Training is the most important consideration when choosing which draft horse breed is the right fit for your farming or woodlot enterprise. For those just starting out with drafts, the horse(s) should be quiet and well-trained with many “miles” in the harness. Conversely, experienced draft horse handlers have the skills needed to handle green or untrained horses.
“There’s a horse out there for every person’s ability,” said David Brown, president of the Percheron Horse Association of America.
Often, an equally important consideration is the horse’s breed. Each draft horse breed has a unique history and is well loved for its breed specific characteristics. Conformation, appearance and ability to withstand hard work are among the reasons people choose Percherons.
“We chose the breed because of their look,” said Skylar Clemens. “They can go from farm to show, which is great for parades and other events. They are also smart and have a gentle disposition.”
Clemens and his parents rely on Charlie and Travis, a team of Percheron geldings, to work the family’s 6-acre market garden and hay fields on their Pennsylvania farm.
Erika Marczak, a Connecticut-based farmer agreed. “They are classy and rugged and if I break down in the field I can ride them home,” she said.
For the past five years, she has looked to her four Percherons to work her corn, small grains and vegetable fields. Brown said Percherons – who are also good for logging – are popular because of the traits they inherited from medieval ancestors. “Percherons are one of the few drafts that can be traced back to the Arabians,” he said.
Arabians are known for having tremendous heart and long-lasting endurance. Their intelligence makes them particularly well suited for woodlots.
“When they are working in the woods, the handler can tie up the lines, and once a log is attached they can point the horses to the handler on the other end and the horses will walk right to them,” he said. “Once the log is dropped, the horse can be turned around and sent back for another.”
Carriage drivers often opt for Percherons because of their photogenic nature. For example, on Mackinac Island in Michigan where vehicles aren’t allowed, gray Percherons are the horse of choice for the livery service that greets visitors at the dock and delivers them to their lodging.
“I asked one of the drivers why they chose gray Percherons and he told me because they are more photogenic and reflect the light much better for tourists trying to snap pictures,” Brown said.
History of the breed
Le Perche, on old French province, is considered the “cradle of the breed.” Le Perche is approximately 50 miles southwest of Paris and is bordered by Normandy on the northeast and the Beauce country, known as the granary of France, on the east.
While Percherons are usually black or gray, they can also be sorrel, bay or roan. Many Percherons have white markings on the head and feet, but excessive white is undesirable. On average, Percherons range in height from 15 to 19 hands high and can weigh up to 2,600 pounds with the average being around 1,900.
Unlike their other draft cousins, the Percheron horse does not have feathering on the lower legs. Feathering is the long hairs that are common in draft horse breeds that can almost cover the hooves.
Feathering is highly sought after and increases a horse’s value in some breeds, but Percheron breeders and owners value no feathering.
The extra hair holds moisture, creating a damp environment where fungus can thrive creating a condition known as scratches. “Percherons tend to work in damp conditions so their lack of feathers makes them less susceptible to scratches,” Brown said.
Getting started with Percherons
Working with horses takes a lot of practice. “Find a good mentor who will let you watch them work,” Marczak said.
Those who own and work Percherons consider themselves a family who is welcoming of newcomers and willing to share their expertise.
“I try to know someone in every state,” Brown said. “That way when we get a letter from someone interested in getting involved with Percherons, I can connect them with a breeder.”
The national association registers nearly 1,000 new horses each year. In 1954, a mere 85 horses were recorded and the breed in the United States was in danger of disappearing. A group of devoted enthusiasts rallied to preserve the breed. Today the breed enjoys a healthy interest and the tight-knit group is eager to embrace newcomers.
The Draft Animal Power Network is another resource for those working with draft horses. The group maintains a website, an online forum, a Facebook group and a page for the Draft Animal Power Field Days and other events in the Northeast.
“It is a great way to find a mentor in your area and has helped countless people find the information that they need to get started or to expand on existing knowledge,” Marczak said.
In general, Percherons don’t require care that is any different from any other horse. There are always exceptions, but Brown noted that feeding the recommended rate of 25 pounds of dry feed per 1,000 pounds of body weight is a good starting place for determining rations. “That means each Percheron will eat about a bale of hay a day,” he said.
Clemens has also found it helpful to feed minerals to his team of Percherons. “Minerals really help make a horse’s coat nice, which makes it a lot easier to get a horse ready for a show or parade,” he said. “That along with a good bath really makes a horse look nice.”
Once you have the horsemanship skills to safely work with a team of Percherons, Clemens offers tips for successfully working in a vegetable field. “Start with jobs that if you mess up a little, it won’t hurt as much,” he said. “That applies to all types of work.”
Since Clemens primarily uses the horses for tillage and cultivation in the market garden, proper row spacing is key.
Every four years, the Percheron Horse Association of America hosts the World Percheron Congress. More than 1,000 Percheron horses are on display and compete in various events from obstacle courses to a pulling contest, log skidding, show cart and under saddle classes. The next Congress will take place Oct. 8-13, 2018, at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa. For more about the Percheron horse, contact the Percheron Horse Association of America at (740) 694-3602.
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