The Belgian horse is a large, heavy, powerful draft horse that is native to the fertile pastures of Belgium. Called the Great Horse in the Middle Ages, these horses carried knights into battle in medieval Europe. They have provided the genetic background from which nearly all the modern draft breeds originate today.
The familiar Belgian draft horse that we see in the United States has its ancestral genetic roots in the Brabant, which is also known as the Belgian Heavy Draft. The name has been shortened to Belgian for general usage, but it is also referred to as the European Belgian when comparing the breed with the American Belgian. During the Middle Ages the Brabant was known as the Flanders Horse, after the region of Europe in which it originated, it has had great influence on the development of other draft horse breeds, such as the Suffolk Punch, the Clydesdale and the Shire.
The European Brabant draft horse is the foundation horse for the American Belgian and until around 1940, the Brabant and the American Belgian were pretty much the same horse. After World War II, the breeds diverged into two different types. The Brabant was bred in Europe to have a thicker body and a more draft-type style, with heavy feathering on the legs; while in the United States, the American Belgian was being bred to have a taller, lighter looking body and clean, featherless legs.
Stallions from Belgium were exported to many other parts of Europe as the need to produce larger animals of draft type for industrial and farm use was recognized. The government of Belgium played a very energetic role in helping this need to be recognized by utilizing a system of district horse shows that finished off with the great National Show in Brussels. This event served as an international showcase for the breed and the prizes were quite generous. It was here that the inspection committees for stallions standing for public stud service were established.
The result was a rapid improvement of the breed into a fixed type. Soon the draft horses of Belgium came to be regarded as both a national heritage and a national treasure with all the money their export brought to Belgium. In 1891, Belgium exported stallions for use in the government stables of Russia, Italy, Germany, France, and the old Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the export of horses out of Belgium for breeding purposes was so large in scope that it was very financially rewarding for the breeders for years to come.
In 1903 the government of Belgium sent an exhibit of horses to both the St. Louis World's Fair in Missouri and the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. While this exhibit generated a lot of controversy over which type of horse was best suited for Americans, it also generated a lot of interest in the Belgian Draft horse breed. But many of the breed's first imports to the United States were strongly criticized for being too thick, too low headed, straight shouldered, and round boned. There was even an expression for it; they called it "the Dutchman's Type." This kept the breed from becoming very popular in America, but now American Belgians outnumber all other draft breeds combined in the United States.
So what have the American breeders done to change the Belgian?
In 1914, World War I brought all importations to a complete halt and American Belgian breeders were on their own with no new horses from Europe to breed to. Fortunately, they had plenty of horses already in the U.S. with which to develop their own style of Belgian horse, which they did. The post war depression in agriculture slowed the purebred Belgian business for a few years but by 1925, annual registrations rose to over 1,000 horses. On the 50th anniversary of the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America (BDHCA), a pre-World War II high of 3,196 Belgians was recorded in 1937. But with World War II, importation again stopped.
Today's American Belgian is a big, powerful horse that stands 16.2 - 17 hands high, and retains the draft style, with a deep, strong foot, a lot of heavy bone and muscling. They have developed a horse with far more style, particularly in the head and neck, with the head being comparatively small and refined with an intelligent facial expression.
The Belgian Draft seen in the United States these days is not as "massive" as the Brabant, but still retains the proportions of the Brabant. The body is compact with a short, wide back and powerful loins. There is more slope to both shoulder and pastern, and the good clean, flat bone that goes hand in hand with such qualities. The quarters are massive, with a characteristic "double muscling" over the croup. The gaskins are heavily muscled and the legs are short and strong. The hooves are medium sized, for a draft horse, with only limited "feathering".
And along with the changes in conformation, a color change also occurred. The original imports to America were available in many colors. About half of the first U.S. imports were bay and bay-brown, followed by roan, chestnut sorrel, black, and even a few grays. There was no particular color to the Belgian in the beginning, but by the 1920's and 1930's, the breed had pretty well become just sorrels and roans. Now, however, the American Belgian horse has become a one-color breed, and it is the chestnut-sorrel color that is preferred by Americans. A chestnut or sorrel team with snow-white manes and tails, with a white blaze in the face and four white stockings is the ultimate in draft horse style to the American Belgian owners.
The modern American Belgian draft horse is still a great worker, and a willing one, and they have become great wagon horses. They are equally effective in pulling competitions as in hitch competitions. The qualities as an easy keeper and a good shipper, as well as having a kind temperament and amiable disposition make the American Belgian easy to handle, in spite of the size.