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Horse Breeds – The Percheron

Percheron Horses – Facts, Origin & History

In November we introduced a blog mini-series featuring the five draft horse breeds that make up the Tally-Ho working herd.  Our first article featured the iconic Clydesdale horse, explaining that the origin, history and many wonderful traits of the Clydesdale goes far beyond its association with the popular branding by Budweiser. In this entry we’ll dive into the backstory of the majestic Percheron horse, of which we have two full bred and two half Percheron half Belgian bred (another draft breed we’ll learn about in the coming weeks). 

A History of the Percheron Horse

Early ancestors of the breed were first noted in Western France, more specifically, the Huisne River Valley in the former Perche Province from which the Percheron claims its name. 

While the exact origin of the Percheron horse is a matter of some mystery and much debate, one theory speculates that foundation stock came from a small number of mares captured by Clovis the First King of the Franks from the Bretons sometime after 496 AD.  Another theory suggests that some of the first Percheron foals were sired by Andalusian cavalry stallions brought over from Spain by the Moors, then confiscated by warriors of Perche upon the Moors’ defeat at the Battle Poitiers (Battle of Tours) in 732 AD.  A third theory is that the Percheron and the Boulonnais breed— brought to Brittany as reinforcements for Caesar’s legions— are closely related.  

Between 1789 and the early 1800s, the Percheron was in danger of extinction due to a suppression of horse breeding during the French Revolution. It was shortly after this time, in the late 18th century and early 19th century, that two gray Arabian stallions from Le Pin were said to have been introduced to the bloodline. This is contested by modern day breed historians who maintain there were still enough Percheron breeding stock without the introduction of additional breeds. Today, all Percherons are able to trace their ancestry back to a 1823 foundation stallion named Jean le Blanc, who’s progeny saw the breed become larger.

In 1893 the first Percheron stud book was created in France, which was followed by the first exported Percherons to the United States.  The first exportations of Percherons were less than successful with several animals perishing during or shortly after the lengthy and turbulent journey across the seas.  However, one stallion aptly named Diligence was credited with siring nearly 400 foals in the USA.  

The Modern History of the Percheron

Over the next 75 years, the export of Percherons to the United States saw dramatic fluctuations in numbers until 1906 when 13,000 arrived in the USA in the one year alone.  By the 1930s, Percherons accounted for over 70 percent of the purebred draft horses in the United States, with a 1930 census of horses accounting for over 33,000 Percherons in the country.  

The story went similarly in Canada.  By 1930, the Percheron was so popular that a Canadian census showed that there were three times as many Percherons registered as there were of the other four main draft breeds combined.  

But the Percheron boom was not long lived.  The end of World War II and a subsequent increase in mechanization led to a dramatic decline in the population.  By 1954 only 85 Percherons were registered in the US, a record low, and the subsequent two decades the breed did not fare much better.

Percheron Horses in Canada

In Canada, however, the Percheron continued to be a mainstay in Amish communities.  At one point, the highest concentration of Percherons in the world was said to be in Alberta, in a 50 mile radius of Calgary, and was referred to as the “Percheron Mafia”.  Pete Thumond of Sage Hill Percherons is quoted as saying that 90 percent of Percherons in the US today can be traced back to Alberta stock.

In the 1970s Canadian’s Bill and Opal Lucas imported the last known French Percheron to Canada.  The impressive grey stallion named Farman, was the first import from France since the 1930s and would become pivotal to domestic bloodlines.  Another prominent Canadian Percheron stallion was Justamere Showtime out of Saskatchewan.  By 1983, approximately 300 of the 512 registered Percherons could trace their lineage back to Justamere Showtime.   

The late 90s and early 2000s saw a resurgence of the Percheron breed in the United States (and Canada) with 2,500 new horses being registered with the Percheron Horse Association of America annually by 2009.  The Percheron horse is now listed as “recovering” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. 

Past and Present Uses of the Percheron Horse

Originally bred for use as war horses, Percherons were later used for pulling large stagecoaches and, later still, for work in agriculture and for hauling heavy goods.  The Percheron is the most notable and populous of all the French draft breeds in the world today.  They have been favoured over the centuries for cross breeding to improve bloodlines in Ardennes and Vladimir Heavy Drafts (among many others) and were also crossed with Andalusian horses to create the Spanish-Norman breed.    

Percherons are still used around the world today in parades and sleigh or hay rides, and are used to pull large carriages in cities. The most extensive team of working Percherons in Europe is found at Disneyland Paris, making up 30 percent of the horses in the park.

In Canada, Percherons are still the draft horse of choice for those lucky enough to win private sustainable logging contracts.  On Prince Edward Island, Percherons are still used for the harvest of a type of seaweed called Irish Moss, navigating rocky shores and bringing approximately $1M annually to the region.

In Great Britain, the Percheron is favoured among horse breeds for advertising and publicity due to their commanding stature and presence.  They are also still actively used in forestry and agricultural work.  

Percherons are also exceptional riding horses, particularly for heavier riders and more demanding riding disciplines.  Some purebred Percherons have proven useful at show jumping, though it is more common to see Percherons crossed with Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods for the show ring.  In Australia, Thoroughbred-Percheron crosses are also used as mounted police horses. 

Percheron Conformation and Colour

Though the conformation – or physical make-up of the breed – has evolved over the years, modern breed standard describes a horse that is anywhere from 15-19 hands high (or 60 to 76 inches from the ground to the top of their wither).  Their weight ranges from 1,600 lbs in the shorter or more refined builds, to an imposing 2,400 lbs on the larger end of the scale.  

Percherons have striking, broadheads with alert and forward ears and bright, prominent eyes that communicate intelligence and spirit.  The neck is longer than some draft breeds and considerably arched, flowing into a long sloping shoulder that typically sits at a 45 degree angle to support free, forward movement and naturally expressive carriage.

A well-bred Percheron should have a deep, wide chest to accommodate a strong heart and a big lung capacity.  Other characteristics of the breed include well-defined withers, a short back, a deep girth, a longer level croup, a large and well-rounded hip and powerfully defined muscling in the lower thigh.  Percherons may appear slightly “cow hocked” in the hind end – or stand with their hocks fairly close together.  While this may not be a particularly desirable trait in, say, a dressage horse, for the Percheron it provides power and action for hauling or pulling heavy loads.  Unlike the Clydesdale with its iconic feathered lower limbs, the Percheron has very little feathering.   

They are most commonly grey or black in colour, but sorrel (or chestnut) and bay Percherons appear on occasion and are still accepted by most Percheron Registries.  

Character Traits & Trainability of the Percheron Horse

Like the Clydesdale, Percherons are referred to as “cold blooded”, which means that they tend to be very level headed and measured in their interactions with people and their environments, as opposed to other breeds that can be more flighty, reactive or “hot”.  

Those who work with Percherons will tell you that they quickly earn their handlers’ allegiance.  Extremely willing, Percherons will tackle any job set before them with power, grace and determination.  They are also a very intelligent breed that learn new tasks with ease and have a soft, yet commanding presence. 

Meet the Tally-Ho Herd of Horses

Tally-Ho is honoured to play a small role in preserving this incredible draft breed.  We currently have two purebred Percherons (Jinx and King) as well as a pair of Percheron-Belgian cross geldings (Timber and Tucker) who were formerly a logging duo.   

If you’d like to learn more about our beloved Percherons, or any members of our herd, you can choose to sponsor a horse or visit our website at www.tallyhotours.com to book a tour to experience these majestic horses in person. Can’t get enough of our gentle horses? Take your very own plush horse home to love. Available in 7.5″ or 12.5″ heights, “Clyde” and “Rimsky” are available in our online gift shop. They come complete with pulling harnesses and make a wonderful keepsake!