Percheron Horse

The Percheron is among the most well-known and well-loved breed of French horse in the world. They’ve been used extensively to make improvements to other forms of draft horse, and just a hundred years ago were used extensively across the world. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this much-loved animal, and examine just how it came to achieve its popularity.

History

As you might have gathered, this breed originates in France, specifically the former province in the country’s northwest called Perche, which was abolished after the French revolution. When they were first brought to the region, the animals were used as war horses. But, as with many other breeds, changes in warfare meant that the Percheron ended up becoming more useful in agriculture and transport than in combat.

The earliest record of the breed is around the 17th century – though there are many competing theories as to the breed’s prior origins. Most of them involve

Percheron horse greezing in Torcy-le-Grand, France

Arabian stallions being brought back from the Crusades, though some posit that the first of the Percherons were brought back by Clovis I, first king of the Franks, from his wars against the Bretons. Roman conquerors might also have brought horses from the east to re-inforce their legions.

It’s clear that, whatever the precise origins of the breed, it was brought to the region long ago – and so the modern breed owes more to the geography of Perche, and to the demands of French breeders, that it does to its prior history.

We can glean some of the breed’s history from paintings and drawing from the middle ages, which depict French knights riding grey mounts. Carrying a man in a suit of armour is no easy task, and so we can deduce that it was for this reason that the horse was bred to be stronger. When the breed was later repurposed for transport and agriculture, these attributes were hugely beneficial. If a horse can gallop with 300lbs of armoured knight on its back, then pulling a plough or carriage at speed would have been relatively straightforward. The characteristic grey colour of the horse was not only an aesthetic choice – it had a practical purpose. After dark, when horses were often on the roads, it became necessary to be able to see them. Grey and white breeds were therefore favored – though the latter, being rarer heavily emblematic of death, were less widespread than their grey cousins.

During the 17th century, the Friesian breed enjoyed huge favour among French equestrians. The early success of the breed was not to last, however. The French Revolution placed much of life in France on hold. Horse breeding was widely prevented, as it was seen as a habit of the aristocracy – and the breed had to be mingled extensively with Arabian stock in order to survive the period.

The breed was enormously popular in the United States, particularly during the period of economic expansion following the American Civil War. The war had hugely depleted stocks of horses – many of them had perished in battle, and able-bodied men who might have acted as breeders had mostly been conscripted to fight.

French breeders leapt in to fill the gap. There was a glut of imports following the end of the war in 1865, which climaxed in the 1880s, when more than seven thousand animals were shipped across the atlantic. This flow of equines was interrupted for just a few years during a financial panic in the 1890s, and then eventually halted by World War I.

During the war, a trade embargo was placed on the French Percherons, forbidding them from being sold outside their homeland. By the time peace was declared, the Percheron had been utterly decimated in France, and so even after normality resumed, the French were in no position to meet the enormous demand for their stock coming from the states. This led to an explosion in Percheron breeding in America, and today the breed has a healthy population on both sides of the Atlantic.

Physical Attributes

Percherons are heavily muscled, powerful animals, and come in a diverse range of colours, ranging from the gray favoured traditionally in France to the black brought in by later breeders. You can also find the breed in chestnut and tan – though these colours are rarer, and are generally restricted to the states, as European authorities are quick to shun them. The breed is similarly varying in size, with animals ranging from fifteen to eighteen hands, and 1,000 to 2,500lbs. Its life expectancy is around average at between twenty-five and thirty years.

Thanks to the influence of Arabian bloodlines in their stock, Percherons tend to be a little lighter than other draft horses. They’re therefore more agile, and more suited to riding. Percherons are cold-blooded horses, which means that they’re larger than their hot-blooded cousins, and have a gentler nature.

Applications

Though it might gall many horse-lovers today, the breed is bred for meat in its homeland, and has a taste that’s very similar to beef – though it’s richer and leaner. This practice has helped the breed to maintain very healthy numbers in France – but it’s not the sole use of the modern Percheron. The breed still finds use pulling carriages, sleighs and parade floats across the world. It’s also been crossbred with lighter horses in order to make them larger and better behaved – and the results have found their way into competition, in both racing and equestrian events.

The breed’s gentle temperament makes them suitable for use with children and the elderly – and for novices of any age. If you know someone who’s looking for their first horse, or you’re running a riding school, then the Percheron makes a suitable entry-level animal!

Health problems

Percherons are generally healthy animals, and no more prone to disease than any other breed of horse. They benefit greatly from having their enormous feet well looked-after, and so owners should take extra care to monitor and maintain the condition of the hooves. Podermatisis is a risk if this is not done, particularly in the rear hooves.

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