Draft (Draught) Horses – The Belgian
By Michael Russell
As the name implies. this breed originated in Belgium. Back in the medieval times, the center of Western Europe became well-known for the large black horses known as “Flemish”. These are the horses which carried the heavily armored knights into battle. By necessity, only the largest and strongest of this breed were trained as “chargers” or “destriers”. It is from this stock that other draft breeds drew for genetic material. At the heart of this area, Belgium was established as a country. Stallions of the region were exported throughout parts of Europe, as the need grew for the larger stock horses to work in the industrial and agricultural settings.
Because Belgium was the resource upon which other countries relied for these large stock animals, all that remained was for the country to establish the breed and strengthen the genetic material already at hand. The Belgian government quickly helped to refine the breed by setting up district shows, from which the winners would move up to compete in the national show in Brussels. From those who showed in the national, the finest were chosen by the country’s inspection committees to stand as stallions for public service. The result of these efforts was that the fixed breed type rapidly improved and the Belgian was established as a national heritage, and a treasure.
When the Belgian was first imported into America, they were criticized for being “too thick, too low-headed, straight shouldered, and round-boned”. However, the Belgians quickly found a place with American farmers because they were easy to maintain, were hard and willing workers, and had good dispositions. So the Belgian remained, and American breeders set out to keep what was right and fix what was “wrong”. The result has become one of the greatest success stories in animal breeding history. Today’s American Belgian still has the solid middle, deep strong feet, plenty of bone and strong musculature, and that great disposition. He is still easy to maintain, ships well, and remains a hard and willing worker. American breeders very simply developed a horse with cleaner lines, more slope in the shoulders and pasterns, and a more elegant look around the head and neck.
As far as color, while the first Belgians to be imported to America were a wide mix, about 50% were bay and bay-brown. However, there was really no particular color which was a defining characteristic. Through breeding, shown by American preference, the ideal for a Belgian in the U.S. today is a chestnut or sorrel with a snow-white mane and tail, a white stripe on the face, and four white socks. In other parts of the world, one can still find a very wide assortment of colors.
In height, the Belgian is usually 16 hands (162.5 centimeters, or 64 inches at the shoulder), but can exceed 18 hands (183 cm., or 72 in. at the shoulder). The American Belgian usually has a rather large head, short, “feathered”, muscular legs, and large hind quarters.
The average weight is 1600 to 2000 pounds (113.6 to 142 stones), but stallions can exceed 2400 pounds (170.4 stones).
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