The Belgian Draft is one of the largest horse breeds in the world. With roots tracing back to the heavy horses that carried Medieval knights into battle, the Belgian has an impressive stature and exceptional power.

In North America, Belgian Draft horses outnumber the population of all other draft breeds combined. These American Belgian Drafts became genetically distinct when importations of European horses slowed in the early twentieth century.

Once relied upon for agricultural work, the breed continues to gain popularity thanks to their versatility and good dispositions. While Belgian Drafts are still used for driving, many Belgian owners enjoy riding these giant gentles.

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

Belgian Draft Horse History

Throughout history, Belgian Drafts have helped humans win wars, cultivate fields, and haul heavy loads. Historical evidence suggests this breed is a descendant of the “Great Horse” that dominated battlefields in the Middle Ages. [1]

Origin

The demand for horses with the strength to pull large farm equipment and carry knights with heavy armour led to the development of several heavy draft breeds in Europe.

Fertile soil in the lowlands of Western Europe provided farmers with the pastures necessary to raise large horses. Historians believe the “Great Horses” of Medieval texts originated from Flemish horses bred in the region that is now modern Belgium.  [1]

Large, muscled horses were also necessary for cultivating the thick, heavy soil of the region. Unlike other areas of Europe where the trends shifted to lighter riding horses, Belgian breeders focused on the Belgian Heavy Draft, also known as the Brabant.

Records of Belgian draft breeding date back to the 17th century, and the first studbook began in 1886.

Historic Use

Belgian stallions were exported worldwide to produce larger animals for industrial and farming use. Their stocky builds were particularly well-suited for pulling heavy plows, and the breed gained recognition as a powerful working horse. [2]

Belgian breeders organized exhibits to showcase their stallions, including the Great National Show in Brussels. Inspection committees evaluated the stallions, leading to a rapid improvement and establishment of a fixed breed type.

The first Belgian Drafts imported to North America arrived in the 19th century. In 1904, the Belgian government sent an exhibit of Belgian Drafts for the St. Louis World’s Fair and International Livestock Exposition.

The exhibit generated significant interest in the breed, and imports skyrocketed until the First World War suddenly brought them to a halt. After that, American breeders used their existing stock to develop a distinct line of American Belgian Drafts.

While demand for the breed fell after the mechanization of agriculture, the numbers rebounded as Belgian Drafts gained popularity as recreational horses. [3]

Breed Registry

In 1887, breed enthusiasts founded the American Association of Importers and Breeders of Belgian Draft Horses. The organization changed its name to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America in 1937.

The BDCHA maintains the official breed registry for American Belgian Drafts and promotes the preservation of the purebred Belgian Draft in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

Centuries of selective breeding have reinforced characteristics in the Belgian Draft, making the breed instantly recognizable. These horses are typically gentle giants with massive builds and kind personalities.

Conformation

The Belgian Draft isn’t the tallest breed of draft horse in the world, and most stand between 16.2 and 17 hands. But they can weigh twice as much as light breeds with similar heights at 1800 to 2400 pounds.

American Belgian Drafts are less stocky than the original Belgian Heavy Drafts but have similar proportions. These horses have compact bodies with short, wide backs. Powerful loins connect to massive hindquarters, which add to the pulling power of muscular shoulders.

These draft horses have short, strong legs with limited feathering. They have relatively short necks and proportional heads. Tails are sometimes docked in this breed, but the practice is unnecessary and can have negative welfare implications. [4]

Colours

American breeding has favoured Belgian Drafts with chestnut or sorrel coats, white face stripes, and four white socks. Other colours seen in the breed include bay, black, and roan. Grey coats are possible but rare.

Temperament

Despite their size, most Belgian Drafts have good temperaments that make them easy to handle. However, their strength may not be suitable for beginner riders without guidance.

These horses also have willing work ethics, and many Belgian Draft owners admire the breed for their bravery and loyalty.

Disciplines

Draft breeds like the Belgian have conformations well-suited for pulling. Belgian Drafts are most commonly used for driving disciplines, and many are seen pulling recreational carriages and sleighs.

Some modern Belgian Drafts are still working horses. On the Belgian coast, fishermen use traditional shrimp fishing practices with Belgian Drafts, riding the horses into the water while dragging a net behind them.

Belgian Drafts also make enjoyable pleasure mounts for larger riders. These horses have more whoa than go under saddle and often prefer leisurely rides to faster gaits.

Health Conditions

Unfortunately, large draft breeds often have shorter lifespans than average horses, with few Belgian Drafts living past 20 years. But prioritizing horse health can help Belgian Draft owners make the most of their time with their equine partners.

Genetic Diseases

Junctional epidermolysis bullosa is a fatal inherited disease that causes severe blistering and skin lesions in affected newborn foals. Studies suggest that over 17% of Belgian Drafts in North America carry the gene responsible for this disorder. [5]

Polysaccharide storage myopathy type 1 (PSSM1) is also prevalent in Belgian Draft horses. This muscle disease is characterized by the accumulation of sugars in skeletal muscles, which can lead to tying up.

Researchers believe the PSSM1 variant was under positive selection in the Belgian Horse Breed due to its advantages for workhorses with limited sugar intake. One study of 103 Belgians found that 36% of the horses were positive for PSSM. [6]

Health Problems

Research shows that 16% of Belgian Draft horses are affected by shivers, a progressive neuromuscular disease characterized by gait abnormalities when backing up. Research continues to investigate genes that may be responsible for the disease. [7]

Large draft breeds, including Belgians, are susceptible to chronic progressive lymphedema. CDL is a disease of the lymphatic system characterized by lower leg swelling, lymph buildup, skin folds, and nodules.

The swelling progresses throughout life and eventually causes lameness, secondary infections, and premature death.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for chronic progressive lymphedema. Exercise, regular cleaning, compression bandaging, and certain medications can help manage the disease.

Care and Management

Belgian Draft Horses need quality basic care that includes a veterinary wellness program with regular vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

Because of their size, drafts often need larger stalls and turnouts than average horses to feel comfortable and safe.

When grooming your horse, owners should pay extra attention to feathered areas on their Belgian’s lower limbs. These long hairs can collect debris and bacteria that increase the risk of pastern dermatitis. [8]

Quality farrier care is also important to help these horses support their weight on well-balanced feet. Unbalanced hooves can increase loading forces on tendons and ligaments, raising the risk of injury. Some draft horses also struggle with poor hoof quality. [9]

Light exercise during turnout and training are also important to support circulation, lymphatic drainage, and muscle function.

Nutrition Program

Nutrition requirements for horses are calculated based on your horse’s mature body weight. As a result, heavier breeds need more forage and different serving sizes of commercial feeds and supplements than average horses.

You can ensure that you are providing your Belgian with a balanced diet by working with an equine nutritionist to formulate a feeding program tailored to your horse’s individual needs.

Weight Maintenance

Belgian Drafts are easy keepers and have little difficulty maintaining their weight on a balanced diet. Contact your veterinarian to investigate potential medical causes of any unexpected weight loss.

While heavy musculature is a characteristic feature of the breed, it’s important to maintain your Belgian Draft horse at a moderate body condition to reduce the risk of health problems. Obese drafts have an increased risk of mechanical laminitis. Metabolic issues can also be exacerbated if they are fed a diet with excess high-starch feeds. [10]

Sample Diet

A typical horse should consume 2% of their body weight in forage daily. This means that draft horses need significantly more hay on a daily basis than lighter breeds.

For example, a 2000 lb (900 kg) Belgian Draft should get at least 40 pounds (18 kg) of hay on a dry matter basis every day. [11]

The following sample diet is intended for a mature Belgian Draft with normal body condition in light work.

 

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mid-Quality hay (10% crude protein) Free Choice
Salt 45 g (3 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 400 g (4 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 102%
Protein (% of Req) 146%
NSC (% Diet) 8.8%

 

Forage

The horse evolved to graze continuously throughout the day, spending little time with an empty stomach. The best way to mimic this is by providing your horse with free-choice access to forage all day long.

Not only does free-choice forage support your horse’s gut health, it also promotes mental well-being, reducing stress and incidence of stereotypic behaviours.

If your easy-keeper Belgian Draft needs to lose weight, consider using a small hole hay net to increase foraging time while reducing hay intake. You can also limit grass intake with a grazing muzzle when your horse is turned out to pasture.

Most Belgian Drafts do well on average-quality, low-starch grass hay, but hard working horses with higher energy requirements may need more energy-dense hay to supply additional calories.

Adding alfalfa hay to the diet can boost protein levels and support muscle development. The high calcium content of alfalfa may lead to mineral imbalances. The calcium to phosphorus ratio can be balanced by adding wheat bran or phosphorus supplements.

You can learn more in our Guide to Choosing the Right Hay for your horse.

Feeding Recommendations

Fresh water and plain loose salt should always be available to your horse. Drafts drink more water than light horses, consuming up to 24 gallons daily, more when working or in hot weather. Adding salt to your horse’s daily ration helps meet sodium requirements and encourages hydration. [11]

Commercial concentrates and complete feeds are often high in sugar and starch, which are not suitable for Belgian Drafts with PSSM.

Fat supplements are a safer energy source for these horses if they need additional calories in their diet. Research suggests PSSM horses can benefit from getting up to 20% of digestible dietary energy from fat sources. [12]

Nutritional Supplements

Belgian Draft horses have higher requirements for vitamins and minerals than average horses. These micronutrients play a crucial role in supporting physiological functions, immune defenses, hoof health, metabolic processes, muscle function and more.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement that contains no fillers or added sugars. This makes it an ideal addition to balance your easy keeper’s forage-based diet.

Omneity is made with 100% organic trace minerals and contains concentrated amounts of biotin, amino acids, yeast and digestive enzymes to support skin and coat quality, healthy digestion, and overall well-being.

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Belgians that need extra calories benefit from a source of omega-3 fatty acids, such as Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that support cardiovascular function, immune health, joint mobility and a gleaming coat. [13]

Vitamin E is an important antioxidant for Belgian horses with neurological or muscular concerns. Belgian drafts in work need additional Vitamin E supplemented in the diet to support muscle function.

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References

  1. Ameen, C. et al. In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650). Int J Osteoarchaeol. 2021.
  2. Andersen, T. et al. The heavy plow and the agricultural revolution in Medieval Europe. J Dev Econ. 2016.
  3. Olmstead, A. et al. Reshaping the Landscape: The Impact and Diffusion of the Tractor in American Agriculture, 1910-1960. J Econ Hist. 2002.
  4. Lefebvre, D. et al. Tail docking in horses: a review of the issues. Animal. 2007. View Summary
  5. Baird, J. et al. Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa in Belgian Draft Horses. Proceed AAEP. 2003.
  6. Firshman, A. et al. Prevalences and clinical signs of polysaccharide storage myopathy and shivers in Belgian Draft Horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2005. View Summary
  7. Baird, H.et al. Shivers (Shivering) in the Horse: A Review. AAEP Proceed. 2006.
  8. Yu, A. Equine Pastern Dermatitiis. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2013.
  9. Thompson, K. et al. The effect of toe angle on tendon, ligament and hoof wall strains in vitro. J Equine Vet Sci. 1993.
  10. Senderska-Plonowska, M. et al. The Differences in Histoarchitecture of Hoof Lamellae between Obese and Lean Draft Horses. Animals. 2022. View Summary
  11. National Research Council. Nutritional Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.
  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. View Summary
  13. Hess, T. et al. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in horses. R Bras Zootec. 2014.