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Percheron Draft Horse
Percheron Draft Horses at The Farm at Walnut Creek
  • The Percheron is a breed of draft horses that originated in the Perche valley in northern France. Percherons are usually gray or black in color. They 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 1600s. They were originally bred for use as a war horse. Over time, they began to be used for pulling stage coaches, and later for agriculture and hauling heavy goods. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Arabian blood was added to the breed. In the late 1800s, exports of Percherons from France to the United States and other countries rose exponentially, and in 1893 the first purely Percheron stud book was created in France.

After going through various incarnations and stud books, the current US Percheron registry was created in 1934. In World War I, the breed was used extensively by the British. In the 1930s, Percherons accounted for 70% 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 are registered annually in the United States alone. Today, 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 under saddle work, including competition in English riding disciplines such as show jumping.

Percherons generally stand between 16.2 and 17.3 hands (66 to 71 inches, 168 to 180 cm) high, although the breed has an outer range of 15 and 19 hands (60 to 76 inches, 152 to 193 cm). They average around 1,900 pounds (860 kg), although the top weight is around 2,600 pounds (1,200 kg). They are generally gray or black in coloring, although the American registry also allows the registry of roan, bay and chestnut horses. The British registry only allows horses of gray or black to be registered.[2] Many horses have white markings on their heads and legs, but registries consider excessive white to be undesirable. The head has a straight profile, with a broad forehead, large eyes and small ears that reflect the breed's Arabian ancestry. The chest is deep and wide and the croup long and level. The feet and legs are clean and well muscled. They are described as proud and alert, and intelligent, willing workers. They are considered to be easy keepers and easy to work with and train. The breed adapts well to many different conditions and climates.

The Percheron breed originated in France, taking its name from the former Perche province. Its exact origins are unknown, and several theories have been put forth as to the ancestors of the breed. Theories on the ancestors of the Percheron range from mares captured by Clovis I from the Bretons sometime after 496 AD to Arabian stallions brought to the area by Muslim invaders in the 700s. Another theory states that the breeds' ancestors were captured Moorish cavalry horses from the Battle of Poitiers in 732 AD, some of which were taken by warriors from Perche. A final theory states 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.[3] During the 1600s, horses from Perche, the ancestors of the current Percheron, were smaller, standing between 15 and 16 hands (60 to 64 inches, 152 to 163 cm) high, and more agile.[4] These horses were almost completely gray, with paintings and drawings from the Middle Ages almost always showing French knights on gray horses. 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.[5] However, Arabian stallions were also made available to Percheron breeders for use in breeding army mounts, a practice that began in 1760 at the royal stud at Le Pin. Gallipoly and Godolphin were two of the most notable Arabian stallions used, with Gallipoly siring Jean le Blanc, a founding stallion of the Percheron breed, foaled in 1830. Today, all Percherons trace their ancestry to this stallion.[4][6] 19th century In 1893, the first Percheron stud book was created. In 1966, it was changed to include draft types from other areas of France that were closely related to the Percheron—including horses from Berrichon, Nivernais, Marne, Augeron, Bourbonnais, Loire and Saone-et-Loire. Horses in the registry are branded on the neck with the letters "SP",[3] the initials of the Société Hippique Percheronne. Since 1911, the society has restricted registration to horses who have both parents already registered with the society.[7] By 1910, French registrations had risen to almost 32,000 horses. Between 1880 and 1920, Percheron breeders in France exported horses all over the world, including South Africa, South America, Australia and North America.[6] Percherons were first imported into the United States in 1839, with one out of four horses surviving the ocean trip. Soon after, two stallions and two mares were imported, with one mare dying soon after arrival. Although the first importations of Percherons were less than successful, one stallion, named Diligence, was credited with siring almost 400 foals. In 1851, a stallion named Louis Napoleon was imported, and throughout his stud career had significant influence on United States draft horse stock.[3] In the mid-1800s in the United States, Percheron stallions were crossed with local mares to improve the local stock, resulting in thousands of crossbred horses.[8] The American Civil War in the 1860s significantly decreased the numbers of horses in the United States, and between this and the need for horses in both the expanding west and growing cities, there was a significant need for large draft horses following the war.[5] Because of this, large numbers of Percherons were imported to the United States beginning in the early 1870s, and they became popular with draft horse breeders and owners.[3] In the 1880s, approximately 7,500 horses were exported to the United States.[6] This extensive importation lasted until 1893, when the US experienced a financial panic, resulting in almost no Percheron importations between 1894 and 1898 and the loss of many existing horses as people were too poor to purchase or take care of large draft horses. In 1898, importations began again as abruptly as they had ceased, with an average of 700 horses being imported annually between 1898 and 1905. In 1906 alone, over 13,000 horses were imported to the United States from France.[5] In the late 1800s, Percherons also began to be exported from the United States to Great Britain, where they were used to pull horse-drawn buses in large cities. The first Percherons imported to Britain included some of the thousands of crossbreds from the United States. In Britain, many of the horses, once they finished their bus-pulling career, were sold to farmers. Other imported horses were sold to the British Army, and in 1900, 325 horses were shipped to South Africa for use in the Boer War.[8] In 1876, the Norman-Percheron Association was formed by a group of Percheron breeders in Chicago, Illinois, and at the same time the stud book was begun. The Norman-Percheron Association was the United States' first purebred livestock association. In 1877, the word "Norman" was dropped from the name, leaving it as just the Percheron Association.[9] However, in the panic of 1893, the Percheron Association went bankrupt and ceased to function.[5] In 1905, also in Chicago, Percheron breeders met again to reform as the Percheron Society of America. In 1934, the Percheron Society of America developed into the Percheron Horse Association of America, the name under which it exists today.[9] At its height, the organization was the largest draft horse association in the world, in the early 1900s registering over 10,000 horses annually.[5][10] 20th century and today The British used the Percheron extensively during World War I. Beginning in 1916, over 400 purebred Percherons were imported to Britain from France for use in the military, marking the first time that purebred Percherons were imported to Britain. The lack of feathering on the Percheron's lower legs made them easier to care for in the mud that they often worked in during war time. Their quick trot on paved roads made them more versatile than motorized vehicles, while they were useful for work with guns and in forward units due to their calm temperaments. The British made sure their horses were well cared for—often better than the men—and their strong constitutions allowed them to more easily withstand the hardships of the war. After the war, many of the horses returned to Britain and were put to work on the country's farms. In 1918, the British Percheron Horse Society was formed, and this organization is still functioning today, working closely with other Percheron breed registries to register and promote the breed. British breeders and owners continue to import Percherons from France, and also occasionally from Canada, although the costs make the latter prohibitively expensive.[8] By the 1930s, Percherons accounted for over 70% of the purebred draft horses in the United States, and all of the major land grant universities maintained stables of Percherons.[5] After World War II, increasing mechanization prompted a decline in the Percheron population.[4] In 1954, the lowest number of Percherons were registered, with only 85 animals being recorded with the registry.[5] As a consequence, the breed nearly went extinct until the 1960s, when the breed again became popular, and many farmers and foresters began to use them.[4] By 1988 there were 1,088 Percherons in the United States and 2,257 in 1998.[5] As of 2009, the Percheron Horse Association of America registers horses in all 50 states and has nearly 3,000 members, with around 2,500 new horses registered annually.[10] Currently, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers the Percheron to be "recovering",[11] meaning that the breed has exceeded the numbers required to be in one of the "watch" categories, but still needs to be monitored.[12]
The Percheron is still used extensively for draft work. Like other draft breeds, it is also used in France for meat production.[3] 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.[8] Percherons are used for parades, sleigh rides and hayrides, as well as being used to pull carriages in large cities in the United States.[4] One of the most famous horse teams in the United States is the Heinz hitch of Percherons, whose appearances have included multiple showings at the Tournament of Roses Parade.[13] Purebred Percherons are also ridden, and some have proven useful at show jumping.[1] Crossbred Percherons have been used successfully in dressage.[14] In the Falkland Islands, Percherons are crossed with Criollo horses to produce horses used on the cattle ranges. In Australia, they are crossed with native horses to produce horses for competition and range work. A Percheron mare from Australia, having pulled 3,410 pounds (1,550 kg) over 15 feet (4.6 m), holds the unofficial world pulling record.
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