By Deborah Donohue Photographed by Mark J. Barrett
The Ardennes horse, also referred to as the Ardennais, is a cold-blooded breed whose name comes from the densely forested country near the borders of Belgium, France and Luxembourg, its area of origin. The region, also known as the Ardennes Forest, is a land of rough terrain and majestic, swiftly flowing rivers.
Popular for its sparkling wine, the area is also remembered as the site of the historic Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive against the Allies in World War II. The territory’s namesake, the Ardennes horse, is one of the oldest of the draft breeds, its pedigree dating back to the pre-historic horses of Solutré, a Paleolithic site and escarpment outside the city of Maçon near the southern part of Burgundy in France.
These earlier equines roamed the landscape 50,000 years ago, yet their skeletal remains and structure are echoed in the Ardennes horse of today.
One of these identifiable and definitive characteristics, as stated by experts at Clover Oaks Farms, a premier breeding facility of the Ardennes/Ardennais in North America, is a “distinctive, squared-off nose,” reflected in the bones discovered, and “still evident in the modern breed.”
The massive girth and imposing presence of the Ardennes horse was not always one of their defining traits. In earlier times, the Ardennes was smaller and lighter, (thought to be only 14 hands in Roman times) quite suitable for riding, though still broad and capable of carrying impressive loads.
It was revered then, as it is today, for its calm, even-tempered disposition and physical agility, consistently demonstrating an impressive constitution of great stamina and endurance. The breed’s history of surviving and thriving in severe climates and rocky, mountainous terrain further prepared it for a variety of uses over the centuries, in both times of war and peace.
The animals would prove to be valuable draft horses for agricultural purposes, and in times of war, they unflinchingly transported cavalry, food, supplies and artillery. These qualities have made the Ardennes sought after companions and colorful warhorses throughout their long history.
The knights of the Crusades particularly favored the breed as mounts in the 11th century; they could charge into combat in full armor on these accommodating, compact and hardy steeds. Emperors from Julius Caesar to Napoleon utilized the Ardennes in many a siege and ensuing battle. Napoleon is credited for introducing Arabian blood into the Ardennes bloodline, to multiply its strength and endurance. Caesar immortalized the Ardennes in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (his first hand reportage of the Gallic Wars) describing the Ardennes as “rustic, hard, and tireless.”
The mighty Ardennes are considered by many historians to be responsible for facilitating the advancement of Napoleon’s campaign into Russia in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars (The conflict is known in Russia as the “Patriotic War”).
They were equally instrumental in Napoleon’s subsequent successful retreat from Moscow. According to J.C. Hewitt, historian and author of A Brief History of the Ardennes Horse, the Ardennes valiantly pulled much of Napoleon’s wagon train through formidable snow and deep mud without stumbling and perishing. If an Ardennes happened to not survive the trek, the beloved animal served humbly as food for the travelling troops. The breed was extensively used again in World War I for conveying supplies and ammunition.
With the increasing development of agriculture and the demand for draught horses in the 1800s, the Ardennes were bred to be larger and heavier. Besides the Arabian, the Ardennes have been bred with the Percheron, Thoroughbred and Boulonnais breeds. The breeders at Clover Oaks Farm identify “three distinct types of Ardennais that have evolved over the years: a smaller sort, nearest to the old type, which stands between 15-16 hands high; the bigger and more massive Ardennais du Nord, ‘the cart-horse of the north’, and the powerful Auxois from Burgundy, similar to the Ardennais du Nord but more influenced by the 19th century Percheron and Boulonnais crosses.”
Modern Ardennes stallions are approximately 16 hands high and mares stand around 15.3 hands, with weights from 1,500 to 2,200 accordingly. Their conformation is stout and strongly muscled. They have heavy heads, small alert ears, thick short necks, and broad backs. Sloping shoulders allow for mobility not always present in draft horses.
They are powerfully adept at pulling tremendous loads. Fetlocks are lightly feathered and feet give the appearance of being smaller than one might expect to encounter on such a large animal. Roan, red-roan, iron grey, chestnut, bay and palomino are acceptable colors for registry; black and dapple grey horses are not permissible.
Today the breed has studbooks in a variety of countries, including France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, and the UK. Despite its mighty size and great presence, the Ardennes is beloved for its amiable personality and extremely gentle temperament. Along with their usefulness in forestry and farming, Ardennes are competitive in driving events and make excellent therapeutic riding horses.
More information about the Ardennes can be found by visiting cloveroaksfarm.com