Two hours southwest of Paris in lower Normandy—not far from the medieval town of Chartres and its famous cathedral—is Le Perche. A historic former province measuring a mere 53 by 66 miles or so, this bucolic and fairy-tale beautiful land of rolling green meadows, glorious manoirs and vine covered chateaus is also world renowned for its “majestic horses of Lancelotian stature.” The famous Percheron horses have been called “the noblest, absolutely most gorgeous horses in the world.”
Along with other ancient equine races whose history precedes documentation, the breed’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Some believe they are closely related to the Boulonnais (known as the “white marble horse”) brought to Brittany as reinforcements for the legions of Caesar during the Roman invasions. Others contend the Percherons are descendants of earlier Ice Age horses, whose remains have been found in the area. They may also have originated from some of the mounts used by the invading Moors during the battle at Poitiers; whose war horses were dispersed among the victorious French forces. Apart from the myths surrounding their history, it is known that native Percheron mares were crossed with Arabian stallions at two points in history; once during the 8th century and again in the Middle Ages when the Comte de Perche returned from the Crusades, Arabian stallions included in his spoils of war. Despite the various theories of origin, most breed historians concur that the fertile terrain and hospitable climate of the Perche region has been most influential in the Percherons’ development.
Percherons were initially utilized as war horses: those iconic grey and white chargers ridden by French knights of the Middle Ages, immortalized in paintings and drawings of that time period. The invention of gunpowder brought the era of war horses to an end, and a need arose to reevaluate the breed’s uses. With several routes from Paris to the coastal ports of Normandy passing through Le Perche, the unemployed military horses quickly found subsequent work as heavy mail and passenger coaches (called diligences) for the nobility of France. Their grace, agility, strength, and endurance (Percherons are able to trot 7 to 10 miles an hour, day in and day out) along with the visibility of their light coats in the dark, made them the perfect diligence horses.
Railways would one day replace the diligences, and again the Percherons would find themselves in need of a reinvention. But the innovative breeders of the Le Perche region, long known as expert producers of horses, were adept at altering their stock to meet the needs at hand.
With the development of the French metropolis, horse-drawn buses became the preferred mode of public transportation. The Percherons found themselves in Paris and other French cities. By the end of the nineteenth century, Percherons made up the majority of the driving horses in Paris. Around this time the nearby area of Beauce—the granary of France—also began replacing oxen with the bigger horses for agricultural uses. As trade and commerce increased, an even heavier draft horse was needed to transport substantial loads from docks and railways, and the versatile horse breeders of Le Perche complied.
Percherons had transformed successfully through a metamorphosis from heavy saddle war horse to diligence horse to heavy draft horses, and now they were about to make a splash across the pond.
Edward Harris of Moorestown, New Jersey imported the first Percherons into the United States in 1939. Later in 1851, stallions Louis Napoleon and Normandy were imported to Ohio. Louis Napoleon was sold into Illinois, eventually finding his way to the Dunham family, who were instrumental in establishing the Percheron Association in 1876.
The Civil War of the 1860s greatly diminished horse stocks in the United States. Western Europe was the place to find the bigger, stronger horses that were now again in demand, with the majestic Percherons placing high on the list. In the last half of the nineteenth century, thousands of Percherons were imported to America for agricultural use and for moving freight in the cities. By 1930 there were three times as many registered Percherons in America as all other draft breeds combined. But with the end of World War II and the invention of the tractor, the country moved towards mechanization and all things modern. America’s honeymoon with the Percheron abruptly cooled.
In 1954, the number of registered Percherons in the U.S.A. dropped to an all time low of only eighty-five animals. Much of the Percherons’ survival in this country can be attributed directly to the Amish and a small group of other farming communities who dedicated themselves to keeping the breed extant. They survived the ensuing draft horse depression that lasted until the 1960s, when Americans rediscovered the breed’s versatility.
Today, the striking Percherons are prominent in the tourist carriage trade of many large cities, as well as in advertising and promotion of other businesses. They continue to be utilized on small farms and are particularly suited for small wood lot operations. The horses ability to safely navigate narrow roads and work uneven ground that modern tractors have difficulty traversing has helped make possible the conservation of young trees that would otherwise be destroyed. Recreationally, these gentle giants are prized for pleasure riding, hayrides, sleigh rides, parades and vaulting.
(Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).
(Photography by Stacie C. Lynch).