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I first fell in love with Heavy Horses as a teenager, and yes I’m talking about the 1978 Jethro Tull album. As it happened, around the same time, I rode my first draft horse cross, a Belgian buckskin jumper named Squire. And here I am decades later, in love with 1,600 pounds of muscled mare, a gray Percheron named Bea. Her temperament is so calm, so sweet. Yet the breed so huge, with males topping out at more than 2,000 pounds. But when I first fell in love with heavy horses they seemed so doomed as Ian Anderson said in his refrain of the title song:
Heavy Horses, move the land under me.
Behind the plough gliding slipping and sliding free.
Now you’re down to the few
And there’s no work to do:
The tractor’s on its way.
According to the Percheron Horses Association of America (PHAOA), they are “The Do-All Draft Horse.” The PHAOA, founded in 1876, is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the purebred Percheron Horse. It hosts an annual National Percheron Show at the Iowa State Fair and a Spring Plow Match and draft horse clinic at its headquarters in Ohio. Every four years the association organizes the World Percheron Congress. This organization tells a fascinating history of this breed, so please visit it at percheronhorse.org. I’ve distilled a bit of it here for you.
The Percheron’s ancient history is “shrouded in myth” but it all started in the old province of Le Perche, about 50 miles southwest of Paris, next to Normandy. For centuries the locals bred their famously gray horses for their own uses and exported them to surrounding areas. Many say that is why all French knights are depicted in oil paintings and literature aboard a great gray or white horse. These savvy livestock breeders in Le Perche bred the biggest, strongest, best-natured horses around.
After their job as war horse ended with the invention of gun powder, they transitioned to pulling stagecoaches. Not only were the gray horses visible at night, but they could trot from 7 to 10 miles an hour, for hours daily. As the railroads came along, their tenure with rural transportation moved to urban centers pulling larger and heavier buses and hauling grain to port cities. Percheron breeders started to bred an even heavier animal to get the job done. At the same time, horses were replacing oxen in the field for plow work, so breeders also developed a faster and stronger model for the agricultural duties at hand. But all the while, beyond their size, it was their temperament that kept them in demand.
From the 1917 book by Alvin Sanders, A History of the Percheron Horse, he writes of the local French owners: “Their horses are a part of their inheritance, particularly prized and accustomed to the affectionate attention of the entire household. Their docility, growing out of their intimate human relationship, is therefore an inborn trait.” Wow! What a powerful passage to describe the calm, agreeable Percheron.
The Percheron In America
The United States did not have any indigenous draft horses and had to import them all from Western Europe, and by the end of the Civil War in the 1860s, their numbers were small. It was around this time that purebred livestock breeders began organizing and keeping better records, pedigrees, and official studbooks. In 1875, the National Association of Importers & Breeders of Norman Horses was founded in Chicago. They later added Percheron-Norman to the name and eventually dropped the Norman all together.
Quickly, Percherons became America’s favorite draft horse. During the 1880s an amazing 5,000 stallions and 2,500 mares were imported from France, mostly from Le Perch. And then came the challenges. The US financial panic of 1893 halted most importing and breeding for many years and bankrupted the early Chicago studbook organization. Then in a small stream of activity, life for the Percheron in America began to grow again. In 1902, a new association was formed with the old studbooks and by 1906, a stunning 13,000 stallions and 200 mares were imported in a single year. Then came World War I in 1914 and by 1920 the US horse population had peaked. In the 1930 US agricultural census, 70 percent of purebred draft horses were Percherons. But soon, buses, trucks, and tractors would be heard on city streets and in the farmer’s field.
Ironically, the breed’s decline on the farm had a brief resurgence during the Great Depression. Broke farmers who couldn’t afford gasoline, looking for a way to make a living, went back to the economical draft horse to plow and plant the new cheap crop corn. By 1937, registrations of newly born Percherons hit 4,611, a new 10-year high. But the popularity was short-lived, and by the 1940s and World War II, the draft horse was on its way off the farm for good as returning veteran farmers chose mechanized, industrialized agriculture as the wave of the future. During the 1950s, the largest liquidation of draft horses in US history was completed. In 1954, only 85 Percheron registrations were recorded. By the 1960 US agriculture census, draft horses were no longer counted.
The Percheron was near extinction by the 1970s. But thanks to dedicated owners, breeders, and enthusiasts, this lovable horse has made a comeback. It has filled nonfarm niches, like pulling large sleighs at ski lodges, clearing wooded lots that need a gentle touch, wowing crowds at horse shows, and carrying pleasure riders. Even the Amish contributed to the breed’s preservation with their nonmechanized farming. Today, there are 3,400 PHAOA members in 50 states, with annual registrations around 2,500. I like to think that maybe, just maybe, Ian Anderson’s call to action to “keep the old line going” so many decades ago made all the difference in the world.