The Ardennes, or Ardennais, is one of the world’s oldest and heaviest breeds of draft horses. These horses originate in the Ardennes region across France, Luxembourg, and Belgium.

The breed is famous for their use as war horses in Ancient Rome. While relatively rare in North America, Ardennes horses are still used for farm work and driving in Europe. Ardennes horses also influenced the development of several draft breeds throughout history.

Modern Ardennes horses are recognizable by their massive stature. However, their heavy muscling and large size are associated with health problems common in many draft breeds. Large breeds also need different management from average horses to stay healthy.

This breed profile will review the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Ardennes breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Ardennes horses.

Ardennes Horse History

Some historians believe the Ardennes breed descends directly from the ancient Belgian heavy horses once praised by Julius Caesar. These horses originally stood at only 14 hands tall, but the breed’s strength and size have significantly increased over the past 2,000 years.

Origin

Heavy draft horse breeds originated in the fertile farmland of present-day Belgium. Rich soil and abundant rain in the Ardennes region and nearby areas could support the nutritional needs of large animals.

The Ardennes is one of the oldest known breeds of draft horses. For millennia, farmers selectively bred these horses for size and power. The ancestors of Ardennes horses contributed to the development of several French and Belgian draft breeds, including the Auxois. [1]

Napoleon Bonaparte bred Ardennes war horses with Arabians to increase their stamina and endurance. Crosses to Percherons and Thoroughbreds also occurred, but these bloodlines had minimal impact on the Ardennes type.

Ardennes horses are also closely related to the modern Belgian Draft Horse. These horses share a common ancestry, and Belgian Drafts were used in the 19th century to increase the size and develop the heavier conformation that is characteristic of Ardennes horses today.

Historic Use

The farmers who originally developed the heavy ancestors of Ardennes horses needed large, powerful working animals for farm and draft work. However, the size of the Ardennes also attracted the attention of ancient military leaders.

Julius Caesar recommended the Ardennes horses for newly formed heavy horse cavalry units. The horses excelled as large war horses, carrying cavalry and pulling heavy artillery. Early Roman Emperors continued using the breed in military units for centuries. [2]

Great horses from the Ardennes region also served as war horses during the Crusades and artillery horses during the French Revolution.

In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte used large numbers of Ardennes horses during his Russian campaign. The breed survived pulling the army’s wagon train during the winter retreat from Moscow thanks to their hardiness. [3]

Populations of draft horses declined worldwide following the mechanization of agriculture and the modernization of warfare. But the breed is becoming more popular for recreational owners.

Breed Registry

In 1929, the first breed registry for Ardennes was established in Europe. Today, studbooks for Ardennes are maintained in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg.

Although not a breed registry, The Ardennes Horse Society of Great Britain works to preserve and promote the breed across the United Kingdom.

Ardennes horses were first imported to North America in the early 20th century. Some early imports were registered as Belgian draft horses, but no official breed registries for the Ardennes exist in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

The Ardennes horse is significantly taller and heavier today than its ancestors were during the Roman age. Breeding in recent centuries selected for horses with heavy muscling, giving these horses impressive pulling power for modern jobs.

Conformation

Ardennes horses are one of the shortest draft breeds. Most of these horses stand between 15.3 to 16 hands tall. However, they weigh significantly more than most light breeds with similar heights.

The breed has compact conformation with extensive musculature and short backs. Their heavy heads have broad faces with straight or slightly convex profiles.

Legs are short and sturdy, with thick feathering on their fetlocks. Their hooves may appear small relative to their large body.

The ideal Ardennes has a free-moving and long stride gait.

Colours

Bay and roan are the most common coat colours in Ardennes horses. Other acceptable colours in the breed include chestnut, gray, and palomino.

Ardennes typically have minimal white markings, limited to a star or blaze.

Their flaxen manes and tails are generally full. Some draft horse owners dock their horses’ tails. Once a traditional practice for protecting tails from getting caught in farm equipment, the AAEP now advocates against tail alterations due to welfare concerns. [4]

Temperament

Ardennes horses are gentle giants, known for having a calm, tolerant disposition. They are also hard-working and adaptable. Most Ardennes owners find these horses are willing to learn and enjoy working with their humans.

Despite their gentle disposition, Ardennes horses and other large draft breeds are not recommended for inexperienced handlers. Their size and power can be intimidating to beginners, even if the horse has a kind and reliable personality.

Disciplines

In some areas, working Ardennes horses are still used for farm and draft work. Draft horses are also helpful for forestry work to remove trees in areas not accessible for machinery.

However, most privately owned Ardennes horses are leisure and driving mounts.

Ardennes Horse Health

Since Ardennes horses are a relatively rare breed, there is limited research into genetic diseases and health problems in these horses. Most issues found in Ardennes horses are common in all draft horse breeds.

Genetic Diseases

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is a muscle disorder that is prevalent in many draft breeds, including the Ardennes. This condition is associated with an abnormal accumulation of glycogen in skeletal muscle, which can cause tying-up and exercise intolerance.

These horses also have less mitochondria (the ‘powerhouse’ of the cell) and reduced mitochondrial function. This impairs their ability to generate energy and relax their muscles. [13][14] This defect also results in higher levels of lactate with exercise which can impact their performance and exercise recovery. [15]

Genetic studies confirm that some Ardennes horses are carriers of the GYS1 gene variant that is responsible for causing PSSM Type 1. [5] Research suggests that this gene mutation originated around the fall of the Roman Empire in 500 AD, and that Ardennes horses may have been the first locally isolated breed in Europe to carry the mutation. [6]

In one study, 40% of Ardennes tested positive for PSSM, as indicated by the presence of the GYS1 mutation. [5] The high prevalence of PSSM in Ardennes horses may also be due to breeding with Belgians, which have an even higher incidence of the GYS1 mutation.

Furthermore, during World War II, the draft horse population experienced a significant decline, resulting in a genetic bottleneck. It’s theorized that many of the surviving Ardennes horses carried the GYS1 mutation, which has since become prevalent in the breed. [5]

Health Problems

Large draft breeds are also susceptible to chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL). This condition is characterized by impaired lymph fluid clearance, leading to a buildup of this fluid in the lower legs. [7]

Affected horses can also develop recurrent bacterial infections that cause skin lesions to extend up the legs. Horses with CPL often struggle with swelling in the legs and impaired mobility. CPL is an incurable, progressive disease that worsens throughout the horse’s lifetime.

Ardennes, along with other horses that have leg feathering, are prone to developing severe CPL. Due to the feathering, swelling in the legs might initially go unnoticed, leading to delays in implementing management strategies that could enhance the horse’s comfort. Regular cleaning, exercise, compression bandaging and medications can help manage clinical signs. [7]

Heavy horse breeds are also susceptible to joint issue arising due to increased wear and tear on their musculoskeletal system. Rapid growth rates in young horses and unbalanced nutrition can also contribute to developmental orthopedic disease in the breed. [8]

Care and Management

Draft horses have specific care and management needs that differ somewhat from lighter horse breeds. Providing your Ardennes with quality care helps to support their health, longevity, and optimal performance.

Implement a preventative wellness plan that includes routine veterinary care, such as vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

Regular farrier care is also important to maintain good hoof balance, which helps distribute the heavy body weight of the horse evenly, reducing loading forces on the joints and soft tissues of the distal limbs.

The feathering on their fetlocks can predispose this breed to pastern dermatitis, also known as mud fever. This can lead to painful skin infections if not addressed promptly. Grooming routines for Ardennes horses should prioritize keeping these hairs free of moisture and debris.

These horses typically require more spacious stalls than average-sized horses to accommodate their size and minimize the risk of becoming cast. Becoming cast refers to a potentially dangerous situation in which a horse is unable to stand up after lying down in a confined space.

Prolonged stall confinement can result in stocking up and impaired lymphatic drainage in the lower limbs. These horses need ample opportunities for unrestricted movement in large paddocks to help maintain healthy circulation. Ensure that the fencing around your horse’s paddocks is secure enough to contain a large, robust horse.

Keep in mind that the increased muscle mass of draft horses makes them more susceptible to overheating during exercise in hot weather. These horses should be monitored for signs of heat stress and provided with adequate drinking water. [7]

Ardennes Horse Nutrition

Supporting the health and performance of Ardennes horses involves understanding the unique dietary needs of this heavy draft breed. Many heavy draft horses require more forage than their owners realize.

Weight Maintenance

Ardennes horses are easy keepers, meaning they efficiently utilize feed and often require less energy than other breeds to maintain their weight. These heavy horses were bred specifically to maintain their significant muscle mass on minimal feed.

However, these horses are also prone to weight gain when overfed or given high-calorie feeds.

It is often challenging to distinguish obesity in Ardennes horses from the breed’s naturally heavy type. Body condition scoring can help owners determine if their horse is a healthy weight. A body condition score of 5 on a 9-point scale is considered ideal.

Ardennes horses, like other draft breeds, tend to be rather insulin sensitive not resistant and do not have issues with metabolic syndrome and laminitis unless they also have uncontrolled Cushing’s disease.

Unfortunately, Ardennes and other draft horses affected by laminitis have a poor prognosis due to the increased weight on their hooves. [9]

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 909 kg (2,000 lb) Ardennes horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 60 g (4 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 350 (3.5 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 107%
Protein (% of Req) 128%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.8%

 

Draft horses thrive on forage-based diets. Ardennes horses in light work can typically meet their energy requirements through forage alone, without needing supplemental feeds.

However, forage-only feeding programs are typically deficient in one or more essential vitamins and minerals. To ensure your Ardennes horse is not affected by any nutritional deficiencies, vitamin and mineral supplementation must be provided to balance the diet. [10]

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement that provides key nutrients to support hoof quality, healthy digestion, skin health and immune function in Ardennes horses. Feeding Omneity helps to ensure there are no gaps in your horse’s diet.

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Forage

Ardennes horses need a large volume of forage to supply adequate energy and protein, as well as maintain their digestive health. Horses typically consume about 2% of their body weight in forage daily on a dry matter basis.

This means that a 2,000 lb (909 kg) Ardennes horse needs approximately 43 pounds (20 kg) of hay per day. This is roughly twice the amount of forage required compared to light horse breeds of similar stature. Measure your horse’s hay to make sure you are providing the correct amount of forage for their needs.

Mid-maturity or mature grass hays with low-starch and low-sugar content are well-suited for Ardennes horses, especially those with PSSM. Restricting the intake of hydrolyzable carbohydrates (HC) (ESC and starch), which are digested to glucose, helps limit the accumulation of glycogen in the muscles.

Submit a forage sample for analysis to ensure your hay is safe for your horse. If the combined starch and sugar (ESC) content is above 10%, you can soak the hay to reduce its sugar content.

In overweight horses, restricting forage intake to 1.5% of body weight may be necessary to promote weight loss. Slow feeders can help extend forage availability in horses that need their hay rationed.

Some pasture grasses are too high in starch and sugar for Ardennes horses. Consider using a grazing muzzle or dry lot for turnout to limit grass intake.

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Feeding Recommendations

Most Ardennes horses don’t need commercial concentrates in their diet. Feeding energy-dense grains can provide excess starch and sugar, potentially leading to muscle and digestive complications.

If your Ardennes has PSSM, it is especially important to maintain a low-starch, low-sugar diet to prevent muscle issues. Horses with PSSM can safely get up to 20% of their dietary energy from fat supplements, which are a safe source of calories for these horses. [12]

However, there are anecdotal reports of horses on very high fat diets developing insulin resistance and even laminitis. Consult with a nutritionist before adding fat your Ardenne’s diet.

When feeding draft horses, prioritizing gut health is key. Taking steps to prevent colic is especially important due to the heightened risk of complications during colic surgery in heavier horses. [11] Simple strategies to help reduce colic risk include:

  • Avoid feeing large volumes of pelleted feeds
  • Add loose salt to your horse’s ration
  • Provide your horse with ample water
  • Use raised feeders to prevent sand and dirt intake

Draft horses consume more water than average-sized horses. Make sure your Ardennes always has access to fresh water, and monitor them closely for signs of dehydration when exercising in hot weather.

Our nutritionists also recommend feeding 2 – 3 tablespoons of loose salt to Ardennes daily to ensure they get enough sodium. In addition to maintaining electrolyte balance, salt stimulates thirst and promotes hydration.

Nutritional Supplements

When formulating a diet for your Ardenne horse, the primary focus should be on offering a forage-based diet that fulfills all vitamin and mineral needs. After balancing your horse’s diet, you can consider other supplements to address individual needs.

  • W-3 Oil: Ardennes horses with PSSM or CPL may benefit from w-3 Oil, which is a fat supplement that is enriched with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA and natural Vitamin E. This supplement supports joint function, metabolic health and skin and coat health.
  • Acetyl-L-Carnitine: This antioxidant supplement can be an alternative to a high fat diet. It assists by redirecting glucose away from formation of glycogen and into energy pathways. ALCar also supports production of mitochondria.
  • Optimum Digestive Health: Formulated with probiotics, prebiotics, yeast, and digestive enzymes, this supplement supports hindgut health, nutrient absorption and immune function in Ardennes horses. Optimum Digestive Health is a good option for horse on a forage-restricted diet to help maintain a healthy hindgut microbiome.
  • Jiaogulan: This herbal supplement is commonly used to support blood flow and maintain normal regulation of inflammation. Feeding Jiaogulan to Ardennes horses may support hoof health and circulation in the lower limbs.

Want personalized guidance on your Ardennes horse’s feeding program? Submit their information online for a free consultation with our experienced equine nutritionists to help you formulate a balanced diet.

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References

  1. Jordana, J. et al. Analysis of genetic relationships in horse breeds. J Equine Vet Sci. 1995.
  2. Klecel, W. et al. From the Eurasian Steppes to the Roman Circuses: A Review of Early Development of Horse Breeding and Management. Animals. 2021.
  3. Roy, K. The Napoleonic Wars. Ind Hist Rev. 2000.
  4. Lefebvre, D. et al. Tail docking in horses: a review of the issues. Animal. 2007.
  5. Baird, J. et al. Presence of the glycogen synthase 1 (GYS1) mutation causing type 1 polysaccharide storage myopathy in continental European draught horse breeds. Vet Rec. 2010.
  6. Van Den Hoven, R. Where Do the Cold Blood Breeds Come from and Where Does Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy Fit in?. Equine Vet J. 2014.
  7. Brys, M. et al. Chronic Progressive Lymphedema in Belgian Draft Horses: Understanding and Managing a Challenging Disease. Vet Sci. 2023.
  8. De Behr, V. et al. The course of some bone remodelling plasma metabolites in healthy horses and in horses offered a calcium-deficient diet. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutrit. 2003.
  9. Senderska-Plonowska, M. et al. The Differences in Histoarchitecture of Hoof Lamellae between Obese and Lean Draft Horses. Animals 2022.
  10. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.
  11. Van Loon, J. et al. Colic Surgery in Horses: A Retrospective Study Into Short- and Long-Term Survival Rate, Complications and Rehabilitation toward Sporting Activity. J Equine Vet Sci. 2020.
  12. Ribeiro, W. et al. The Effect of Varying Dietary Starch and Fat Content on Serum Creatine Kinase Activity and Substrate Availability in Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. J Vet Intern Med. 2008.
  13. Tosi, I. et al. Altered mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation capacity in horses suffering from polysaccharide storage myopathy. J Bioenerg Biomembr. 2018.
  14. Barrey, E. et al. Gene expression profiling in equine polysaccharide storage myopathy revealed inflammation, glycogenesis inhibition, hypoxia and mitochondrial dysfunctions. BMC Vet Res. 2009.
  15. Valberg, S.J. et al. Skeletal muscle metabolic response to exercise in horses with ‘tying-up’ due to polysaccharide storage myopathy. Equine Vet J. 1999.