Belgian horses with flaxen manes and ornate leather harnesses are showstoppers at the annual Maple Syrup Festival in Warkworth, Ontario. The team is stabled at the Sandy Flat Sugar Bush for the week-long event. The lovely horses belong to a local family who also leases the wagon or sleigh, depending on the weather.

Belgian horses pulling wagon at festivalTheir sled carries twenty passengers on a circuitous route around the snowy bush. The weight of the riders is inconsequential when the Belgians are in harness! Young people who show special interest and ask smart questions are usually allowed to feed the team a little snack (a half carrot each) between rides.

The big Belgian Draft horses that pull wagons and sleighs for these and other festival-goers are likely descended from horses imported from Europe a century earlier. The first shipment of purebred Belgian Draft horses arrived just after the US Civil War. For history buffs, that means that any Belgians you spy in period reenactments or Civil War movies are out of place; it’s a recorded fact that the first of the breed was imported to the United States in 1866 (one year after the war ended) by Dr. A.G. Van Hoorebeke from Monmouth, Illinois. The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America wasn’t formed until 1887.

Origins of the Belgian Draft Horse

There are essentially two acts to the Belgian Draft Horse origin story. The first part happened in medieval Europe, in the Netherlands or what we now call Belgium, and the second phase occurred after the horses came to America in the mid-1800s.

To start the story, it’s believed that Belgians are the direct lineal descendants of the “Great Horse” of the middle ages.  The lowlands area of Western Europe gave rise to the large black Flemish horses that was referred to by medieval writers. By the mid-1700s, these horses were favoured for mounted warfare and for pulling heavy wagons, and they were thought to have provided the genetic material from which many modern draft breeds later developed.

Brabants, another heavy horse breed from Belgium, were also one of the founding influences of the Belgian horse. Other western European heavy draft horse breeds included the Suffolk Punch, Clydesdale and Shire. The Belgian and Brabant have been genetically isolated from one another for nearly a century as breeders sought a different style of horse.

The Ardennes horse from the forested hills along the modern Franco-Belgian border is another source which likely contributed to the creation of the European Belgian. This horse was originally a short (about 13.2 h), stout, hairy pony, but around 740 A.D. it is is believed that it was crossed with the Barb horse to create a slightly taller horse better suited to agricultural work.

Bookie - Brooklyn Supreme, Belgian Draft, 1928

Brooklyn “Brookie” Supreme (April 12, 1928 – September 6, 1948) was a red roan Belgian stallion noted for his extreme size.  Brookie may be the world record holder for largest (but not tallest) horse, and he was designated the world’s heaviest horse. He stood 19.2 hands (198 cm (6ft, 6in)) tall and weighed 3,200 lbs (1,451 kg). His horseshoes required 30 inch lengths (76 cm) of iron. One of his great-grandfathers was another famous horse, Farceur 7332. For much of his life, Brooklyn Supreme was owned by Charles Grant Good and Ralph M. Fogleman of Iowa who exhibited the horse around the USA, charging spectators a dime to view the animal.

In America, the second phase in the development of the Belgian Draft Horse breed occurred. The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America was officially founded in February of 1887 in Wabash, Indiana, and the breed registry offices are still in that city today. In 1903 the government of Belgium sent an exhibit of horses to the St. Louis World Fair and the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago, which created a lot of interest in the breed.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 in Europe effectively halted the importation of horses and American Belgian breeders were left on their own. Smart horsemen sought the right kind of mates for their horses and gradually began to develop their own style of Belgian.

Bob Langrish photo

The post-war depression in agriculture further slowed horse imports to America, but by 1925 things were moving again and in 1937, the Golden Anniversary of the Belgian Draft Horse Association, there were over 3,000 new purebred horses registered.

The last major import of Belgian Draft Horses from Europe went to E. F. Dygert, an Iowa importer, through New York on January 15, 1940, four months after World War II had started and four months before the German invasion of Belgium. From that point forward the American bloodstock matured on its own into the horses we see today.

After the war, a number of factors reduced the demand for heavy horses. The labour shortage of World War II, the introduction of small, rubber-tired row-crop tractors, and the tremendous push for mechanization in the wake of World War II put all draft breeds under severe pressure. But Belgians bounced back in the ’60s and ’70s and now they’re well ranked among the world’s most popular horse breeds.

How big are Belgian horses?

The Belgian horse’s average height is between 16 and 17 hands tall (1.62 to 1.72 meters), and they weigh around 900 kilograms or between 1,800 to 2,200 pounds.

Belgians are typically chestnut, red sorrel, bay or roan. The most desirable colour is chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail. These horses have relatively small, well-shaped heads, sloping shoulders, and strong, wide backs. They are well-muscled throughout the body and legs, and have big, strong hooves. Yet despite their size, they’re relatively easy keepers.

Are Belgians bigger than Clydesdales?

Yes and no. Belgian horses are larger-bodied, but shorter than Clydesdales. A Belgian horse’s average height is between 16 and 17 hands tall (1.62 to 1.72 meters), and they weigh around 900 kilograms, or between 1,800 to 2,200 pounds. Clydesdales tend to be around 18 hands and they’re a hundred kilos (220 lbs) lighter. The most notable difference between the two breeds, besides their colouring, is their legs and feet. Clydsdales have enormous hooves and shaggy legs with white hair called feathering. The Belgian Draft Horse also has big feet, but they’re smaller than the Clydesdale’s and they have much less feathering on their legs.

Are Belgians the tallest horses in the world?

Not necessarily. While it’s true that Big Jake, a chestnut Belgian gelding, was noted for his extreme height and was officially the World’s Tallest Horse, he was the exception. Big Jake was measured by Guinness World Records in 2010 and at that time he stood at 20.3 hands (210.2 cm (6 ft 10-3/4 in) tall and weighed in at 1,133 kg or about 2,600 pounds. Big Jake was born in Nebraska, and lived at Smokey Hollow Farm near Poynette, Wisconsin, prior to his death in 2021 at the age of 20. He remains an exception, however, as it’s generally accepted that Shires are the tallest breed, averaging 17-19 hands and weighing 1,800-2,400 pounds.

How long do Belgian horses live?

Belgians usually live for about eighteen years. Most heavy draft breeds have a lifespan of about eighteen years, and this is consistent with Belgians and Brabants. Some Belgian horses live into their twenties, but this is rare.

What are Belgian Draft horses used for?

Belgian horses in harness doing field world

Belgian Draft Horses, Bob Langrish photo

Belgians are among the strongest horses in the world and they’re sought out for their strength. They can pull really heavy weights and yet they’re kind, gentle and known for being really easy to handle. They are still used for all manner of draft work and that includes plowing, pulling carriages and giving sleigh rides at Christmas and during the sugaring in maple syrup country. Belgians are especially sought after for logging as this is one place where there are no roads and horses are better than machines at skidding logs in the bush.

Additionally, it should be noted how the riding of draft horses is becoming increasingly popular, in a variety of disciplines from western to jumping. Belgians can certainly be ridden, and some are first-rate trail riding horses. Belgians and Belgian crosses are frequently used at commercial trail riding facilities, but riders should not expect a smooth ride.

Are Belgian horses good for beginners?

Selecting a Belgian horse for a new rider would be an unusual choice due to the horse’s size and strength, but it’s not uncommon as the breed is so popular. Due to their superb temperament, these horses do often become school horses for beginners. They are gentle in hand and under saddle and owners will tell you they’re beloved for their intelligence. The gentle giants are known for being quiet and docile and yet more than willing to please when tasked with a job they understand. They’re hard-working animals that are loyal, easy to handle, and friendly to their human companions.

What health issues challenge Belgian Draft Horses?

Belgian Draft Horses have a high occurrence of Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa (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. Genetic testing of all breeding stock and avoiding interbreeding of carriers is recommended to prevent the incidence of JEB. Scientists are studying the disease further in the hopes of completely eliminating it from the population.

For more information, visit:
Canadian Belgian Horse Association
Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America