The Percheron is a breed of draft horse that originated in the Huisne river valley in northern France, part of the former Perche province from which the breed takes its name. Usually gray orblack in color, Percherons are well-muscled, and known for their intelligence and willingness to work. Although their exact origins are unknown, the ancestors of the breed were present in the valley by the 17th century. They were originally bred for use as war horses. Over time, they began to be used for pulling stage coaches and later for agriculture and hauling heavy goods. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Arabian blood was added to the breed. Exports of Percherons from France to the United States and other countries rose exponentially in the late 19th century, and the first purely Percheron stud book was created in France in 1883.
Prior to World War I, thousands of Percherons were shipped from France to the United States, but after the war began, an embargo stopped shipping. The breed was used extensively in Europe during the war, with some horses even being shipped from the US back to France to assist in the fighting. Beginning in 1918, Percherons began to be bred in Great Britain, and in 1918 the British Percheron Horse Society was formed. After a series of name and studbook ownership changes, the current US Percheron registry was created in 1934. In the 1930s, Percherons accounted for 70 percent of the draft horse population in the United States, but their numbers declined substantially after World War II. However, the population began to recover and as of 2009, around 2,500 horses were registered annually in the United States alone. The breed is still used extensively for draft work, and in France they are used for food. They have been crossed with several light horse breeds, such as the Criollo, to produce horses for range work and competition. Purebred Percherons are used for forestry work and pulling carriages, as well as work under saddle, including competition in English riding disciplines such as show jumping.
The ideal size for the Percheron varies between countries. In France, height ranges from 15.1 to 18.1 hands (61 to 73 inches, 155 to 185 cm) and weight from 1,100 to 2,600 pounds (500 to 1,200 kg). Percherons in the United States generally stand between 16.2 and 17.3 hands (66 and 71 inches, 168 and 180 cm), with a range of 15 and 19 hands (60 and 76 inches, 152 and 193 cm). American Percherons average 1,900 pounds (860 kg), and their top weight is around 2,600 pounds (1,200 kg). In Great Britain, 16.2 hands (66 inches, 168 cm) is the shortest acceptable height for stallions and 16.1 hands (65 inches, 165 cm) for mares, while weights range from around 2,000 to 2,200 pounds (910 to 1,000 kg) for stallions and 1,800 to 2,000 pounds (820 to 910 kg) for mares. They are generally gray or black in coloring, although the American registry also allows the registration of roan, bay and chestnut horses. Only gray or black horses may be registered in France and Britain. Many horses have white markings on their heads and legs, but registries consider excessive white to be undesirable. The head has a straight profile, broad forehead, large eyes and small ears. The chest is deep and wide and the croup long and level. The feet and legs are clean and heavily muscled. The overall impression of the Percheron is one of power and ruggedness. Enthusiasts describe the temperament as proud and alert, and members of the breed are considered intelligent, willing workers with good dispositions. They are considered easy keepers and adapt well to many conditions and climates. In the 19th century, they were known to travel up to 60 kilometres (37 mi) a day at a trot. Horses in the French registry are branded on the neck with the intertwined letters “SP”, the initials of the Société Hippique Percheronne.
The Percheron breed originated in the Huisne river valley in France, which arises in Orne, part of the former Perche province, from which the breed gets its name. Several theories have been put forth as to the ancestry of the breed, though its exact origins are unknown. One source of foundation bloodstock may have been mares captured by Clovis I from the Bretons some time after 496 AD, and another may have been Arabian stallions brought to the area by Muslim invaders in the 8th century. Other possibilities are captured Moorish cavalry horses from the Battle of Poitiers in 732 AD, some of which were taken by warriors from Perche. A final theory posits that the Percheron and the Boulonnais breed are closely related, and that the Boulonnais influenced the Percheron when they were brought to Brittany as reinforcements for the legions of Caesar. It is known that during the 8th century, Arabian stallions were crossed with mares native to the area, and more Oriental horse blood was introduced by the Comte de Perche upon his return from the Crusades and expeditions into territory claimed by Spain. Blood from Spanish breeds was added when the Comte de Rotrou imported horses from Castile. No matter the theory of origin, breed historians agree that the terrain and climate of the Perche area had the greatest influence on the development of the breed.
During the 17th century, horses from Perche, the ancestors of the current Percheron, were smaller, standing between 15 and 16 hands (60 and 64 inches, 152 and 163 cm) high, and more agile. These horses were almost uniformly gray; paintings and drawings from the Middle Ages generally show French knights on mounts of this color. After the days of the armored knight, the emphasis in horse breeding was shifted so as to develop horses better able to pull heavy stage coaches at a fast trot. Gray horses were preferred because their light coloring was more visible at night. This new type of horse was called the “Diligence Horse”, because the stage coaches they pulled were named “diligences”. After the stage coach was replaced by rail, the modern Percheron type arose as a slightly heavier horse for use in agriculture and heavy hauling work moving goods from docks to railway terminals.
The Percheron is the most famous and populous of all French draft breeds in the world today. They were used to improve both the Ardennes and Vladimir Heavy Draft horses, and to create the Spanish-Norman breed, a cross between the Andalusian and the Percheron. By the end of the 19th century, Percherons made up the majority of driving horses in Paris. The Percheron is still used extensively for draft work and, like other draft breeds, it is also used in France for meat production. Around the world, Percherons are used for parades, sleigh rides andhayrides, as well as being used to pull carriages in large cities. The largest team of working Percherons in Europe is found at Disneyland Paris, where the breed makes up 30 percent of the horses in the park and the horses work to pull trams on the main park street. One of the most famous horse teams in the United States is the Heinz hitch of Percherons, having appeared multiple times at the Tournament of Roses Parade.
In Great Britain, the Percheron is used for advertising and publicity, as well as forestry and farm work. They are crossbred with lighter horses by breeders of heavy hunters in order to increase size and improve disposition. Purebred Percherons are also ridden, and some have proven useful at show jumping. Crossbred Percherons have been used successfully in dressage. In both the Falkland Islands and northern Australia, Percherons have been crossed with local mares, primarily Criollos in the Falklands, to produce larger stock horses with greater stamina. These crossbred horses are used extensively in both the sub-antarctic climate of the Falklands and the sub-tropical climate of Australia for working stock. In Australia they are also crossed withThoroughbreds for use as mounted police horses.
In 1978, the first World Percheron Congress was held in Great Britain, and has been held annually ever since. Although the majority of the shows have been held in North America, four – in 1980, 1989, 2001 and 2011 – have been held in France. Each year, in July, the French national breed show is held in Haras du Pin.