The Percheron developed in the Le Perche province of France, located about 50 miles southwest of Paris. It is believed that French medieval knights often rode ancestors of the modern breed – the large gray chargers depicted on drawings and paintings from the middle ages.
After the invention of gun powder and the long bow put an end to the knights and their war horses, a large, powerful breed was needed to pull heavy coaches. The horse breeders of Le Perche responded by creating such a horse. They became known as Diligence Horses.
As the populations and commerce of cities like Paris grew, large horses were needed to pull omnibuses and to haul heavy loads of grain and other produce. The Le Perche horsemen again answered the call by breeding larger, more muscular steeds.
At first, these horses were called Norman Horses. Later, the name changed to Percheron-Norman, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the horse was simply called the Percheron. By this time, the breed had earned the respect of horsemen all over the world, and by the 1880s, they were the most popular breed in the US. In that decade alone, more than 5,000 stallions and 2,500 mares were imported to America, mostly from the birthplace of the breed.
Percherons are usually between 16 .2 and 18 hands tall and weigh between 1,700 up to 2,600 pounds. Although they’re usually gray or black, other colors are sometimes seen and are permissible in some registries. These are rugged animals, with heavy thigh muscles and wide, deep chests. The arms, forearms, and gaskins should be well muscled, and the hip should be large and round. The withers should be well defined.
The breed has a fairly thick neck and an attractive head with wide forehead, large eyes, and a straight facial profile. The ears should be small in relation to the size of the head. Most Percherons have thick manes, but the tails are commonly docked.
Percherons are known for their outstanding temperament. They’re calm, gentle, and intelligent and are amazingly easy keepers for their size. A good Percheron is a willing worker and a willing learner, and it is very adaptable to different climates. Its gait should be balanced, with clean action.
For years, Percherons were popular in circuses, especially for standing bareback riders. A rider would leap onto the big horse’s back and ride in an erect position as the Percheron trotted or cantered around the ring, never breaking stride. Sticky pine rosin was often placed on the animal’s back to help the rider stay on, and the breed was sometimes referred to as “rosin backs.”
Percherons excel in several disciplines today. They’re strong enough for pulling heavy loads, yet elegant enough for pulling fancy carriages. They’re often used as an all-around work horse on farms and as saddle horses.
Some modern breeders have developed a sort of Percheron sport horse, with less bulky muscling, a longer back, and a longer, thinner neck. These horses are often used for jumping. Horses of lighter bone are often crossed with Percherons to produce large jumpers with substantial bone.