In the Huisne River Valley in France, the Perche province once stood. This is where the breed gets its name. The actual ancestry of the horse, however, is not known. The foundation stock for the Percheron may have been brought into the region as early as the 5th century. Arabian stallions brought into the region in the 8th century may have contributed to the breed, as may have war horses from the region thanks to the wars fought in the Perche region from the 5th thru 10th centuries.
Another theory about the origin of the Percheron involves the Boulonnais breed, brought to Perche from Brittany to help reinforce Roman troops in the region during the BC/AD conversion.
What is known about the Percheron is that in the 8th century, the Comte du Perche brought horses from Asia and Arabia into the region upon his return from the Crusades. Spanish horses were brought into the region as well during various expeditions into the surrounding territories. Rotrou III also imported horses from Spain into the Perche region.
Although the physical characteristics and bloodlines are up for a debate, what is agreed upon by all is that the environment of Perche in the Huisne River Valley influenced the breed to help it become what it is today.
The Percheron is a tall, heavy draft horse today, but in the 17th century and likely long before then, this breed was much smaller. Ancestors of the modern Percheron were often just 15 hands high and had more light draft and sporting horse characteristics. The horses were almost always gray, if era-specific artwork is accurate, and were often the mount preferred for knights and royalty during times of war.
As the need for war horses began to dwindle, the size and power of the Percheron was emphasized in local breeding programs. The rural nature of the region meant that heavy coaches would need to be pulled, often at a fast trot, to reach a destination. That meant the horses pulling the coaches would need to be tall, strong, and have great endurance.
This is the beginning of the modern Percheron. These horses, first called “Diligence” horses, became heavier and taller with each generation. They moved from agriculture work to heavy hauling work in the early industrial sectors of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Percheron Exports and How It Changed the Breed
Beginning in the 19th century, Percherons were exported overseas to the United States and across the channel to Britain. In the first trip to the US in 1839, only 4 horses survived the trip across the ocean. One of the stallions, named Diligence, is credited with siring over 400 foals in the US. Three additional stallions were exported to the US in 1851 and this helped to establish the American-type Percheron.
Then the Civil War broke out in the US. Percheron owners began crossbreeding with local mares to produce larger horses that could serve a variety of needs. After the war, the need for heavy draft horses to settle the West became even greater, which led to further crossbreeding. It wouldn’t be until 1876 when a breed association would form in an attempt to preserve the bloodlines of the exported horses.
In total, more than 20,000 Percheron horses were exported to the United States from 1865-1906. They were used in the traveling circuses of the era, on homesteads, and were even a popular carriage horse in the cities.
Many of the Percherons that came to Britain, however, came by way of the United States. That meant many of the first horses were crossbreeds instead of purebred horses.
Because of this movement, you see three different breed standards in France, the UK, and the US. Beginning in 1911, registrations were restricted to parents already registered with the society. As mechanization took over, the need for heavy draft horses dramatically declined. Population numbers in the US in 1988 reached a low of 1,088.
Part of the reason for the dramatic decline was the development of the Augeron breed in the 19th century in France. This breed, which merged back with the Percheron in the 1960s, had its own stud book for more than a century, partially due to the fact that for some time, only horses that had been foaled near Perche were entitled to register.
The 20th Century and the Percheron Horse
It wouldn’t be until 1966 that the French stud book would allow draft horses from other areas of France that were either purebred Percherons, but foaled elsewhere, or other breeds that were closely related. Between 1970-1990, the focus of Percheron breeding in France was purely meat production.
In the early 1990s, the need for sleeker, more consistent Percherons for export became apparent. Percherons were sought after in Japan especially, but the French horses were too large. That is when the French began to import American Percheron stallions to improve the consistency of their breed.
Many of the stallions imported during the 1990s were black, which has led to black beginning to be the predominant coat color in some lineage lines.
At the same time, the decades after World War II were devastating for the Percheron in the United States. Only a handful of farms maintained bloodlines so that the breed could be preserved. Recovery efforts began in the 1980s, which expanded after European demand increased a decade later.
Characteristics of the Percheron Horse
The preferred physical characteristics of a Percheron depend on the country and its breed association. In its home country of France, the average height range for a Percheron is anywhere from 15 hands to 18 hands. Stallions are known to weigh as much as 2,600 pounds.
By comparison, a Percheron in the United States is bread to be a little smaller and lighter, but there are taller individuals that are highly sought after as well. The average height is between 16-17.3 hands, with some horses reaching 19 hands. The average weight of an American Percheron is typically under 2,000 pounds, but the top weight in the US is similar to the horses found in France.
In Britain, a Percheron must meet a minimum height standard of 16.2 hands to be registered as a stallion or 16.1 hands for a mare. Weights are a little heavier, around 2,100 pounds for stallions and 1,900 pounds for mares
In Europe, Percherons who are gray or black in coat color are generally all that is accepted for registration. In the United States, chestnut, roan, and bay Percherons are also accepted. All breed registries allow for some limited white marks on their legs or heads, but excessive white marks are usually faulted.
All Percherons should have a straight profile. Their forehead should be broad, with eyes that are above average in size, but ears that are below average. The chest of this breed should be wide and deep for stallions and mares, with a croup that is level and above average in length. This should lead to feet and legs that are noticeably muscled, but still clean.
This leads to a visual first impression of a horse that is strong, rugged, and powerful, but not bulky.
Like most heavy draft horses, the Percheron displays a coldblooded temperament, although there is the occasional exception. There is a certain pride in the carriage of a Percheron and they always seem to be alert. These horses should be willing workers, backed by a noticeable intelligence, along with a desire for regular social contact.
Percherons are generally easy keepers. Because of their history, they can adapt to a variety of different conditions. At a trot, a Percheron can easily cover about 40 miles in a day without difficulty.
How the Percheron Is Used Today
Out of all the French heavy draft breeds, the Percheron is the most popular of in the world right now. They’re being used to improve other heavy draft breeds and are foundation stock for the Spanish-Norman horse, which is a cross between an Andalusian and a Percheron.
Percherons are still used for draft work. In France, the horses are also part of the food production chain. You’ll find them in parades, being used for sleigh rides, and to pull carriages in large urban centers. In Disneyland Paris, teams of working Percherons help to pull the trams down the main street of the park.
In the United States, Heinz utilizes Percherons to counter the marketing that Budweiser has had with their Clydesdales. The Heinz Percherons make regular appearances in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Anaheim, CA.
In the United Kingdom, Percherons are still regularly used for forestry work, especially in difficult-to-access areas.
And, as was the case in the US during the period before and right after the Civil War, numerous Percherons are being used to improve the size, strength, and scope of local stock horses. Programs in the Falkland Islands, Australia, and the United Kingdom have Percheron stallions working with local mares to improve local stock.
Australia also crosses Percherons with Thoroughbreds to create horses for their mounted police.