Percheron Horse

  • HEIGHT: 16–18 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: France
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Elegant, predominantly gray or black draft breed without feathering on the lower legs
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Harness and carriage

The old French province of Le Perche lies in the district of Normandy, located about fifty miles southwest of Paris. This gently rolling area is one of the oldest horse-breeding regions in the world. Its limestone and clay substrate produces quality pastures that encourage the growth of large, strong horses with good, dense bone. The exact origin of this breed has been lost over time, although theories abound. There is some evidence that- a

Percheron-type horse existed in the area during the last ice age. Possibly this horse was crossed on various types of incoming stock through the ages to produce the original Percherons. We do know that native mares of Le Perche were bred to Arab stallions first during the eighth century and later during the Middle Ages. Also during the Middle Ages, imported Andalusian stallions were crossed on mares from Le Perche.

By the time of the Crusades, the Percheron was well known for its soundness, substance, style, and beauty and was often selected as a warhorse. By the seventeenth century, horses from Le Perche were in demand for a variety of uses. Although they were large horses by the standards of the day, they probably stood between 15 and 16 hands and were not nearly as massive as today’s heavy draft horses.

Though powerfully built, Percherons are elegant and showy, with very little feathering on the legs.

From Warhorse to Workhorse

In the eighteenth century, Arabians and the new English Thoroughbred stallions were imported into France and crossed on mares from Le Perche. At this time, Percherons were considerably lighter than today’s Percherons and often served as coach horses as well as military and farm horses. Early in the nineteenth century, the French government established a stud at Le Pin in order to breed army mounts. Two gray Arab stallions imported in 1820 and bred extensively with Le Perche mares probably introduced the breed’s predominant gray color.

By the middle of the 1800s, as the need for coach horses declined, breeders began to meet market demands by developing a large draft horse. Heavy mares from Brittany mixed with the remaining old Percheron stock produced the type of Percherons we recognize today. A horse named Jean Le Blanc, foaled in 1823, became the foundation sire for modern Percheron bloodlines.

Percherons were first imported into the United States in 1839, and thousands more followed in the last half of the nineteenth century. They quickly became the most popular breed of draft horse in the country. By 1930, there were three times as many registered Percherons as Belgians, Clydesdales, Shires, and Suffolks combined. But as mechanized agriculture arrived, all draft horse numbers plummeted. A few devoted breeders, including a number of Amish farmers who used and appreciated these horses, saved the Percheron from near extinction.

A native of France, the Percheron has long been popular in the United States, where nearly 300,000 are registered. These horses are in a unicorn hitch (one in front and two behind), which is extremely hard to drive well.

The 1960s saw a small renaissance in the draft horse business in this continent. Percherons are now used on small farms and for logging, as well as for hayrides, sleigh rides, parades, and shows. They pull carriages on city streets and are often present at special events and weddings.

Breed Characteristics

The Percheron is an elegant, heavy horse, active and showy, with free and comparatively low movement. Like most draft breeds, it is noted for its even temperament, intelligence, ease of handling, and willingness to work. The lack of feathering on the lower legs distinguishes the Percheron from other draft breeds. With its thin skin and fine coat, this breed may not be as hardy in extreme weather conditions as some other draft breeds.

Conformation

Tall horses with smooth strides are much in demand as hitch horses, and the modern Percheron often reaches 17 to 18 hands, and some individuals are even taller. Mature Percherons range in weight from about 1,600 to 2,400 pounds. Many quality horses do not reach the top height or weight but do provide the breed with a wide base for genetic variation.

The head is medium-sized, quite broad between the eyes, lean, and clean-cut. Stallions should have a bold, masculine head, while mares should have a more refined, feminine head. The chest is wide and deep, combined with a nicely curved neck and a neat throatlatch. The back is straight, broad, and strong, with a long, level croup and well-muscled quarters.

The horse should stand squarely on its front legs and have flat, well-defined knees and a good length of flat bone between the knees and the pasterns. It is important that the points of the hocks turn in slightly. At rest, the hocks should be fairly close together, and quite close together when the horse is walking or trotting. The feet are large and round, moderately deep and wide at the heel with a good frog.

Color

Blacks and grays are preferred and are most common, but bays, sorrels, and browns appear and may be registered. White markings are minimal.

This dapple gray beauty brings to mind the horses used by bareback riders in the circus, many of which were and still are Percherons.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Percheron Horse Association (founded in 1876):

• The total number of horses registered is 289,000.

• Approximately 2,500 foals are registered each year.

• There are more Percherons in the United States than anywhere else, with most found in the Corn Belt states.