Percheron Horse Breed
The soft eyes, slow gestures and typically dappled grey coat are all qualities that make this gentle giant still well known and respected as generations separate more and more from farm and horse work. Originally from the Perche region of France, Percherons have been bred for hundreds of years before officially receiving the name ‘Percheron’ after a draft horse breeder from La Perche had a horse called Jean Le Blanc that revolutionized the draft horses of that region and of France since his birth in 1823. Before 1823, draft horses of France were all typically a mix of Flemish, Cob, Arabian, and Spanish blood. Flemish horses, which heavily influenced breeds such as the Friesian and the Shire were notably large, working cart and plow horses from north of France, in present day Belgium. Draft breeding crossed with Andalusians, Arabians and early Thoroughbreds developed the Percheron seen today. The Arabian influence is directly related to the introduction of the common grey coat color of many Percherons.
Today all registered Percherons can trace their lineage back to Jean Le Blanc. At first, Percherons were lighter, smaller horses that were suitable for riding and light harness work. By the end of the 1800s the shift for big, strong, heavy pulling horses became the demand as carriages became bigger and carts became heavier. The Percheron that was once an average of 15 to 16 hands was then bred to stand between 16 hands and 17.1 hands and the influence of Arabian and Thoroughbred breeding for refinement had swiftly diminished but light Percherons used for riding still exist.
The first Percheron imported to the United States was in 1839. By the 1880s, French breeders had exported over 7,000 Percheron mares and stallions to the United States. Some would eventually make their way to Canada but the United States still today holds the largest amount of registered Percherons in the world. Their numbers dwindled in the early 20th century because of mechanized agriculture- the introduction of the tractor but large numbers are still maintained throughout North America and Europe.
"Cheval-percheron-gris SDA2014" by Eponimm - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cheval-percheron-gris_SDA2014.JPG#/media/File:Cheval-percheron-gris_SDA2014.JPG
Due to the variety of breeding- both for light harness and heavy, Percherons stand between 15 and 19 hands high and weigh between 900 and 2,600 pounds. They carry a variety of coat colors such as black, sorrel, bay, and roan but the majority are usually gray or black. Evidence suggests that they were bred for the gray color so the horses could be easily seen at nighttime. White facial and leg markings are common but white bodily markings are typically not permitted into the register.
Of all the large draft breeds, the Percheron has minimal leg feathering and a slightly more dished and refined head. This along with their small-medium sized, refined ears indicate the big influence of Arabian cross-breeding of the early 19th century in the breed. Their gait should not be choppy but rather smooth and airy for a draft horse, making it favorable for saddle work. Percherons should have strong, articulated knee joints to promote a smooth trot with large, round feet with big frogs. Their shoulders should be set at 45 degrees with a medium neck set; a neck set to low or deep into the chest and shoulders makes it more difficult for a draft horse to pull through their harness. Their neck should be proportional to their barrel and their croup long. A large, strong hip is preferred. For stronger pulling power, the hocks unlike light horse breeds should be slightly turned in and set somewhat close to each other. Overall their muscling is still heavy and consistent to that of all draft horse breeds.
Percherons can be seen in a variety of disciplines and are still a common farm horse for many traditional homesteads. Competitions such as competition plowing and hitching exemplify the Percheron's strength but crossed with Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds, they are commonly seen in jumping classes, dressage, three day eventing, and fox hunting. Percherons are also used in carriage driving, mounted police work, parades, trail riding, forestry work and western riding. Like many draft horses, they are known for their kind, gentle spirit and make great therapeutic riding and beginner's horses.
For more information on the Percheron, see the Percheron Horse Association of America website.