Origin of the Percheron
Photo Credits: “Rosa Bonheur – La foire du cheval” by Rosa Bonheur – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org
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 is 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. It is 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) describes 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 an 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 (thanks to gun powder) was over, this color and that substance with style, was made to order to provide France with horses to pull heavy stage coaches.What was needed was a horse that could trot from 7 to 10 miles per hour and 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 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 called for a little heavier horse, the breeders of the Le Perche altered their local breed enough to do the job. At the same time horses (faster and stronger) were replacing oxen in agriculture. The nearby 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 the war horse (heavy saddler) to diligence horse (heavy coacher or light draft) to the true horse of heavy draft, 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 buyer.
Percheron Horse Association of America, P.O. Box 141, Fredericktown, Ohio 43019. Phone: (614) 694-3602.
See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percheron