There are a number of different horse breeds that have originated from Belgium. Some of the breeds are believed to be direct descendants of the ancient horses, bringing height and strength into the equine world. Others have been bred to be racing horses, while there is a distinct emphasis on agricultural and farm work as well.
Here are the Belgian horse breeds that are known to have been developed in this country.
#1. Belgian Ardennes
The Ardennes, which is sometimes called the Ardennais, is considered to be one of the oldest breeds of draft horse in the world today. Their origination is more regional than country-specific, with an emphasis in breeding coming out of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. It is believed that the lineage of this horse may date all the way back to Rome.
These horses have thick legs and heavy bones, making them suitable for virtually any draft work. Their coats can be in any color, though the black coat is extremely rare within the breed and is forbidden within the breed registry.
Historically, Ardennes were used as war horses as they had the power to draw artillery. They were also used for plowing and heavy farm work. This breed is now used for competitive driving events and miscellaneous draft work.
The first breed registry for the Belgian Ardennes was formed in Europe in 1929. It was at about that time the first horses from this breed were introduced to North America as well. Over the past century, the Ardennes has been used to create or influence several horse breeds throughout Asia and Europe.
#2. Belgian Draft
The Belgian Draft horse, which is also commonly called a Brabant, is one of the strongest horses that is in the world today. Most horses in this breed stand at least 16.2 hands in height, with 17 hands being quite common. The average Belgian Draft horse will weigh slightly over 2,000 pounds.
The Belgian Draft should not be confused with term “Belgian Black,” which is sometimes used to describe a Friesian horse.
Two variations of this breed have developed over the last century. European Belgian Draft horses are slightly heavier than their North American counterparts, while the North American horses tend to be a little bit taller. Both tend to have a coat that is a light chestnut color, with a flaxen mane, but the European horses do tend to shade a bit darker as well.
The Belgian Draft horse is the most popular draft horse in the United States.
Some of the world’s largest horses have come from this breed. Brooklyn Supreme, who was foaled in 1928, weighed in at 3,200 pounds. Another horse, called Big Jake, was foaled in 2000 and stands at 20.275 hands in height.
The lineage of this horse is believed to have an ancestry in the destriers from the Middle Ages, though no genetic evidence has supported this belief as of yet.
Although this breed is primarily used as a working animal, they are also quite popular as a recreational riding hose, and as a show horse. They are also entered into competitive events on a regular basis, such as team pulling events. A team of Belgian Draft horses once pulled 17,000 pounds of weight for more than 7 feet during a competition in Colorado.
Belgian Draft horses that remain in the region are also highly desired by some for the meat they produce. Because it is so tender, it is often considered to be a delicacy.
#3. Belgian Sport Horse
Although the Belgian Sport Horse is treated as a separate breed in Belgium, it is technically the same horse breed as the Belgian Warmblood. The creation of two separate breed registries is a reflection of the cultural and linguistic divisions that can be found in the country. Sport Horses are typically registered in the southern part of the country.
The first stud book for the Belgian Sport Horse was formed in 1920. It was done as a way to encourage local breeders to form a society that would encourage breeding horses for the army. Those who joined this association would help to produce cavalry horses and various mounts for the Belgian military, allowing the country to stop importing horses from France. Within 10 years, however, the use of horses for cavalry purposes gave way to the need to produce leisure horses.
Once the Sport Horse registry stopped focusing on military development, they changed their association to a breed that they referred to as the Belgian Halfbred. Then, after the second world war came to an end, a number of riding horses were imported from France, Germany, and throughout Europe and added to the breed to give it more of a racing emphasis.
In 1967, the sport horse society was officially formed and continues to operate today.
#4. Belgian Warmblood
If there is one point of emphasis that differentiates the Belgian Warmblood from the Belgian Sport Horse, it is the competitive training that is given. Warmbloods tend to be bred for dressage or show jumping, while the Sport Horse is a general racing and competitive horse.
Warmbloods are a fairly recent breed development in Belgium, having been allowed by the government since the 1950s. Before then, the goal of the officially sponsored breeding programs was to preserve and protect the lineage of the Belgian Draft horse.
Foundation stock for the Warmblood breed includes Holsteiners, Hanoverians, and various jumping horses that were available throughout the region.
Unlike most horse breeds, the Belgian Warmblood is characterized by a uniformity of purpose instead of a conformation of specific physical or temperamental attributes. Studbook selection is quite rigorous within this breed, but because there is such a differential in look, the only real way to tell if the horse is registered as a Warmblood is to look for the branding of the association on the left thigh.
The branding looks like a pinwheel an is given to foals of the breed when they receive their foal inspection. This is evidence that the horse is free of obvious defects. Then, between the age of 3-4, the horse is presented to a jury for licensing, which includes a complete veterinarian inspection, conformation of jumping ability, and the qualities of the horse while under saddle.
The ideal size of a Belgian Warmblood is between 16-17 hands, but height variation is common. Mares must exceed 15.1 hands in order to qualify for breeding rights. Coat colors are usually chestnut, grey, or bay, but black and brow are also common. Two coat modifiers, referred to as “donker” and “licht,” indicate a varying shade of coat for the horse.
Of the current Belgian Warmblood stallions that are active, 2 out of every 5 has a Dutch, Hanoverian, or Holsteiner sire.
The Zangersheide horse is another breed that is an offshoot of the Belgian Warmblood. It is a horse breed that is based off of the efforts of one stable that has been active with warmbloods since the 1970s. Located in Lanaken, the studfarm was able to create their own studbook in 1992 in order to focus on the development of showjumping horses.
It would be fair to say that not everyone would consider the Zangersheide to be an “official” horse breed. That is because the studbook and breed is treated more as a marketing and branding effort than an actual breed that has been formally developed. Here is a direct quote from the Zangersheide studfarm website.
“In a world where borders have virtually disappeared, Studbook Zangersheide allows you to profit from this globalization that has also reached horse breeding. The open policies of the studbook and the unique services it offers will guarantee that the best genetic material from anywhere in the world is made available to you. Your products are brought to the attention worldwide through Z-Magazine, published in 4 languages. From our headquarters in the center of Europe, the supremacy of Zangersheide products is conquering the world market.”
Think of the Zangersheide breed as more of a multi-level marketing opportunity for horse breeders. Each horse is given a “Z Ranking” and breeders receive free advertising on the primary website. The best breeders are given 30,000 euro premiums annually and are given the right to start their own Z-foals and young Z-horses to create something that is “commercially attractive” to their community or region.
The Belgian horse breeds have a foundational history in some of the ancient horse breeds the world has seen. There are also recent warmblood breeding efforts that have helped to establish new breeds since the second world war, allowing Belgium-based breeders to focus on more than producing heavy draft horses.
Over time, as these new breeds have time to mature, there will be more conformational information and higher standards in place. Until then, the efforts of the breeders will be to stabilize the newer breeds without threatening the lineage and quality of the ancient breeds that have called Belgium their home for several centuries.