The Percheron

History of the Percheron Breed

The Percheron is one of the oldest draught breeds in the world. The ancient French chroniclers trace it back to AD 732, when Charles Martel defeated Abdul Rahman, the Saracen leader, at Poitiers. As the victor he claimed the horses as spoils of war, and these animals were dispersed throughout France and particularly in the Perche district of Normandy. Rotrou, Count of Perche, also brought home several Eastern stallions from the Crusades, and these were crossed with the local mares to improve the Norman war horses.

The first Norman horses in the British Isles are thought to have been brought by William, Duke of Normandy, in 1066, and among these there may well have been some from the Perche region. In his book The Shire Horse, Keith Chivers states that in 1188, Giraldus Cambrensis mentioned ‘many excellent studs set apart for breeding in Powys, all originating from Robert de Belleme’s Percheron stallions,’ which he imported when he inherited the Welsh estates in 1098. The name Percheron here applies to horses originating from that area, but these were not necessarily a type or breed.

The breed’s origins are lost in legend, and although the modern Percheron may well owe some characteristics to the war horse of the Middle Ages, it has changed considerably since then.

The Percheron came to the fore in Britain when it was used to pull buses in the big cities in the latter quarter of Victoria’s reign. Thomas Tilling, the London Jobmaster, imported grade (part-bred) Percherons from the USA. Americans had been importing quality French stock since the 1830s. The stallions were used to improve local draught mares, resulting in the cross-breds which were exported in their thousands. According to the ‘Livestock Journal’ of 30 November 1917, many of these imported horses were sold to farmers when they finished work on the city streets. The British Army also bought horses from Tilling. In 1900 he sold them 325 horses which were shipped out to South Africa and used in the Boer War.

Role in the First World War

During the First World War the qualities of the Percheron as a heavy draught horse were appreciated by the British Army. In autumn 1916, the Ministry of Agriculture obtained leave from its French equivalent for the export of two pure-bred stallions and 12 mares. In 1917, a British Commission was sent out under Sir William Birkbeck, Director of Remounts, and they purchased 12 stallions and 33 mares. Between 1918 and 1922, 36 stallions and 321 mares were imported from France.

The absence of feather meant that the Percherons were more easily cared for in the mud and poor conditions of the war than were the hairier breeds. Once out of the heavy mud and onto paved roads, the Percheron was a fast trotter, making it more versatile than a motorised vehicle. Their calm nature fitted them for use on the guns and forward transports; their constitution enabled them to withstand the privations of the war well. Under the circumstances they were well cared for, often better than the men.

In November 1916 the ‘Livestock Journal’ stated ‘ … the Percheron type has made many friends in England … mostly represented … by “grade” horses as yet, and is firmly established in the hearts and minds of the responsible officers of the British Army … there is nothing but praise for a horse that has proved his sterling worth in artillery … the half-bred Percheron has filled many wants and has proved himself a gentleman of a horse, as well as a willing and never failing worker.’ Many of the horses returned to Britain after the war to work on the farms.

The Modern British Percheron

Two years after the first horses were imported into this country (1916), the British Percheron Horse Society was formed for the purpose of registering and promoting the breeding of the Percheron horse. Today the Society continues this work, as well as seeking to promote the breed by obtaining greater public recognition and awareness. Its main aim is to secure its future in the 21st century by ensuring that new outlets are found for it. The British society works closely with other Percheron horse societies particularly in France.

In the UK today there are probably about 300 pure-bred Percherons (in France the figure is around 5,000). British Percheron enthusiasts are still importing Percherons from France (between 4 and 10 a year) and, very rarely in view of the costs involved, from Canada.

Percherons are in use in the UK for farm and forestry work, and for advertising and publicity. In turnout showing they compete well with the more numerous Shire and Clydesdale breeds. They excel in competitions using draught skills and marathons, appealing to younger people as well as to those coming new into the modern draught horse world. Percherons are increasingly sought by breeders of heavy hunters and other light equines for cross-breeding to increase and improve substance and temperament.

Today there are larger numbers of Percheron horses throughout the world than any other draught breed. More than 760 foals a year are registered in France, and the figures for the USA and Canada exceed 1,000 registrations annually. No other draught breed has colonised the new and old worlds in the same way.

Conformation, Colour and Characteristics

Most Percherons in this country are born black but the majority will turn grey eventually. These normally show a few grey hairs around the eyes and muzzle when they lose their foal coat and then go grey progressively with each coat change. A black Percheron is born a dark dun and with the loss of its foal coat is black for the rest of its life. Those with no white hairs remain black. However, a number of foals each year are born dun; these invariably become black on losing their foal coats and remain that colour.

In France, the Percheron varies enormously in height as two types are recognised, the Petit, under 16 hh, and the Grand, over this height. This height variation is typical. Two tall parents will not necessarily produce a tall offspring. In the USA and Canada, the horses are bred to be black and over 18 hh. Short blacks and some greys are still produced, but do not rate in the show ring, where hitch-driving classes exist for pairs and teams of four, six or eight.

In Britain, mares should exceed 16.1 hh and stallions 16.3 hh. They should have great muscular development but with style and activity, and possess ample bone of good quality to give a general impression of balance and power. The head should be broad across the eyes, which should be wide and docile. The cheek should be deep curved on the lower side and not long from eye to nose. The ears should be medium and erect. The horse should have an intelligent expression. The neck should be strong, not short but full and arched, with a crest in stallions. The shoulders should be deep and well laid, the chest wide and deep, the ribs open and the flank deep.

The hindquarters should be wide and long from hips to tail, but not goose-rumped. The limbs should have strong arms and full second thighs, with big knees and broad hocks, heavy flat bone, quality cannon bones and medium-length pasterns. Feet should be a reasonable size, with good-quality hard blue horn. The legs should be clean and free of hair. The action should be straight, bold and with a long free stride; the hocks should be well flexed. The Percheron is known worldwide for the quality of its bone and hooves probably because of the influence of the rich grasslands of the Le Perche region of Normandy.

A Percheron can weight anything from 1,790 lb to well over a ton. In temperament they should be docile and good natured, but never dull and sluggish. They are very accommodating, quickly accepting changes in work or environment. As a work horse they are willing and genuine, capable of working hard without undue strain and maintaining good body weight at the same time. This ability comes from a very strong constitution and an almost complete lack of nervous tension. This makes them easy to train and work, and ideal for the hobby enthusiast as well as the experienced horseman. – Australia – Canada – UK – USA

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