2013-04-13 / Columnists

Horse Tales

Mackinac Island’s Belgian, Percheron Horses Have Many Overseas Cousins
by Candice C. Dunnigan

By the end of April, dozens of working draft horses will have returned to Mackinac Island. Throughout America, Mackinac Island can boast that it has one of the largest congregations of working draft horses in harness. Our two main breeds of heavy horses here are Belgian and Percheron teams. There are some crosses, and some are part Clydesdale. The Percheron is the oldest of our large draft breeds, and originally they were bred in France, and they became one of the most popular breeds in Canada as well as the United States.

While on a recent riverboat trip in France, a fellow traveler inquired as to how many types of draft horses did I think there were in France. I knew that there were at least three: the Percheron, the Brabant, and Norman Cob. The big Brabant is arguably from the Franco-Belgian border, one of the ancestors of the Belgians that we have here. While the Norman Cob is black, blocky, and stocky, it looks as if it could carry a bunch of Norman nobles as well as plow their fields. It looks like a stubby Friesian.


The powerful Percheron horse on Mackinac Island. The breed originated in France. The powerful Percheron horse on Mackinac Island. The breed originated in France. After making some inquires and reading some reliable sources, I’ve found that France is home to many draft horses and varieties. In fact, France is the “mother country” of the largest number of individual draft breeds in all of Europe. Why?

As it turns out, France was one of those countries in which the influence of the Roman civilization and geography lent a helping hand in the procreation of the horse breeds of Europe. Here developed the large-boned, largebodied, and large-headed beasts. In this country, these horses progressed from early warhorses of the Romans, crossed with wild native and prehistoric breeds. Drawings of early lions, as well as horses, are well documented in the caves of the Drodogne. France is a large country of varied topography. It’s also a land that has enough sustainability for herds of horses that adapted to the variety of areas and thrived through a domestication of sorts. The areas of mountains, deep valleys, wide rivers, good grasses, and a relatively mild temperature are all conducive factors. In France, it is also common to use horses as a meat supply, and so the aspect of breeding a large horse for work as well as food cannot be overlooked, and horses are useful commodities.

In the southern, salty marshes, where the Rhone River meets the Mediterranean Sea, the Camarque horse still thrives. While these horses are considered ponies, they’re also used for draft, as well as bullfighting in this region. Perhaps the most interesting of all of the draft breeds in France is the Mulassier, also known as the Trait du Mulassier. The animal is short in stature (15.1), in comparison to a Percheron (which can stand upwards to 19 hands). But the Mulassier is surer footed. The horse looks like a first cousin to a mule, and I would say that he is. The Mulassier is red dun in color, often sporting a dorsal stripe on his back. He can be found in the southwestern area of the country, and was harnessed to drain the marshes for farmland. The Mulassier was said to have been the result of the Poitou Donkey from that region and the Poitevin horse. This very odd horse will not win a beauty contest, nor a confirmation class. While the breed has been in the decline, and now numbers less than 300 in France, the breed is now on the national endangered list. They have, however, been seen in photographs of French country life in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Since the French are credited, or have credited themselves, with the development of photography, the “cheval” has been a documented subject early on. There are so many draft horse breeds that have originated from France, a four-volume set, “The Draft Horses of France,” is still in publication. And the big French horse line can be found elsewhere in Europe.

While the Vladimir Heavy Draft Horse of Russia is perhaps the best known of the bulky beasts from that country, many other large, cold-blooded horses can be found. Russia is also home to draft breed. Yet, comparing the size of Russia to France, the French are still ahead.

Drafts as “cold blooded” refers to the horses that come from Europe, those without the infusion of the “hot-blooded” horses of the south, mainly Asia Minor. The cold-blooded horses are also known as “ heavy horses,” even though they may have had an infusion of southern blood (i.e. Arabian or Barb). The lighter horses developed into saddle mounts, the heavy for war, work, or transport. Some breeds cross lines, such as the Friesian, which has been used in all of the above. In Russia there are more than 12 types of draft horse breeds still in use.

Great Britain and Ireland are known for the gentle, giant Suffolk Punch, who looks like he has dined on steroids, as well as the black and white Shires. The massive Clydesdale horses round out the British representation. And, all of the aforementioned breeds sport long, free-flowing hairs on their legs, which are called feathers. By comparison, the Irish Draught resembles a lighter riding horse. His head is much more in proportion, while his bone is wide and strong. It has been said that the Norman Cob influenced the Irish Draught, when the horses came to that island via the English (Normans), who breed the Horse of Normandy with native Celtic ponies to result in the breed.

French drafts include: The Ardennais, a close cousin to the Belgian, standing at 15.3 hands. The Auxios, which is a modern version of an old Burgundian horse. I saw these in a field but was too slow with my camera to capture them. They’re about the size of a Thoroughbred (16 to 16.1 hands) and twice as wide, often bay or red roan in color, the heads are large, the necks thick. The Boulonnais, similar to a giant Andulisian, in sizes Grande or Maree. The Breton, used for heavy driving (in three sizes), the Charollais, once used as a gun pulling and cavalry horse, now still working and sometimes bred for meat. The Comtis, found near Switzerland, the Mulassier, Norman Cob, the Percheron, from the area of Le Perche, the Poitiven, and the Poitou Draft Donkey. As a Frenchwoman proudly boasted to me, she “comes from a country where there are over 350 varieties of cheese, hundreds of regional wines, and over 20 flavors of chocolate.” Why not so with the horse? Do they continue to help farm the land, work in the vineyards, drain the marshes, and still work on the canals? Mais oui. It’s nice to know the French are as proud of them as they are of their passion for “joie d-vie.”

Happy spring!

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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