Meet the Percheron Horses – France’s Reliable War Ally


Percheron horses are cold-blooded equines that thrive in challenging environments. They love to work but really thrive when performing in front of large crowds. They are considered calm even for cold-blooded equines, an unexpected characteristic since they are significantly larger than other breeds. They are suitable and even recommended to first-time horse owners, beginner riders, and children.

Black Percheron horse equipped for carriage.

History and Origins

Percheron horses originate from western France – specifically, the Huisne river valley, which belonged to the Perche province in the past. Just as with other world-known breeds, it is almost impossible to pinpoint milestones in this breed’s evolution. However, it is generally accepted their ancestors roamed the Huisne river valley in the 17th century.

Percherons were initially bred as war horses by introducing Arabian and Spanish blood to the local stock. As military conflicts in Europe seemed to quiet down, locals began to use them for agricultural work, pulling stagecoaches, or general transportation. Arabian blood was added around the late 18th – early 19th century, as a consequence of the official Percheron stud book opening in 1883.

Shortly after this, France began to export thousands of Percheron horses to the United States, Great Britain, and a handful of other countries. However, the beginning of World War I forced France to put an embargo on Percheron exports. The U.S. even shipped some horses back to France as an attempt to support the European country throughout the war.

In the 1930s’ U.S. 70% of the draft horses were Percherons. This lead to the Percheron Horse Association of America (PHAA), the official U.S. Percheron stud book, opening in 1934. Even though World War I caused a great population decline in the U.S. and worldwide, they seem to thrive in the 21st century. About 2,500 pure breed Percherons were registered to the U.S. studbook every year since 2009. On the other hand, the French Percheron Horse Society registered 800-850 Percherons per year on average in the 21st century.

“La Foire du Cheval”: A French horse fair in the mid-19th century with Percheron horses for sale, as depicted by painter Rosa Bonheur.

Breed Particularities

Percheron horses are athletic among the most athletic breeds. In fact, the first thing you notice when looking at a Percheron horse is its ruggedness and pure strength. After a few minutes of spending time with a Percheron, you can clearly see their good-natured character.

Physical Characteristics of Percheron Horses

Percherons are significantly larger (both taller and heavier) than the average horse. Most are gray or black, but other colors like sorrel, bay, or roan are not uncommon. Discreet white markings on their head and feet are appreciated and encouraged, but excessive white spots are considered undesirable.

Height: Between 15 and 19 hands high, but most have 16.2 – 17.3.
Weight: 1,900 pounds on average, but can weigh up to 2,600.
Life expectancy: About 25 years.

Percherons usually have a straight face and a wide, full forehead. Their eyes are large, prominent, and gentle. Their jaws are strong and lead to an elegant profile. They have agile and perky ears that are very responsive to even the slightest noise, one of the traits inherited from their Arabian ancestors.

Percheron horses have muscular lower thighs, long level croups, and big, round hips. They are surefooted equines with clean and elegant feet and legs and particularly large hooves. Percherons have wide and strong chests with strong, noticeable back ribs. Although muscular overall, a good Percheron drafter has emphasized arms and forearms. Its croup and gaskins should be visibly strong.

Unlike other breeds, it’s easy to differentiate mares from stallions. Although large, a female Percheron has a feminine and delicate appearance. Stallions, on the other hand, have a certain ruggedness – particularly when looking at their heads.

Farmer with his two Percherons: A stallion on the left and a mare on the right.

Breed-specific diseases

Although generally healthy, Percherons can be susceptible to pododermatitis especially during winter months or in cold climates. Given their heavy coats and their thick “socks”, they are prone to attracting bacteria from the soil around their ankles. To avoid this, thorough and frequent grooming is a must. Wet and muddy conditions should be avoided for these horses to decrease the risk of pododermatitis.

Percheron Horses’ Temperament

Although large and muscular, a Percheron is not by any means intimidating. In fact, they are considered among the calmest and friendliest cold-blooded horses at the moment. This makes them ideal for first-time horse owners or families with children. They are fast learners, easy to train, and very willing to help and work.  Although calm, Percherons are highly intelligent and playful, if given the chance to show these traits. They love attention and thrive when performing for big crowds.

Having a Percheron Horse

Percherons have no difficulty adapting to harsh climate conditions and are versatile when it comes to their day-to-day activities. However, to avoid the aforementioned pododermatitis, they should be accommodated in floored establishments. When temperatures allow it, Percherons should be allowed to freely roam large pastures as much as possible in order to preserve and enhance their musculature.

Given their size, it’s only natural Percherons need about 30 pounds of hay and more than 5 pounds of grains every day on average. This might be costly for farmers or Percheron breeders, but the work they put in evens out these costs, to say the least.

Common Uses for Percheron Horses

Percherons are the most numerous and famous French draft horses today. They are strong enough to be used for draft, forestry, or under saddle work, but elegant and graceful enough to pull fine carriages, too. Given their love for attention, they perform excellently in front of large crowds. Competitions like riding and show jumping or parades are places you can commonly see a few Percherons. They are also highly responsive to dressage.

All in all, Percheron horses are multi-talented equines that do not back off from any given task. They elegantly and confidently carry themselves even across the harshest terrains, which make them ideal work and competition horses. However, a Percheron is a great family horse thanks to its gentle and warm character.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.

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