Belgian Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Belgian horse is a draft horse, originally developed to be at home in the lush pastures of its homeland. The region is known for its ability to develop heavy horses, of which the Belgian is apart, but compared to other heavy draft horses, this breed is a bit lighter.

One can instantly recognize this breed of horse. They share the same coat color and markings, with a sorrel body, white mane, and white tail. Most Belgians have white stockings along the feet and will have white face markings as well.

Originally bred because of the need to have a strong farm horse that could also serve in the halter, this is one of the strongest breeds of horse that exists in the world today. One of the world’s largest horses, named Brooklyn Supreme, was a Belgian, standing over 19 hands at weighing 3,200 pounds. They can pull several tons of weight when working together as a driving team.

The History of the Belgian Horse

In the Middle Ages, those who fought in battle required a horse of superior stature and calm to accomplish military goals. Belgians are a direct descendent of these horses. Developed in central Europe, these heavy draft horses were developed because the climate allowed for intense agricultural opportunities.

It is believed that the Belgian comes from foundation stock provided by the Brabant. Other breeds, such as the Belgian Trekpaard, Brabancon, and Cheval de trait Beige, are all essentially the same breed. Even until the 1940s, the Brabant and the Belgian were basically the same breed. That’s when some horses were selectively bred to be heavier and thicker. 

Croplands and pastures could produce high yields, but farmers were generally not the wealthiest class. They needed a single horse oftentimes to handle the workload in the field, take the family to church, and run errands when necessary. Those needs led to the growth of the Belgian Horse and its superior levels of strength.

Belgium wasn’t the only nation which required heavier horses for agricultural work during the Middle Ages. The difference is that the larger stallions were already present in Belgium, allowing for local development of the breed and greater genetic stability. For this reason, the Belgian Horse is thought to be one of the longest-running distinct breeds that still exists in the world today.

The local government recognized the benefits of having a heavy draft horse as a local resource, so they worked with breeders to create national showing opportunities for the Belgian horse. Generous prizes, inspection committees, and subsidies for efficient breeding programs were established to encourage the breed to thrive. This led to a rapid improvement in the fixed-breed type of draft horse, so that when the 19th century came about, other governments were contacting Belgium about sending Belgian draft horses to improve their heavy draft breeds.

The American Association for Belgian Draft Horses was founded in 1887. In 1903, a Belgian was sent to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, which helped to promote the breed even further.

Like many heavy draft breeds, however, the end of World War II brought mechanization to virtually every industry sector that once relied upon this great horse. Belgian Horses became critically endangered, with a population of under 200 by the 1950s. Since then, recovery efforts have been in place and the Belgian is beginning to thrive once again.

As of today, the Belgian Horse has the largest population of draft horses in the United States.

Characteristics of the Belgian Horse

Because it is a heavy draft horse, the average Belgian is larger than many other horse breeds. Most Belgian horses stand between 16-17 hands high and will weigh more than 1 ton. Horses in North America tend to be a little smaller than European horses, while having a lighter chestnut color to the sorrel coat as well.

The build of North American and European Belgians is similar.

Belgians have been known to stand taller than 20 hands high. One of the tallest horses in the world today is named Big Jake. He’s a Belgian and stands at 20.275 hands.
What stands out about the profile of the typical Belgian is the muscling over the croup. It has massive hindquarters, a wide back, and powerful legs. Visually, a Belgian looks massive and stocky compared to most breeds, including many heavy draft horses.

Belgians have limited feathering around the hooves because of the clarity of their genetic lineage. This is one of the few heavy draft breeds that have not been drastically improved by Clydesdale or Shire bloodlines, which typically have extensive feathering. The hooves are smaller on a Belgian compared to its size against the average ratio for a horse, but it is a sure-footed animal that has a confident and powerful stride.

Although sorrel coats are the standard for the breed, there are roan colors that can be found in North American horses.

It is a cold-blooded horse, so the temperament of a Belgian is even and calm. They’re easy keepers and most prefer to be kept busy. They excel at plowing, which they still do on farms that prefer to avoid mechanization. In difficult areas where logging is required, Belgians are preferred over equipment because of their sure-footedness in difficult terrain.

Belgians have the widest and deepest set of all the draft breeds. It’s also the most compact of the draft breeds and, on average, is the most massive. 

Health Issues with the Belgian Horse

Belgian horses have a higher-than-normal rate of junctional epidermolysis bullosa, or JEB, which causes foals to lose large patches of skin and have other birth defects. Nearly 1 in 5 Belgians in North America are carriers, but almost 30% of mares are a carrier. The condition can be avoided if two carriers are not bred to one another.

In the United States, genetic testing for JEB is required as part of the registration process.

Belgian Horses are also at a higher risk of developing a condition called PDL – Chronic Progressive Lymphedema. This is a disease which causes progressive swelling, fibrosis, and hyperkeratosis in the distal limbs.

Some of this is due to the limited genetics that were in the foundation stock of the modern breed. There were three main Belgian bloodlines in the 19th century and all modern horses come from these foundations.

Belgian Horses may be patient and docile, but there is a quiet intelligence behind their eyes that is almost beyond compare. They learn skills quickly, enjoy having social encounters, and tend to be quite loyal. There make for an excellent family horse, provide help in the agricultural sectors when needed, and is growing in popularity as a riding horse.

Like many heavy draft horses, the Belgian has recovered nicely from the dangers of mechanization and has a bright future waiting ahead.