The Percheron is a powerful horse bread known for its beauty and strength. They may have been ridden into battle by Medieval French knights during the High and Late Middle Ages.
The history of the Percheron horse is a bit of a mystery. We know that they originate from the Perche region of France, which is near Normandy. Their exact bloodlines are unknown, however. Exact origins aren’t needed to appreciate and respect the beauty, strength, and ability of the Percheron breed though.
The mighty Percheron horse, like other draft breeds, was once a mainstay in agricultural operations and cities throughout the United States. Then, they saw their population dwindle with mechanization after World War II. The Percheron made a comeback because dedicated breeders persevered and today have a thriving population and loyal following.
History of the Percheron Horse
The Perche region in France was a hub of activity for centuries, and a lack of records is the reason the history of the Percheron breed is unknown. Speculation varies about the history of the Percheron horse. Some believe that they descend from the original horses of the Ice Age. Other theories state that they descend from the Boulonnais horse of the Roman invasion. A third theory believes they came from the Moors that invaded during the battle of Poitiers.
Any or all of these theories could be true. Documentation shows that mares in Le Perche were bred to Arabian stallions in the eighth century and again in the Middle Ages. Percherons are known for energy, spirit, and clean lines. The Arabian blood infused all these characteristics. Residents of Le Perche continued breeding horses for daily use. Percherons were a popular horse by the time of the Crusades between 1095 and 1291. They were smaller at that time, between 15 and 16 hands, and known for their energy, style, and soundness. During the High and Late Middle Ages, their strength may have allowed them to carry armored knights into battle – a feat that required not only physical prowess but also a brave spirit and quick mind.
The French government recognized the popularity of the breed and established a stud farm at Le Pin in the 1800s. A stallion named Jean Le Blanc was born in 1823, and all modern-day Percherons trace their bloodlines back to him.
Percheron horses have strict breed characteristics that make them well known and easy to identify. Horses are primarily black or gray. They are taller than the earlier versions of the breed. Today’s Percheron stands between 16 and 17 hands high. Weight ranges from 1,900 to 2,100 pounds.
The Percheron has a small head and clean throatlatch, both can partly be attributed to the Arabian bloodlines. They have a long neck that ties into a sloping shoulder with a short, strong back. Percherons are energetic and athletic, but they also have a mild disposition. This combination of strength, endurance, and temperament is common in the draft breeds and needed in carrying out their work roles. The breed started carrying knights, moved into agricultural work, and then onto pulling wagons and goods to and from cities.
America’s Favorite Draft Horse
The United States saw its first Percherons imported in 1839. Two stallions arrived in Ohio in 1851, and this was the beginning of the breed’s history here. Imports increased and thousands arrived from the 1850s through 1900. Breeding continued with the horses that were here, further increasing the population.
All draft horses are special and have their place in history. However, the Percheron was by far the most popular of the five draft horse breeds. The government census counted horses in the early 1900s. The 1930 census showed that there were more Percherons than the combined total of the four other draft horse breeds. In fact, there were three times more Percherons.
They were America’s favorite draft horses. In fact, farmers and teamsters alike preferred the Percheron for their agricultural work and moving freight. Unfortunately, the Percheron was not immune to the draft horse dark ages after World War II that nearly caused all draft breeds to go extinct. But those dedicated breeders, including the Amish, held onto the breed.
The Percheron Horse Today
Draft horses became popular again in the 1960s. The popularity of the Percheron soared again as people rediscovered the usefulness of draft horses. Farms and forests are the work locations of today’s Percheron. They are also popular carriage horses in cities throughout the world. Recreational destinations use them for hayrides and sleigh rides. Percheron horses are used under saddle and in driving events, and the breed again registers about 2,500 horses per year. Owners recognize the versatility and joy that comes with owning and using a Percheron horse. While their origins may be a mystery, the future of the Percheron horse is secure.
Sources: Britannica, International Museum of the Horse, Oklahoma State, and Percheron Horse Association.