The story of our fourth breed of heavy horse, the Percheron, is very different from that of the other three. Far from having developed slowly over the centuries from a basis of indigenous types, the handsome Percheron is a newcomer, which appeared in our fields for the first time in the last century.
Apart, however, from the fact that it took place in northern France instead of Britain, its evolution followed a similar pattern to that of the British breeds. Right across northern Europe can be found heavy farm horses descended from the Great Horse of mediaeval Europe, some of them developed into recognized breeds while others must be designated simply as cart-horses. The Percheron takes its name from a district of the northern French plains known as Le Perche. There, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, farmers set about creating a breed of heavy draught horses of reliable type and colour. The brochure of the British Percheron Horse Society summarizes their objectives as follows:
In the earliest days they aimed at producing a horse with enough weight, spirit and action to drive their heavy coaches. They also required big, powerful army horses to carry heavy equipment at a fast trot. The result was the development of a horse able to work equally well either in mud or on the hard road and as good in hilly country as he is on the flat Fens.
It was as an army horse that the Percheron came into the orbit of most British breeders. Numerous farmers’ sons in the army during the First World War came home highly impressed with the qualities of the dappled grey horses they had been handling, and eager to introduce some to their own farms. The first importation of breeding stock from France took place in 1916, and the British Percheron Horse Society was formed in 1918.
There are, however, certain twists to the story. Although the two stallions and twelve mares ‘which comprised the first importation were purchased from French breeders through the Ministry of Agriculture, large numbers of the Percherons which our soldiers became acquainted with in France and Belgium came from Canada and the United States. What had happened was that exports from France to the United States had begun as early as about 1850, and the horses were so good that in time the Percheron became the most popular and most numerous of the heavy breeds on the American continent.
Quite early in the war the British Army realized that it was going to have difficulty in obtaining sufficient quantities of the right type of heavy horse from local sources and so sent a Remount Purchasing Commission to comb the farms of Canada and the United States. Hundreds of horses were purchased every week and shipped over to Europe. Although at the beginning no preference was shown for the Percheron, it soon became evident that it was supplying the greatest numbers of animals best suited for the purpose. Mr. A. J. Brookes, a Percheron enthusiast, in recounting events writes:
It was better balanced, more active, better ribbed and showed much hardier constitution than any other type of similar weight. The prepotency of Percheron stallions when mated with nondescript mares of those countries (U.S.A and Canada) impressed the Commission, and they reported on the uniformity of stock bred in this way. Horses of Percheron type also proved extremely good-tempered, and withstood the nerve-racking experience of a long rail and sea journey better than others.
The horses proved particularly popular for artillery work and in transport behind the lines. In 1917 a second importation of breeding stock from France to England took place, this time of twelve stallions and thirty-three mares. After the war had ended, further large importations, totalling 36 stallions and 321 mares, were made in the years 1918 to 1922, and the Percherons became soundly established as a British breed. A Stud Book was opened, for which no imported animals were eligible unless they were already registered in the Stud Book of the country of origin.
This last was an important rule, for, before the 1916 importation, there were already fair numbers of animals “showing strong signs of Percheron blood” at work in England. They had been brought over from America in the last years of the nineteenth century and the early ones of the twentieth for draught work in London and other large cities, notably for pulling horse omnibuses. Mr. Brookes estimates that about 90% of the London bus horses at that time were cross-bred Percherons, the progeny of Percheron stallions and mares of mongrel type from the farms of America. Excellent as these horses were for the purpose, however, they rightly found no place in the exclusive Percheron Stud Book.
One of the strong points of the Percheron is its excellent feet and legs. For generations the horses had been bred to stand up to heavy draught work on hard, rough surfaces, notably the stone block roads of northern France. Any horse that could not put in years of work under such conditions was not wanted. Naturally, those hard roads allowed and called for a fair turn of speed, so Percherons developed a faster action than most of the British horses.
Docility, another characteristic of the breed, was bred into it largely through the French practice of working stallions. Often these had to be managed, especially when used for draught work, by inexperienced youngsters, so a stallion difficult to handle in harness tended to be discarded.
One reason for the rapid rise in popularity of the Percheron in Britain was the coincidence of its introduction with a demand for a clean-legged horse. The Percheron has little “feather” on its feet. Another is that the Percheron can get by with very little attention. All horses, of course, are better for good and regular grooming, but Percherons can apparently manage with a minimum. Says Mr. Brookes,
They can be wintered cheaply in straw yards, thereby adding to the total amount of the farmyard manure made on the farm. Under such a system the horses lie comfortably and are more healthy and an elaborate stable is an unnecessary luxury. All that is required is a simple stall for grooming and harnessing, and many more horses can be managed by one man than was formerly possible. . . . Many horses of this breed work for long hours in all weathers, get very little attention, and yet maintain their condition well.
Because of their innate docility, Percherons are easily broken in. A few hours of training are sufficient, especially if the young horse has previously been used to handling. Just as the stallions are accustomed to working in the fields, so are the mares, which benefit from being kept at work, except when they are suckling. They will produce a foal a year over a prolonged period, say ten or twelve years, and count longevity among their other qualities.
Their show points and general characteristics are as follows:
General – Essentially a heavy draught horse possessing great muscular development combined with style and activity. It should possess ample bone of good quality and give a general impression of balance and power.
Colour – Grey or black, with a minimum of white. No other colour in stallions is eligible for entry in the Stud Book. Skin and coat should be of tine quality.
Size – Stallions should not be less than 16 hands 3 inches high, and mares not less than 16 hands in inch at maturity, but width and depth must not be sacrificed to height.
Head – Wide across the eyes, which should be full and docile; ears medium in size and erect; deep cheek, curved on lower side, not long from eye to nose; intelligent expression.
Body – Strong neck, not short, full arched crest in case of stallions; wide chest; deep, well-laid shoulders; back, strong and short; ribs, deep and wide, deep at flank; hindquarters of exceptional width and long from hips to tail, avoiding any suggestion of a goose rump.
Limbs – Strong arms and full second thighs; big knees and broad hocks; heavy flat bone, short cannons, pasterns of medium length ; feet reasonable size, of good quality blue horn. Limbs as clean and free from hair as possible.
Action – Straight, bold, with long, free stride rather than short, snappy action. Hooks well flexed and kept close.
The average weight of stallions is 18 to 20 cwt, of mares, 16 to 18 cwt. It is said that grey became the most popular colour for the breed in the early days in France, when coach-drivers preferred it as making the horses more easily visible in the dark. Black was an alternative colour on the Continent, however, and most Percheron foals are born black, assuming their dappled colouration as they mature.
In the first twenty-five years of the history of the breed in Britain, following the formation of the breed society in 1918, 1,000 stallions and 2,000 mares were registered in the Stud Book. The unusually high proportion of stallions to mares indicates that they were used extensively for crossing with mares of other breeds. The progeny of such matings are generally fine animals, and the mares may be admitted to the Supplementary Register of the breed, for grading up through several generations.
Other European Horse Breeds
Horses of a number of related breeds are found right across the northern plains of Europe. Most of them have the old Flemish horse as an ancestor.
One of the largest and heaviest is the Brabancon, which normally stands between 16 and 17 hands. The heaviest horse ever recorded was a pure-bred Belgian stallion (presumably identical with this breed, the other Belgian breed being the Ardennes, mentioned below), belonging to Ralph Fogleman of Callender, Iowa, U.S.A. It stood at 19.2 hands (6 feet, 6 inches) and weighed 1.42 tons (3,200 lb shortly before its death at the age of twenty in 1948. In Belgium the Brabancon is used extensively as a draught horse and has great collar power. It has been used even more for crossing than as a pure-bred, particularly with the Ardennes, the Rhenish and other local breeds. Some were undoubtedly exported to England in the past and played their part in the development of the Shire.
The Ardennes is a horse of the hills rather than of the rich lowland pastures which bred the Brabancon. It has shorter legs, a heavy, muscular body and is immensely strong. From the seventeenth century onwards it was employed extensively as a cavalry and artillery horse, but during that period it changed considerably. Crossing with heavier breeds, notably the Brabangon, increased its size at the expense, to some extent, of its stamina and speed. It has remained, however, a hardy, docile, multi-purpose horse, still popular in northern Europe. The various wars in which it participated took it to countries far from its native hills, including Sweden, where it is now the predominant type of heavy horse.
Both the Brabancon and the Ardennes were introduced to Russia about a hundred years ago and became well established. They were used mainly for crossing with each other and with other imported breeds, such as the Percheron and Clydesdale, and also for improving local breeds, such as the Northern Forest Horse. A Russian type of Ardennes has evolved, rather smaller than the one now found in Belgium but sturdy, strong and adaptable.
Two Ardennes horses have recently been brought to Britain, by Charles Pinney, of Whitchurch Canonicorum, in West Dorset. On holiday in northern France and Belgium, he was so impressed by them that he imported a couple to work on his farm. At shows and ploughing matches at which they have appeared they have struck English horsemen as being stocky, chunky animals, rather short in the leg and with large heads but immensely powerful.
The Rhenish breed, mentioned above, is the heavy horse of Germany’s Rhineland, developed along parallel lines to those of the other northern European breeds. It stands 16 to 16.2 hands, is docile and willing, and has clean legs. Its most frequent colour is sorrel (yellowish-brown), but roan and brown are also common, and the breed often has a light-coloured tail and mane. Its Stud Book was established in the early years of this century.
The Dutch Draught Horse is the most abundant heavy horse in the Netherlands, its breeding and type carefully maintained by the Royal Netherlands Draught Horse Society. Its Stud Books were founded over a hundred years ago, and since 1925 only horses of known pedigree have been admitted to them. The breed is massive and deep. Its short neck is impressively powerful and carries a rather small head. It has the reputation of being easy to handle, docile, long-lived and of tremendous stamina. Its colours are bay, chestnut and grey, and it has feathers of a darker hue on its legs.
The southern maritime provinces of the Netherlands have evolved the Zeeland breed of heavy horse, which in size stands somewhere between the Brabancon and the Ardennes. Breeders have aimed, with some success, at producing a heavy horse which is sprightly and lively without sacrificing weight or size. It possesses great stamina and will go on working quietly in the fields for hour after hour. Largely on account of its docility, combined with a certain grace and agility of movement, it is in demand as a circus horse, in which capacity it has been seen in England (in Bertram Mills’ Circus, for instance).
The Schleswig and the Jutland are two breeds of heavy cart-horse native to Denmark and the adjacent states of Germany. They were developed to produce a multi-purpose horse, for use equally on farms, in city streets and in the army, where they were employed chiefly in artillery units. During the nineteenth century some were brought over to the east coast ports of England.
A common breed of heavy horse in northern France is the Boulonnais, which resembles the Percheron and is one of the biggest and heaviest horses in Europe. It stands 16 or 17 hands and develops remarkably quickly, some young horses being put to work on the farms when only 18 months old. It is said to be based on the old Great Horse of Europe with a strong leavening of Arab or Barb blood, which gave it speed and elegance without reducing its size. Before the coming of railways it was a favourite coach and carriage horse and is still employed almost as much in cities as on farms. It is a very smart horse, with elegance of movement as well as power. Its usual colours are grey and black, like the Percheron, but red roan, blue roan and bay are also permissible.
In eastern Normandy I once became familiar with a type of horse locally known as the Augeron, which, from its similarity in almost every respect, I took to be a local relation of, if not identical with, the Boulonnais.
Farther west, Brittany too has a breed of heavy horse, as well as two lighter types. They are bred on the westernmost pastures by Finistere and are exceptionally hardy. Their powerful bodies are mounted on shortish legs, which are adorned with some feather. Colours are generally grey and bay.
Central Europe has a number of heavy horse breeds or types, evolved from indigenous stock with admixture of many other breeds. The fact that the Austro-Hungarian empire for a long time shared the same monarch as Spain resulted in a strong Spanish influence, and Spanish horse breeds in general owe much to Arab and Barb blood. One of the Austrian breeds is the Pinzgauer, a heavy draught horse, with a muscular body on short, featherless legs. It stands 15 to 16 hands and is docile and willing, but is said to lack elegance and, to some extent, intelligence.
Even larger is the allied Kladruber horse, which stands at 17 to 18 hands and was developed as a carriage horse in the Imperial stud. The Pinzgauer is generally roan in colour, the Kladruber black or white. Hungary has a dark bay horse, the Nonius, which stands up to 17 hands and was developed for both agricultural and military use. It is big-boned and heavy, but is said to lack stamina.
A heavy horse breed based on Russian indigenous types was the Bityug, or Beetewk, which had its origins in the province of Voronezh. The Emperor Peter the Great, noting the quality of the local mares, introduced Dutch stallions to interbreed with them, and later further crosses were made with trotting horses. The result was an excellent coaching-horse, noted for its prodigious strength. The old breed is said to have almost vanished, through neglect and competition with imported breeds, at the end of the nineteenth or early in the twentieth century, but apparently the crossing of survivors with Clydesdales, Percherons, trotting horses and other breeds has produced anew and very similar Bityug. It stands at 16 hands or more and is a good, all-purpose draught animal, capable, it is claimed, of pulling a load of over three tons. It has stamina, willingness, fluent action, docility and, moreover, being locally bred, is ideally adaptable to Russian conditions.