While it would be hard to point to concrete evidence that connects the Belgian draft horse with the Great Horse of the medieval knights, it is a fact that the modern breed originated right in the middle of the ancient charger’s homeland. The Great Horse probably lent its blood to several indigenous types of work horse in Belgium after light horses became the mounts of choice for cavalry purposes. While these relatively nondescript animals made good farm horses, the Industrial Revolution created the need for a new and heavier workhorse.
Sometime in the mid-1800s, horse breeder Remi Vander Schueren noticed a trend in the machinery used for farming and freight—it was rapidly growing heavier. Since horse power was still the means of moving much of this equipment, the horses needed to grow proportionately stronger. So, Schueren crossed the various native draft horses of Belgium and produced a horse that could thrive on the workload of the Industrial Revolution.
Many horse breeds had to prove themselves for decades before becoming adopted as viable choices, but it was not so with the Belgian. In short order, the Belgian government adopted and regulated the breed to ensure its quality and pulling power, quickly shaping it into a valuable export. The first Belgian horse was brought to America as early as 1866, but the breed did not become widespread until the mid-1880s, when the United States was undergoing its own Industrial Revolution.
The breed always faced competition in America from Clydesdales, Shires, and Percherons, but it held its own, particularly in the Midwest. The importation of draft horses straight from Belgium abruptly stopped, however, with the outbreak of World War I. During these years, American breeders added their own touches to the genetics available, and the Belgian horse became taller and flashier.
All draft horse breeds suffered with the rise of mechanization in farming and industry, but the Belgian continued to remain a favorite wherever draft horses found work. It also shared in the general good fortune when the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought renewed interest in gentle giants that could pull a plow.
While the more compact original type of Belgian draft horse, known today as the Brabant, is very rare, the American version of the Belgian is enjoying increasing popularity on our shores. This breed is the most common draft horse in America today.
When pulling power is needed, the Belgian is a good candidate, whatever the details of the job might be. It is equally at home hauling a plow through a field, tugging a log out of the woods, pulling a sleigh over the snow, or drawing a wagon down the street at a parade.
You might be surprised to learn that the Belgian is good for more than draft work. It makes a steady pleasure horse for a larger rider, as well.
Belgians are kind, amiable horses. Although quiet and unemotional, they face their work with determination.
Belgians are structurally sound. However, they are at risk from chronic progressive lymphedema, which is common in several draft horse breeds. This disease causes a malfunction of the lymphatic system of the horse’s skin, resulting in severe complications and death.
A genetic defect present in the Belgian breed is junctional epidermolysis bulbosa. This is a lethal skin problem causing large patches of skin loss. Because it is a very painful condition, affected horses must be euthanized. Fortunately, a DNA test is available for this defect.
- Safe, stable personality.
- Ability to withstand shipping stress.
- Relatively low maintenance requirements.
- Early maturity.
- Heavyweight pulling power.
- Ability to work for long periods of time.
- Reduced fertility.
- Difficult births.