The Belgian Draft Horse is native to the country of Belgium, whose farmers developed a heavy, powerful breed of working animal from the large Flemish “great horses” that carried armoured knights into battle. Because warfare favoured these large destriers, the Brabant were 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.
The foundation stock for the Belgian was originally the Brabant and until the 1940s, the Belgian and the Brabant were essentially the same breed. However, following World War II, the Brabant was bred to be heavier and thicker through the body, while in the United States breeders preferred a taller and lighter-bodied animal. There are currently more Belgians than any other draft breed in the US.
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. 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.
Most Belgians 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.
The world’s tallest horse happens to be an 18-year-old Belgian named Big Jake, who stands 20.2 3⁄4 hands tall and weighs in at 1179 kg (2,600 lbs).
Belgians 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.