Named for the La Perche region of France, the Percheron has existed in some form since ancient times. Some suggest that its earliest ancestors were Boulonnais horses used by the Romans under Julius Caesar to invade Brittany. Others trace the breed’s roots to the Black Horse of Flanders. A touch of refinement was added through crossbreeding with light horses during the Middle Ages. Arabian and Barb horses captured from the Moors went into the mix, as did Andalusians from Spain.
Like many heavy breeds, the Percheron was originally a war horse used by knights in shining (and extremely bulky) armor. After the Crusades ended and battles with firearms and cannons became the norm, it was adopted as a powerful draft animal. The Percheron could pull a plow, a coach, or a cannon with ease, and a little selective breeding increased its strength still further. By the 1600s, the horses of La Perche had earned a good reputation and a steady demand.
Breeding fine horses was not a high priority during the French Revolution, however, and the Percheron did not resume its importance until the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. A royal stud had been established in France at La Pin earlier in the 1700s, but had been shut down in 1793. By imperial decree in 1806, the stud reopened. Thoroughbreds, Normans, Arabians, and local horses occupied the stables, and some excellent military animals were produced. One of these horses was Jean Le Blanc, a stallion born in 1823 that went on to become the foundation of the modern Percheron breed.
The Percheron was first brought to the United States in 1839 by Edward Harris of New Jersey. One stallion and one mare survived importation, and these two horses and their descendants alone represented the breed in America until 1851, when three more stallions were introduced for crossbreeding. A steady demand for Percherons in America did not begin until after the Civil War, when a depleted horse population, the rise of large cities, and the opening of the West combined to create an unprecedented need for heavy draft breeds. In short order, the Percheron became the most popular breed of draft horse in the nation, although it was rarely used in a purebred state. Thousands of breeding animals were imported and crossed with local horses of all varieties to produce offspring that could plow fields and haul merchandise.
Relatively few American horse breeders were actively involved in raising pure Percherons until the outbreak of World War I. At that point, French horses were needed on the war front—there were none to spare for the export market. Americans began to raise their own Percheron seedstock, and even contributed draft horses to the French war effort. This was a short-lived boom, however, as machines were already beginning to replace draft horses. By the end of World War II, the Percheron was in danger of extinction in America.
But thanks to the foresight of a handful of preservation-minded breeders, particularly Amish farmers, a few Percherons were still available when working with draft horses became popular in the late 1960s. Percherons and other heavy breeds found new homes on small farms and in sustainable logging operations. A small but steady demand for the Percheron has persisted ever since.
Today, the Percheron ranks among America’s favorite draft breeds. In fact, more Percherons can be found in the United States than in any other country. The breed is represented in every state, but is most popular in the Corn Belt.
The Percheron excels at any task that requires strength and size. It can provide draft power for the farm or the woodlot, but its graceful bearing makes it a good choice for pleasure driving, as well. The breed is a favorite choice for small businesses that offer hayrides or trips in carriages or sleighs.
However, the Percheron’s steady disposition also makes it suitable for pleasure, therapeutic, or circus riding. Some have proven themselves athletic enough to tackle jumping competitions, as well. Finally, the Percheron still carries medieval knights—in historical reenactments.
Crossbreeding Percherons with light breeds, particularly the Thoroughbred, is a common practice today. The resulting offspring retain the size, sturdiness, and good nature of their French ancestors, but have additional agility. They excel in everything from dressage to police work.
The Percheron may be a gentle giant, but it is far from lazy. It carries itself with pride, learns quickly, and displays a genuine work ethic. Although it is one of the most fiery draft breeds, its spirited personality can be charming to experienced horse owners. It is is always loving and cooperative toward a person who has earned its respect.
Prospective horse buyers should recognize that there are two variations on the Percheron horse. The more modern type, bred for flashy commercial hitches, tends to be a little more high-strung. The older type, on the other hand, is quite stable and able to keep cool under pressure.
Overall, the Percheron has a sturdy build and a tough constitution.
Many Percherons have light-colored legs and hooves, which means that their skin is sensitive and susceptible to dermatitis in wet weather.
Young, quickly growing horses can suffer from osteochondritis dissecans, a painful condition in which the cartilage at the ends of their bones breaks down.
Finally, Percherons share a metabolic problem with many other draft breeds—equine polysaccharide storage myopathy. This condition causes excess carbohydrates to accumulate in the muscles, leading to tremors. A high-fat, low-starch diet will go a long way toward preventing polysaccharide storage myopathy.
- Low grooming requirements compared to other draft breeds.
- Relatively low feed requirements.
- Difficult temperament for novice horse owners to handle in some bloodlines.