Belgian Horse

  • HEIGHT: 16–18 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Belgium
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Sorrel with flaxen mane and tail; high-stepping action
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Both hitch and pulling competition

The little country of Belgium (about one fifth the size of Iowa) lies on the coast of the North Sea between the northeast border of France and the southwest border of Holland. The area all along this part of the coast is extremely fertile lowland. The excellent soil and heavy rainfall in the area provide abundant hay and grain with the nutrients necessary for the development of big, powerful horses.

The ancestors of the modern Belgian were large black horses known as Great Flemish Horses, which existed in the region even before the time of Caesar (100–44 BCE). The Great Flemish Horse was the foundation of all draft breeds we know today. If you trace back when horses were first domesticated, these heavy horses descended from an animal known as the “giant forest horse,” which, although not giant by our standards, represented an entirely different equine branch than the light horse breeds.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, European breeders refined the heavy Belgian breed considerably, although those horses were still quite different from the Belgians we know in North America today. Belgians in Europe were outcrossed to other breeds to add refinement and to reduce the feathering on the legs. The black color of the original Flemish horse gave way to bay, chestnut, and roan.

Though other colors are accepted, the preferred color for Belgians in North America is sorrel.

The official studbook for the breed was established in Belgium in 1886. Breeders in that country linebred and sometimes inbred to fix the type and create prepotency (dominance of a particular gene or group of genes). The government paid awards for the best stallions and mares as determined by a system of district shows and a large, prestigious national show. Horses that did not win were usually dropped from breeding programs.

Belgian Horses first came to the United States in 1866. In 1885 and 1886, the Wabash Importing Company in Indiana sold several shipments of Belgian stallions to horsemen in Indiana and neighboring states. In 1887, owners formed a breed association in Wabash, where the headquarters remains today. The association grew steadily until 1893, at which point importations virtually stopped because of an economic depression.

In 1899, the economy improved somewhat and both horse breeding and horse importation began to pick up. Still, until the early twentieth century, Belgians were less popular than Percherons, Clydesdales, and Shires in North America. The turning point in popularity came when Belgium sent an impressive array of horses to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, sparking considerable interest in the breed. Both the easy keeping qualities and the working abilities of the horses have maintained their popularity ever since.

Developing an American Type

All importation of horses from Europe halted during World War I, but Belgian numbers in the United States continued to increase. By 1925, annual Belgian registrations had surpassed one thousand each year, reaching a record high of more than three thousand in 1937. Belgians had gained favor with American horsemen, who often said that they had the quietest disposition and were the easiest keepers and best shippers of any of the draft breeds.

Belgians are still seen in many places pulling carriages and other types of transport.

Compare the lighter, leggier, show type Belgian on the left with the more traditional draft type (right).

During the times when European importations were halted, Americans began to develop their own type of Belgian Horse, which has continued to diverge from the much heavier European type. Over time, American breeders have developed a taller, more stylish horse with a focus on shades of chestnut and sorrel, to the extent that most North Americans are unaware that these horses come in other colors. Within the breed in this country, however, particular shades of chestnut and sorrel seem to come into and fade out of fashion.

Breed Characteristics

Modern Belgians are expected to move well at both the walk and the trot. For draft horses, this means lifting the knees smartly in long, free, powerful strides.

In the show ring, today’s Belgians are considerably longer-legged than either their European kin or the older American working Belgian type.

Conformation

Show and hitch horses often mature to over 17 hands and routinely weigh as much as 2,200 pounds. The American Belgian has a lighter, more expressive head and a longer, leaner neck than the European Belgian. The profile is straight or slightly concave. The ears are small. The back is broad and short, and the croup muscular, rounded, and massive. The body is deep and short. The legs are strong, lean, and sound, with some feathering at the fetlock. The feet are large and well shaped.

Color

In North America, the most prized look is a chestnut or sorrel horse with a white mane and tail, four white stockings, and a blaze. Within these colors, horses with considerable roaning and highly dappled horses are fairly common. Very selective owners of well-matched parade hitches sometimes avoid both dappling and roaning, preferring the purer color. Bays, blacks, and grays appear infrequently but may be registered.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America (founded in 1887 as the American Association of Importers and Breeders of Belgian Draft Horses):

  • The association does not track total number of registrations.
  • In 2003–2004, 3,132 new registrations were processed (both foals and adults).