The Percheron is a much-beloved versatile draft horse that was used as a warhorse and an artillery horse, as well as a carriage and farm horse. It was imported from France in the 1800s and was, at one time, the most popular draft horse to be bred, having made significant contributions to horse breeding across North America.
The origins of these gentle giants are said by some to go back to descendants of the original horses found in the Ice Age — while others believe they are closely related to the Boulonnais horse used by Julius Caesar in the Roman invasion of Brittany. Many believe the breed contained bloodlines originating from the Arabian stallions used in the early 700s by the invading Moors at the battle of Poitiers, which were then divided among the French victors of the battle.
Most accounts point to the area of La Perche, a district of Normandy, France, one of the oldest horse breeding regions in the world. The local heavy Flemish horses were bred with Arabian and other far-Eastern horses in the 8th century, producing the first of the Percheron horses. The Arabian blood “lightened up” the Percheron, making it suitable both for riding and light draft work.
During the Middle Ages Spanish blood was introduced by the Comte de Perche; later the Comte de Rotrou imported Andalusian stallions, which were used to breed Percheron mares. In 1760 the Royal Stud at Le Pin (France) made Arabian stallions available to breeders of Percheron horses in an effort to improve the breed. Two gray Arab stallions were imported into the Le Perche area and were used extensively on the existing stock; and these two are credited for today’s gray-colored Percherons. 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.
Having been used extensively as a working horse, the Percheron was exported to North America, South America, and Britain where it had a genetic influence on other heavy breeds. At the end of the 1800s, breeders were becoming more interested in a heavy draft horse than a carriage horse, and by the middle of the 19th century, the old strains of Percheron blood had almost disappeared; heavy draft mares from neighboring Brittany were brought in to mix with the last of the old Percheron stock. The La Perche area was focused on agriculture around this time and began breeding the heavier Percheron again that we are familiar with today.
Percherons were first imported to the United States in 1839 by Edward Harris, of Moorestown, NJ. Two stallions, Normandy and Louis Napoleon, were imported to Ohio in 1851; Louis Napoleon was later brought to Illinois to the Dunham Family, who was instrumental in forming the Percheron Association. Registered Percherons in both Canada and the United States can trace their ancestry directly to the nucleus of the foundation stock originating in La Perche, as the breed remains genetically pure.
Early in the 20th century, the Percheron was the most popular draft horse breed in America and had the largest draft horse breed registry. By the 1930s, Percherons accounted for more than 70 percent of all purebred draft horses in the United States. A 1930 census of horses found more than 33,000 Percherons in the U.S., with the Belgian, the next most popular breed, numbering less than 10,000. But after World War II, the invention of the farm tractor caused the breed to dwindle, as draft horses were no longer required for farm work, being replaced by mechanization and motorized vehicles.
By 1954, only 85 Percherons were registered in the United States, a record low; and the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a great decline in the United States’ Percheron population. They were placed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list, as breeding was reduced to only a few farms. Fortunately these few breeders, along with many Amish farmers, were dedicated to the preservation of the Percheron and were able to keep the breed going through the next 20 years of the decline in draft horses. Today the Percheron Horse Association of America (PHAOA) now includes more than 3,000 members in all 50 U.S. states.
In 1876, the Norman-Percheron Association was formed by a group of Percheron breeders in Chicago, and the stud book was begun. The Norman-Percheron Association was the United States’ first purebred livestock association. The next year, in 1877, the word “Norman” was dropped from the name. Later, in 1893, the Percheron Association went bankrupt and ceased to function. In 1905, Percheron breeders met again in Chicago to reform as the Percheron Society of America and since 1934, the group has been known as the Percheron Horse Association of America.
The Percheron is described as having a head vaguely reminiscent of the Arabian, with large eyes, small, upright ears and a sturdy but elegantly arched neck. The forehead is broad and flat, however, unlike the dished face of the Arabian. The chest is deep and wide and the croup long and level. The shoulders, haunches and legs are heavily muscled, giving an impression of power and ruggedness. Percherons are agile and energetic for their size, and their temperament is proud and alert. These large but gentle horses are beloved for their mild dispositions, their intelligence and their willingness to work. Percherons are “easy keepers” and will adapt well to many conditions and climates.
Interestingly, Percheron breed standards, including body type, color and size, differ from country to country; different countries have different breed standards. Depending on the bloodlines, Percheron horses average 16 to 17 hands high (64 to 68 inches) but in France, they can range from 15.1 to 18.1 hands high. They average from 1,800 to 2,600 pounds, again depending on bloodlines, with the registry minimums in the United States and Britain requiring that they be in the heavier range.
Percherons can be black, gray, chestnut, bay, roan, and sorrel, but the most common colors are black and gray. French-bred Percherons are born black and then turn gray as they mature; no other color is allowed in the registry. White markings are permitted, but excess white is frowned upon.
Percherons are used in parades, sleigh rides and hayrides, for forestry and farm work. They are cross-bred with lighter horses to increase size and improve disposition for use as Hunters and Show Jumpers. Many purebred Percherons are ridden, both Western and English; and for the timid rider, a steady Percheron horse can be a confidence-building mount. They have proven themselves in the Dressage ring; and are also crossed with Thoroughbreds for use as mounted police horses.
Throughout the centuries, the Percheron has been able to adapt greatly to changes in its type, size, and uses with great adaptability, remaining amenable, active, kind, energetic and elegant.
For more information about this breed, please visit the Percheron Horse Association of America at www.facebook.com/PHAOA/.