Since time immemorial, the La Perche region of France has produced the heavy horses known by that region's name. Most often black or gray, Percherons boast some Arabian blood in their ancient lineage, resulting in a somewhat more refined head than other draft breeds and relatively little leg feathering. Today's Percherons weigh, on average, about 1,500 pounds. They stand between 16 and 17 hands tall.
While the complete history of the Percheron horse is lost in the mists of time, horses resembling the breed exist in paintings dating back to the Middle Ages. In the early 1800s, the French government established a stud at Le Pin to breed horses for its armies, according to Oklahoma State University. All modern Percherons descend from a horse named Jean le Blanc, foaled in 1823. The first Percherons arrived in the United States in 1839, soon becoming the most popular of the draft horse breeds in both rural and urban areas.
In medieval times, Percheron-type horses were used by knights in battle. They also carried crusaders from Europe to the Middle East. It's possible that Percheron ancestors were part of the victor's spoils when the French defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours in the eighth century.
When horse power was found on the hoof and not under the hood, Percherons ruled the roads. They pulled omnibuses on city streets, providing basic transportation for millions of people. Teamsters used these large horses for moving freight, so they played a crucial role in commerce. Percherons pulled stagecoaches, moving passengers and mail over long distances. These horses combined strength with attractiveness, making them suitable for pulling wagons loaded with goods or fancy carriages.
While the Percheron had long pulled plows in its native France, by the late 19th century thousands of Percheron stallions and mares were imported into the United States. Their offspring tilled the fields of American farmers. The desire for Percheron stock by American farmers remained strong until the advent of the World War I. By the 1930s, over 70 percent of purebred draft horses in the United States were Percherons, according to the Percheron Association of America.
Today, Percherons are used for riding and driving. They are also crossed with lighter breeds, such as the thoroughbred, to create athletic, large-boned sporthorses. Their modern uses hark back to their history. Organic farmers might use them to plow fields, avoiding the use of fossil fuels. These large horses do well in woodlot operations, able to venture where tractors get stuck. Commercial carriage operators use Percherons and they're even found in simulated warfare. Visit a Renaissance fair and find knights jousting with each other from the backs of Percherons.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.