Breed Name: Percheron
The Percheron has a very pleasing disposition. He is proud, alert, intelligent and willing worker. Percherons are usually black or grey, but there are also sorrels, bays, roans, etc. Many have white markings on the head and feet, but excessive white is undesirable. Percherons range in height from 15 to 19 hands high, most are between 16-2 and 17-3 hands high. They can weigh up to 2600 pounds with the average around 1900. Percherons are noted for heavy muscling in the lower thighs and for an aspect of unusual ruggedness and power. Also characteristic of the Percheron is the clean action and quality conformation of the feet and legs. An ideal horse should have a fairly long level croup with a big round hip. He should be close coupled and wide and deep through the chest, with plenty of back rib. The muscles of the arms, forearms, croup and gaskins plenty are especially emphasized in a good drafter, and ease and balance of gait is essential. He is also expected to be of marked tractability and an easy keeper.
The Percheron’s head and neck are typical of the most attractive draft horse character. Good Percherons have a large and full prominent eye, a broad and full forehead, and straight face. His strong jaw and refined ears attractively set and carried with animation, suggests his Arabian ancestry. Stallions should have a ruggedness about the head and mares should have a feminine look.
As with any ancient race, the origin of the Percheron breed is shrouded in myth, for the foundations of the breed precede extensive documentation, and certainly pedigrees, by several centuries.
The breed derives its name from the place that served as its cradle. Le Perche is an old province about 53 by 66 miles located some 50 miles southwest of Paris. It bordered Normandy on the northeast and the Beauce country, known as the granary of France, on the east. It is a gently rolling, well-watered and fertile place with a benign climate, pre-eminently suited to the raising of livestock. It was, thus, ideally situated to capitalize on trade opportunities as they arose following the middle ages and well into the modern era.
From the earliest known times the people of Le Perche have been producers of horses, not often buyers, always free sellers to the adjacent areas and, ultimately, the world. In the matter of breeding horses they were a world unto themselves.
This is how Alvin Sanders, author of A History of the Percheron Horse (1917) describes the race of men who developed this race of horse: “Their horses are a part of their inheritance, particularly prized and accustomed to the affectionate attention of the entire household. Their docility, growing out of their intimate human relationship, is therefore an inborn trait”.
When the day of the war horse (thanks to gun powder) was over, this color and that substance with style, was made to order to provide France with horses to pull heavy stage coaches .What was needed was a horse that could trot from seven to 10 miles per hour and the endurance to do it day in and day out. The light colored greys and whites were preferred because of their visibility at night. With three turnpikes from Paris to the coastal ports of Normandy running through Le Perche, the French did not have to look very far to find the right kind to pull the heavy mail and passenger coaches for the kings of France. They were called Diligence horses, as the stage coaches were called diligences. They were more than a heavy coach horse with extravagant style, they were more like drafters. So let’s just use the French word and call them Diligence Horses.
When rail replaced the diligences, other roles called on this equine race. Cities were growing rapidly and omnibuses were the public transport of the day. Thousands of omnibus horses were called for in Paris and other French cities. The job called for a little heavier horse, the breeders of the Le Perche altered their local breed enough to do the job. At the same time horses (faster and stronger) were replacing oxen in agriculture. The nearby Beauce, the granary of France, needed a bigger horse for agriculture. As trade and commerce grew, so did the need for horses of heavy draft to move large loads from docks and railheads. They needed an even larger horse than did the farmer. Again, the breeders of Le Perche complied.
From the war horse (heavy saddler) to diligence horse (heavy coacher or light draft) to the true horse of heavy draft, the breeders of Le Perche sculpted away on their beloved indigenous breed for hundreds of years, altering the animal to meet the demands of the times and to entice the buyer.
The United States was without any breeds of its own. Its horse stocks had been heavily drawn down by its own Civil War in the 1860s. The west was being settled, its cities were growing, and there echoed the same cry for bigger, stronger horses than heretofore, just as in continental Europe.
The only source of such stock was in western Europe. Americans became steady visitors and determined buyers of such seed stock. The initial importation’s of French stock were in 1839 and 1851. None of those first importation’s came from La Perche, but rather from Normandy. Nonetheless, they provided a beginning.
Eventually the age of purebred livestock dawned, stud books, herd books, and flock books were rapidly spawned on both sides of the Atlantic. In the winter of 1875-76, in Chicago, Illinois, a National Association of Importers & Breeders of Norman Horses was launched. By the time the 2nd volume of the stud book was published the name was altered to Percheron-Norman. In a matter of just a few years the hyphenated version became simply “Percheron.”
The Percheron quickly became America’s favorite horse. In the decade of the 80s almost 5,000 stallions and over 2,500 mares were imported to this country from France, mostly from Le Perche. The number exceeded importation’s from Great Britain and the rest of continental Europe.
In 1902, a new breed association was formed, picking up the records from the old.
These fortuitous circumstances were rudely interrupted in 1914 by the outbreak of World War 1. The days of great importations were over once and for all. The position and role of the draft horse was being threatened by trucks in the cities and tractors on the farms. The equine population of the Unites States crested about 1920. While the draft horse waged a determined campaign to “keep its job” it was a losing battle, particularly on the city streets. On the farms, the draft animal pretty well held its own during the 1920s, but the decade was a lackluster one for the heavy horse interests. You can’t be loosing a substantial part of your market and be singing Happy Days are Here Again at the same time.
The 1930s census is a good indication of the affection Americans had for the Percheron. Over 70% of the purebred draft horses in America were Percherons. Every major land grant school in America maintained a stable of Percherons. Much of the farm press was still loyal to the horse as the most economical source of farm power.
Then came the great depression of the 1930s and the draft horse made a dramatic comeback. Corn was cheap, farmers were broke, gasoline wasn’t free. Registrations more than doubled in a few short years. In 1937 they reached 4,611, a figure not seen for over a decade. Importations of a few quality horses were resumed on a modest scale. But the tractor had also been improved, put on rubber, and was selling like hot cakes as the decade closed.
Then came the 1940s and World War 2 and an almost complete mobilization of manpower. During that war an awful lot of the farming got done by old men and their wives, and high school and younger kids. Gasoline was plentiful. The use of drafters during the war declined. When the veterans came home they were, for the most part, mechanically inclined and their fathers were tired. The greatest liquidation of draft horse stock in history started and kept right on going clear through the 1950s until they were no longer considered worth counting in the official agricultural census of the United States. It was truly a vestige that was left as the 1960s dawned.
It was a relative handful of people, dedicated to the breed, unconvinced of the wisdom of the course being pursued by agriculture, and unwilling to relinquish their equine heritage, that kept the Percheron alive. They were aided in this by the thousands of Amish farmers throughout the country who stuck with the draft horse as their source of motive power.
This determination and patience was rewarded. Americans rediscovered the usefulness of the draft horse. Other Americans discovered the pleasure of working with them at a non-farm tasks. The shows welcomed them back. The growing recreation business discovered their attractiveness at ski lodges, etc. The wood lot owner looked around for a horse logger that would take out a few trees without ruining the rest. It became a combination of niche markets.
In the 1930s the conventional wisdom was that the battle to the truck was lost completely and the heavy tillage on the farms was as good as lost, so a deliberate effort to downsize the breed was undertaken. Now, the appeal of the big hitches, has reversed that trend. The present demands reach in several directions at the same time. The times call for a versatile horse. At that, the Percheron has had a lot of practice.
Percherons are very versatile. They are readily adapted to varying climates and conditions. They have the strength to pull heavy loads and the graceful style to pull a fine carriage. Percherons can be ridden and some have been known to make fine jumpers.
Percherons are very handy in saving the young trees in smaller wood lot operations as they do not need a wide road everywhere they work. They can get on and work ground where even the most modern tractors fail. Their independent four wheel drive conquers mud and snow to the shame of all man made machines. There is a definite place on almost every farm for a team of Percheron horses, whether it be for work or play.
Breed Association: Percheron Horse Association of America