Breed Spotlight: Belgian Horses

Belgian horses are more than horsepower for pulling carts at Belgian Hill Farms in Oakland, Iowa. Breeding and raising Belgian horses is a family tradition for the farm’s owners, Terry and Deb Pierce. “I’ve had Belgians for more than 20 years and my grandfather had them on his farm for more than 55 years,” Terry said.

Today, the Pierces predominately use Belgians for pulling carts and wagons, but in the past they have used the horses for discing land and drilling oats. “Amish farmers still rely on draft horses, particularly Belgians, for working the fields and other farm chores,” he said. “Belgians have the heart and the power for doing farm work.”

From logging and pulling to field work and cart work, the Belgian horse has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity. Some farmers are choosing four-legged rather than fuel-driven horsepower to reduce their carbon footprints. In part, environmental and conservation concerns have ignited a growing interest in working draft horses.

Regardless of why farmers are choosing to use draft horses and what chores they are using them for, the Belgian is among the favorites of draft horse breeds because of its disposition and conformation.

“Belgians are easy to get along with and they haven’t lost the bone structure like some other breeds have through selective breeding programs,” Terry said. “Nearly 90 percent of pulling horses are Belgians because they are stronger and more powerful than other breeds.”

Breed history

Draft horse historians report that Belgians are the most direct descendants of the “Great Horse” of medieval times. The breed originated in the European country of Belgium where one horse breeder, Remi Vander Schueren, had the vision to develop a breed that was well-suited for pulling the heavy machinery that arrived with the industrial revolution.

Vander Schueren began to interbreed the four draft horse types of horses found in Belgium at the time. He named the resulting single breed the Belgian. The Belgium government supported and promoted his efforts and established an official stud book in 1886. An annual National Show held in Brussels became a premiere showcase for the breed and its talents.

Across the vast ocean, the American association, the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America, was founded in 1887 in Wabash, Indiana. The association offices are still there today. According to the corporation’s website, three partners and their lawyer, James D. Conner, Jr., organized the American Association of Importers and Breeders of Belgian Draft Horses. Conner served as the association’s secretary for 50 years and, in 1937, the name was changed to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America.

Among the reasons for the breed’s long-lasting popularity is its relatively limited variation in coat color. Early in the breed’s history, bay and roan coat colors were popular. “Most Belgians today are chestnut, red sorrel or blonde,” Terry said.

In fact, a red sorrel team with a white stripe on the face and four white socks has become the preferred look. The virtually one-color coat makes them easy to pair or match with a single horse to create a visually cohesive team.

See them in action

Aside from seeing Belgian horses pulling a cart in a parade or hard at work in the fields or woods, breed enthusiasts and newcomers alike have an opportunity to experience the largest single gathering of Belgian horses in North America in 2016.

Held only once every four years, the North American Belgian Championship 8 is scheduled for Oct. 10-16 at the Eastern State Expo in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Belgian horse owners from across the United States and Canada will bring their horses to compete in the championship event.

“The event is free for the public to attend and you can see horses and their handlers complete obstacle courses, compete in pulling events, exhibit in farm classes and there are even halter and riding classes for both English and western riders,” Terry said.

The inaugural event was held during the 1988 Royal Winter Fair in Toronto, Canada, as a joint effort between the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America and the Canadian Belgian Horse Association. For the past 28 years, the event has rotated between Canada and the U.S.

Buying a pair of Belgians

If you’re in the market to buy a team of Belgian horses and you’re green when it comes to handling working horses, spend a little more money up front to buy an older, well-broke team. “You will be money ahead if you buy a team that already knows how to drive and it’s new to you,” Terry said.

If you have owned riding horses before, but never draft horses, much of the required care will be similar. They’ll certainly eat more hay, but may not necessarily need more grain than light breed horses. Work with a veterinarian to determine an appropriate ration based on their size, age and workload. In many ways, caring for working horses is similar to owning riding horses.

“Belgians still need regular shoeing and vetting with preventative medicine and vaccinations to keep them healthy and sound,” he added.

A farrier and a veterinarian will be your best resources in determining the specific care the horses will need on your farm. Thanks to the careful preservation of Belgian horse breeders and owners across the U.S., these horses are bred for working and Belgians tend to stay sound with proper maintenance.

Once the horses are settled into your home, it’s important to simply enjoy them. “Prime Time Pete, ‘Pete,’ was one of our favorite horses over the years,” Terry reminisced.

The red roan Belgian gelding trained many kids how to drive. He was easygoing, making him the horse of choice for parades and shows. “He was my wife’s and my son’s cart horse and we used him anywhere we needed him. He was a fun horse to own,” he said.

The characteristics Terry admired in Pete are common among Belgians in general. “They are really a great breed,” he said.

Read more: Do Drafts Need Shoes?