The Belgian Draft Horse is native to Belgium and was bred to work their farmers’ fields. Centuries ago, the horse breeders in the Lowlands developed this heavy, powerful breed of working animal from the large Flemish “great horses” that carried armoured knights into battle. The foundation stock for the Belgian was the Brabant horse which was a recognized breed of horses in medieval times. The Belgian Heavy Horse, Brabançon, or Brabant, is a draft horse breed from the Brabant region of modern Belgium, where it is called the Cheval de trait belge or Flemish: Belgisch Trekpaard or Brabants Trekpaard or Brabander.
Because chivalrous warfare favoured these large destriers, the Brabant was in great demand as mounts for cavalry units and as admirable carriage horses. The stock was exported all over Europe, and these horses are now thought to be among the foundation bloodlines for the Clydesdale, Shire and Suffolk breeds in England, and the Percheron breed in France.
Right up until the late 1940s, the Belgian and the Brabant were essentially the same breed. But in the events following World War II, the Brabant was bred to be even heavier and thicker through the body, while American breeders preferred a taller and lighter-bodied Belgian Draft Horse.
In 1879, a group of French-speaking horse breeders in Liege decided to start a studbook for their Brabant horses as well as some Flemish horses they imported and bred with the local Brabants. The Ardennes studbook they created in 1881, in Neufchateau Belgium, and is probably the oldest studbook in the country. In 1884, a group of Dutch speaking Flemish breeders started their own book. Then in 1885, five influential breeders started a national studbook in which the Flemish horse and Brabant horse were incorporated into one breed, the Belgian Draft Horse.
Most Belgian Draft Horses stand between 16.2-17 hands and weigh around 900 kilograms (2,000 pounds). North American Belgians tend to be light chestnut in colour or blonde, sorrel, or roan with a flaxen mane and tail. They have relatively small, well-shaped heads, sloping shoulders, a strong wide back, heavy muscling throughout the body and legs, and big strong feet. Despite their size they are relatively easy keepers. There are currently more Belgians than any other draft breed in the United States.
Belgians have a high occurrence of Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa or JEB, an inherited genetic disorder that causes newborn foals to lose large areas of skin. There is no happy ending with this disease; in most cases, the suffering animal must be euthanized. A research study published in 2004 found that 17.1% of tested Belgians in the US and Canada were carriers, including 13.5% of stallions and 28.9% of mares. This is significant because if carriers are not mated then JEB can be avoided, and scientists are studying the disease further in the hopes of completely eliminating it from the population.
The world’s tallest horse happens to be an 18-year-old Belgian Draft Horse named Big Jake. The photo below is from the 22 May 2018 CNN report on the horse breaking the Guinness World Record for the tallest horse at 20.2 3⁄4 hands tall. Big Jake weighs in at 1179 kg (2,600 lbs) and although we don’t know for sure, he’s probably named after the 1971 John Wayne Western.
Belgian Draft Horses are strong and willing working animals, able to pull tremendous weights. This makes them a popular choice for pulling competitions, but they are also powerful and breathtaking when hitched to a cart or wagon, from singles to eight-horse hitches. Some have become show horses and pleasure riding mounts.
For more information, visit:
canadianbelgianhorse.com (Canadian Belgian Horse Association)
belgiancorp.com (Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America)