hitch purposes. Mature Percherons range in weight from 1600 pounds to and in excess of 2400 pounds. There are many Percherons being raised that do not reach the top heights or weights, but are good quality and provide the breed with a wide base for genetic variation.

Like any heavy draft breed, it is resistant to most weather conditions and for its size, surprisingly does not need excessive amount of food to keep it in good condition. However, due to it’s thin skin and fine satiny coat this could indicate that it is not as hardy in extreme winter conditions as other draft types - yet the Perheron has been exported all over the world and has been credited on how well it adapts to it’s new climate.

Today’s Percheron

Today, Percherons are used in a variety of ways. The 1960's saw a renaissance in the draft horse business as Americans rediscovered its usefulness. Percherons are now back on small farms and working in the forest. Thousands of Percherons are used for recreation such as hayrides, sleigh rides and parades. Due to their elegance, docility and stunning appearance they are often found working for brewing companies. Percherons are shown in competition hitching and halter classes in many US and Canadian county fairs across both countries. The light breed of Percherons are used under saddle for both English and Western riding horses and are very popular for breeding up quality for horses in the hunter and driving breeds.

The Percheron is known throughout the world as the breed characterized by a long, aggressive, smooth and true stride that shows determination and willingness. In spite of mechanization and automation the Percheron breed has survived, and in recent years, has increased tremendously in popularity and numbers.

A strong demand exists for well-bred Percherons that are consistently placing among the top national and international shows. Whether your interest is the flashy hitch classes, the exciting pulling contests or a good chore team, the Percheron has no peer!