THE ORIGIN & HISTORY OF THE PERCHERON HORSE
written by Maurice Telleen for the Percheron Horse Association of America
As with any ancient race, the origin of the Percheron breed is shrouded in myth, for the foundations of the breed precede extensive documentation, and certainly pedigrees, by several centuries.
The breed derives its name from the place that served as its cradle. Le Perche was an old province about 53 by 66 miles, located some 50 miles southwest of Paris. It bordered Normandy on the northeast and the Beauce country, known as the granary of France, on the east. I tis a gently rolling, well-watered and fertile place with a benign climate … pre-eminently suited to the raising of livestock. It was, thus, ideally situated to capitalize on trade opportunities as they arose following the middle ages and well into the modern era.
From the earliest known times the people of Le Perche have been producers of horses–not often buyers … always free sellers to the adjacent areas and, ultimately, the world. In the matter of breeding horses, they were “a world unto themselves.”
This is how Alvin Sanders, author of A HISTORY OF THE PERCHERON HORSE(©1917) described the race of men who developed this race of horse: “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 a inborn trait.”
Traditionally it has been a race with a preponderance of greys. Old paintings and crude drawings from the middle ages affirm this. The French Knight is almost always portrayed on a grey or white charger. Their mounts are depicted as horses with considerable substance for that time, but without coarseness.
When the day of the “war horse” was over (thanks to gun powder), this color and that substance with style, was made to order to provide France with horses to pull the heavy stage coaches. What was needed was a horse that could trot from seven to ten miles an hour and have the endurance to do it day in and day out. The light colored greys and whites were preferred because of their visibility at night. With three turnpikes from Paris to the coastal ports of Normandy running through Le Perche, the French did not have to look very far to find the right kind to pull the heavy mail and passenger coaches for the kings of France. They were called “Diligence” horses, as the stage coaches were called diligences. They were more than a heavy coach horse with extravagant style … they were more like light drafters. So let’s just use the French word and call them “Diligence Horses.”
When rail replaced the diligences, other roles called on this equine race. Cities were growing rapidly and omnibuses were the public transport of the day. Thousands of omnibus horses were called for in Paris and other French cities. The job required a little heavier horse … the breeders of Le Perche altered their local breed enough to do the job. At the same time, horses were replacing oxen in agriculture (as they were faster and stronger). The Beauce, the granary of France, needed a bigger horse for agriculture. As trade and commerce grew, so did the need for horses of heavy draft to move large loads from docks and railheads. They needed an even larger horse than did the farmer. Again, the breeders of Le Perche complied.
From war horse (heavy saddler) to diligence horse (heavy coacher or light draft) to the true horse of heavy drafts, the breeders of Le Perche sculpted away on their beloved indigenous breed for hundreds of years … altering the animal to meet the demands of the times and to entice the buyers.
Across the sea a confident young republic was experiencing the same changes from stage coach to rail, from agrarian to industrial, and from sail to steam. The United States was without any breeds of its own. Its horse stocks had been heavily drawn upon by its own Civil War in the 1860s. The West was being settled, its cities were growing, and there echoed the same cry for bigger, stronger horses than heretofore … just as in continental Europe.
The only reservoir of such stock was in western Europe. Americans became steady visitors and determined buyers of such seed stock. The initial importations of French stock were in 1839 and 1851. None of those first importations came from Le Perche, but rather from Normandy. Nonetheless, they provided a beginning.
The decades of the 1870s and ’80s were years of massive importations from Europe. Literally thousands of draft-type horses, especially stallions, were imported primarily from France and Great Britain. A battle was on for the hearts and pocketbooks of American importers.
As the trade grew and importers ventured farther inland in search of “the best kind,” the little old province of Le Perche was discovered. For France had, and still does, several races (breeds) of draft horses.
The age of “purebred” livestock had dawned … stud books, herd books and flock books were rapidly spawned on both sides of the Atlantic. In the winter of 1875-’76 a National Association of Importers and Breeders of Norman Horses was launched in Chicago, Illinois. By the time the second volume of the stud book was published, the name was altered to Percheron-Norman. In a matter of just a few years, they hyphenated version became simply “Percheron.”
The Percheron quickly became America’s favorite horse. In the decade of the ’80s, almost 5,000 stallions and over 2,500 mares were imported to this country from France … mostly from Le Perche. The number exceeded importations from Great Britain and the rest of continental Europe.
Those halcyon days lasted until the financial panic of 1893 and left millions of dollars in little Le Perche. There were virtually no importations from 1894-1898. Breeding in this country came to a standstill. Much of the seed stock from the earlier period was lost or squandered as people were either broke or too cautious to spend it if they had it (sound familiar?). Along with tens of thousands of businesses that went bankrupt was the young Association.
The recovery was almost as abrupt as the downslide. Importations were resumed in 1898, averaging about 700 head a year from that time to 1905. In 1906 they reached the enormous number of 1,300 stallions and 200 mares. Annual registrations reached 10,000 per year! Happy days were here again … both in places like Crossroads, USA and Le Perche.
In 1902 a new breed association was formed, picking up the records from the old.
These fortuitous circumstances were rudely interrupted in 1914 by the outbreak of World War I. The days of great importations were over once and for all.
The position and the role of the draft horse was being threatened by trucks in the cities and tractors on the farms. The equine population of the United States crested about 1920. While the draft horse waged a determined campaign to “keep its job,” it was a losing battle, particularly on the city streets. On the farms, the draft animal pretty well held its own during the 1920s … but the decade was a lackluster one for heavy horse interests. You can’t be losing a substantial part of your market and be singing “Happy Days are here again” at the same time.
The 1930 census is a good indication of the affection Americans had for the Percheron. Over 70% of the purebred draft horses in America were Percherons. Every major land grant school in America maintained a stable of Percherons. Much of the farm press was still loyal to the horse as the most economical source of farm power.
Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s … and the draft horse made a dramatic comeback. Corn was cheap, farmers were broke, gasoline wasn’t free. Registrations more than doubled in a few short years. In 1937 they reached 4,611, a figure not seen for over a decade and a half. Importations of a few quality horses were resumed on a modest scale. But the tractor had also been improved, put on rubber and was selling like hot cakes as the decade came to a close.
Then came the 1940s and World War II and an almost complete mobilization of manpower. During that war, an awful lot of the farming got done by old men and their wives, and high school-aged and younger kids. Gasoline was plentiful. The use of drafters during the war declined. When the veterans came home, they were, for the most part, mechanically inclined and their fathers were tired. The greatest liquidation of draft horse stock in history started and kept right on going through the 1950s, until they were no longer considered “worth counting” in the official agricultural census of the United States. It was truly a vestige that was left as the 1960s dawned.
The low point in Percheron registrations came in 1954 when just 85 head were recorded. The term “endangered species” was certainly appropriate though not yet in common use.
It was relative handful of people dedicated to the breed, unconvinced of the wisdom of the course being pursued by agriculture, and unwilling to relinquish their equine heritage that kept the Percheron alive. They were aided in this by the thousands of Amish farmers throughout the country who stuck with the draft horse as their source of motive power.
This determination and patience was rewarded. Americans rediscovered the usefulness of the draft horse. Other Americans discovered the pleasure of working with them at non-farm tasks. The shows welcomed them back. The growing recreation business discovered their attractiveness at ski lodges, etc. The wood lot owner looked around for a horse logger that would take out a few trees without ruining the rest. It was a combination of “niche” markets.
This resurgence in numbers and values has been nothing short of amazing. The growth of the breed in the last twenty years bears testimony to that. Registrations totaled 1,132 in 1989–ten years later that had grown to 2,257. Transfers numbering 1,088 in 1989 grew to 2,257 in 1998. Perhaps most significantly, memberships grew from 2,155 to 3,085. This is not, as was sometimes true in the “old days,” a case of a few people recording hundreds of horses. The ownership of the breed is in many hands today.
And the sculpting goes on. In the 1930s, the conventional wisdom was that the battle was lost completely to the truck and the heavy tillage on the farms was as good as lost … so a deliberate effort to downsize the breed was undertaken. Now, the appeal of the big hitches has reversed that trend. The present demands reach in several directions at the same time. The times call for a versatile horse. At that, the Percheron has had a lot of practice.