The Percheron is a French draft horse breed known for its power and versatility. Although the breed’s exact origins remain a mystery, these horses likely descend from the heavy war horses ridden into battle by Medieval knights.

Percherons gained popularity on both sides of the Atlantic as versatile farm horses for agriculture work. Their strength allowed them to haul heavy freights, but the beauty these horses inherited from Arabian bloodlines made the breed stand out from other drafts.

After the mechanization of agriculture caused the decline of many draft breeds, demand for recreational carriage horses allowed the Percheron breed to rebound. However, these gentle giants have an elevated risk of health conditions commonly found in draft horses.

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

Percheron Horse History

While the foundations of the Percheron breed are subject to speculation, available documentation shows these horses changed significantly over the past four centuries as their societal roles evolved.

Origin

The Percheron breed originated in the old French province of Le Perche. Bordering Normandy, this fertile region in Northern France was well-suited for raising livestock and ideally located for trade.

By the 17th century, breeders in Le Perche produced and sold horses for many different purposes. Perche horses of the time were slightly shorter and more agile than modern Percherons.

Historical theories suggest these original Perche horses descended from Celtic, Iberian, and Moor bloodlines brought to the region over centuries of wars and conquests. Scholars believe Arabians also significantly influenced the breed’s development.

The French government established a royal stud at Le Pin for breeding military mounts in the early 19th century. While all Percherons today can trace their ancestry to the stallion Jean le Blanc, little information is available about this foundation stallion foaled in 1823. [1]

Historic Use

Despite their shorter stature, Percheron ancestors were powerful enough to carry knights in heavy armour into battle. Paintings from the Middle Ages depict French knights almost exclusively on grey horses, the predominant coat colour of the modern Percheron breed.

Breeders also favoured grey coat colouring for Perche horses bred to pull heavy stagecoaches, as the colouring increased visibility at night. The stockier body type emerged as the Percheron breed found a new niche as heavy draft horses for agriculture work.

The foundation of the first Percheron stud book in 1893 corresponded with the surging popularity of the breed at the end of the 19th century. French breeders exported the horses worldwide until embargos halted exportations during World War One. [2]

By 1930, Percherons made up 70% of the draft horse population in America. But World War Two and agricultural mechanization led to a sharp decline in breed numbers until the 1980s when the breed experienced renewed interest as a recreational horse.

Breed Registry

The Percheron Horse Association of America is the breed registry of Percheron horses in North America. Founded in 1876, the organization was the first purebred livestock association in the United States.

The PHAA is dedicated to preserving and promoting purebred Percheron horses. This association processes all registration and ownership transfers of Percherons in North America.

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Breed Characteristics

Percherons have a similar type to other draft horses but are often more energetic. While powerful enough to pull heavy loads, the Percheron is also a graceful carriage horse. That versatility allows these horses to adapt to a variety of modern jobs.

Conformation

Most Percherons stand between 16 and 18 hands tall at the wither. These draft horses are heavy for their height, with bulky muscling throughout their body. But their gaits should appear light and supple.

The head is large but elegant, with a straight profile, square forehead, expressive eyes, wide nose, strong jaw, and refined ears. Arched necks should connect to well-set withers and sloping shoulders.

These horses also have broad chests, rounded ribs, short backs, full flanks, low buttocks and rounded hindquarters for power. Legs are straight with broad joints, strong forearms, and muscular thighs. Percherons lack the heavy leg feathering found in other draft breeds.

Percherons have naturally thick, high-set tails. Farmers traditionally docked Percheron tails to prevent them from getting tangled in machinery. The AVMA and AAEP advocate against the practice today due to the negative welfare implications of tail docking. [3]

Colours

Percherons are predominantly grey or black. The PHAA permits the registration of bay, roan, and chestnut horses in North America. But only black and grey horses are eligible for registration in France.

While some Percherons have white markings on the head and legs, excessive white is considered undesirable in the breed.

Temperament

Percherons are typically gentle giants with docile dispositions and proud personalities. While the breed has a calm temperament, they aren’t sluggish or dull. Instead, the breed is known for having higher energy levels than other draft horses.

Their willingness to work and adaptability allows the breed to excel as an equine partner for equestrians who prefer larger horses. However, their large size may not be suitable for beginner riders.

Disciplines

Purebred Percherons are primarily used for recreational driving today. However, working Percherons still help Amish farmers cultivate fields and pull farm equipment. Others work in forestry to remove trees from areas heavy machinery can’t access.

These horses often pull parade carriages, sleigh rides, and hay rides. Disneyland Paris maintains teams of working Percherons to pull trams on Main Street, and Percherons are commonly used in the Caisson Platoon at Arlington National Cemetery for military funerals.

While purebred Percherons excel most in driving disciplines, the breed is sometimes ridden as a pleasure mount for larger riders. Mounted police also favour Percherons for their calm temperaments and commanding size.

Health Profile

Percherons are susceptible to many of the same health concerns as other draft horses. But this breed also has a higher incidence of inherited muscle disorders and complex respiratory problems.

Genetic Diseases

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is the most prevalent genetic disorder in Percherons. This inherited disease causes abnormal glycogen accumulation in muscle tissue, which can lead to tying up.

Genetic studies have identified the GYS1 gene mutation responsible for PSSM Type 1. One study of 831 PSSM horses from 36 breeds found the GSY1 mutation in 87% of draft horses. [4]

Some research suggests Percherons and Belgians may have higher incidences of PSSM than other draft breeds. While there is no cure for the condition, DNA testing can help identify carriers of the GSY1 mutation, and feeding practices can help manage clinical signs. [4]

Health Problems

Respiratory problems have significant implications for all horses, but researchers have identified a unique spectrum of upper airway disorders in draft horses.

One study found upper respiratory tract abnormalities in 46 out of 50 competition draft horses with a history of poor performance. 62% of the horses had complex disorders with two or more anatomical structures contributing to airway obstruction. [5]

Laryngeal disease is prevalent in Percherons. A study of 183 draft horses found 31% of Percherons had idiopathic left laryngeal hemiplegia. The researchers also identified a significant correlation between horse height and disease risk. [6]

This research suggests selection pressure for larger, longer-necked horses contributed to a higher incidence of laryngeal neuropathy in draft horses. The condition is commonly referred to as “roaring”, a name derived from the abnormal breathing noises of these horses.

Tie-back surgery is helpful for some performance horses with laryngeal hemiplegia. But the increased complexity of upper respiratory disorders in draft breeds may make surgery more challenging.

Surgical studies also report more complications in draft horses after general anesthesia than in light breeds with similar conditions. [7]

Care and Management

Percherons and other draft breeds need the same quality basic care as all horses. Owners should work with their veterinarian to develop an annual wellness program with routine vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

Draft horses need larger stalls and pens than average-sized horses to provide adequate space and limit the risks of getting cast. Providing daily turnout gives Percherons an opportunity for free exercise and social contact, which has numerous health benefits for horses. [8]

However, full-time turnout on grass pasture may not be suitable for Percherons with PSSM. High starch and sugar levels in fresh grass that is still growing can contribute to increased glycogen storage and muscle symptoms in horses with PSSM. [9]

Percherons with PSSM or older horses with insulin resistance caused by PPID may do better when turned out on a dry lot or with a grazing muzzle to restrict grass intake.

While Percherons don’t have feathering that predisposes them to skin conditions on their legs, these horses still need daily grooming to keep their coat and skin healthy. In addition, routine farrier care maintains the correct hoof balance to support the Percheron’s heavy body weight.

Percherons are energetic horses that thrive with regular light exercise. However, intense exercise programs might not be suitable for this breed. Their heavy musculature makes them prone to overheating, and respiratory conditions can restrict breathing during exercise.

Nutrition Program

Nutrition is one of the most essential aspects of a Percheron’s care program. A balanced diet for Percheron horses should account for their heavy body weight and any existing health conditions requiring nutritional management.

Weight Maintenance

Percherons are easy keepers, meaning they have little difficulty maintaining their body condition. Centuries of selective breeding for increased size produced horses with efficient metabolism.

However, these horses can quickly become overweight if they eat too many calories, increasing the risk of metabolic disorders. Read more about feeding easy keepers to maintain a healthy body condition.

Equine metabolic syndrome and obesity can contribute to increased risk of laminitis in Percherons. Research suggests that draft horses with laminitis have a poorer prognosis due to their heavy body weight, making it critical to prevent obesity in this breed. [10]

Regular body condition scoring can help Percheron owners distinguish obese horses from the breed’s standard heavy type.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 900 kg / 2,000 lb Percheron with normal body condition at maintenance.

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mature Grass Hay (7% crude protein) Free choice
Salt 45 g (3 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 400 g (4 scoops)
w-3 oil 60 ml (2 oz)
Diet Analysis*
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 109%
Protein (% of Req) 111%
ESC + starch (% Diet) 6.9%

 

*The diet analysis is based on NRC requirements and average forage values. For a more precise assessment, analyze your forage and submit your horse’s diet for evaluation.

Percherons do best on a forage-based diet, but maintaining a horse on hay or pasture alone typically results in nutrient deficiencies that can negatively impact health. Hay does not provide enough zinc, copper, Vitamin E, sodium, or biotin to meet the nutrition requirements of draft horses, including Percherons.

Feeding a vitamin and mineral supplement will help to fill any nutritional gaps so you can ensure your Percheron’s diet is meeting their needs.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a complete vitamin and mineral supplement designed to balance the majority of forage-based diets. With no added sugars and its low NSC content, Omneity is an ideal choice for easy keepers, such as Percherons, and will help to support hoof health, coat quality, performance and more.

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Percherons also need clean water and free-choice loose salt available at all times. Draft horses drink more water than average-sized horses and have a higher risk of heat stress in hot temperatures. Closely monitor your horse’s water source and ensure they are drinking enough water to prevent dehydration. [12]

Ensuring your horse gets enough salt in their diet also supports hydration by promoting thirst. Most horses don’t consume enough sodium from a salt lick alone, so add 3 – 4 tablespoons of salt to your Percheron’s daily ration.

Forage

Horses evolved to graze continuously throughout the day and do best when given free-choice access to forage. The amount of forage your horse needs is calculated based on their body weight.

Since Percherons weigh more than average horses, they also need significantly more forage. The average 2000-pound (900 kg) Percheron should get about 40 pounds (18 kg) of hay daily. Medium-quality, low-starch grass hay is a good option for these draft horses. [11]

Feeding hay in a slow feeder is a great way to extend foraging time while preventing your Percheron from consuming too many calories.

If your Percheron goes out on grass pasture, a grazing muzzle can help limit grass intake and reduce the risk of pasture laminitis. [13] Pay careful attention to grass intake when transitioning horses to spring pastures.

Additional Feeds

Avoid feeding large quantities of grain-based feeds to your Percheron. High-starch diets are linked to metabolic dysfunction and have an increased risk of digestive disturbances. Draft breeds have a higher incidence of complications after colic surgery, [15] so owners should prioritize feeding programs that support digestive health.

Instead of feeding high-starch concentrates, use forage-based alternatives such as soaked hay pellets as a supplement carrier. Splitting rations into multiple small meals can also help reduce the risk of digestive upset. [16]

If your horse needs more calories in their diet to meet energy requirements or gain weight, choose fats and oils as a safer source of concentrated calories for Percherons. Research shows horses with PSSM can benefit from a diet that provides up to 20% digestible energy from fat. [14]

Nutritional Supplements

Based on your Percheron’s health status and daily routines, other nutritional supplements may be added to their feeding program to keep them healthy and performing at their best.

Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is an omega-3 fatty acid supplement with high levels of DHA and natural Vitamin E. This cool energy source helps support respiratory health, joint function, cardiovascular health, and coat shine.

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  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

Mad Barn’s Optimum Digestive Health is a probiotic and prebiotic supplement that helps support hindgut health and digestive function in Percherons. This comprehensive formulate features ingredients to maintain a balanced microbiome and immune function.

Adding Vitamin E to your Percheron’s diet can help support muscle function and neurological health. This antioxidant is especially important for Percherons with muscle disorders, such as PSSM.

Work with an equine nutritionist to ensure your Percheron’ feeding program is balanced and optimized to support overall health. Submit your horse’s diet for a free evaluation online and our nutritionists can answer any questions you have about your horse’s individual needs.

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References

  1. McDermott, R. The British Percheron. The working horse manual. 2011.
  2. Dillon, J. Normal and the Norman Horse Industry: Percherons of Today. J Illinois State Historical Soc. 1937.
  3. Lefebvre, D. et al. Tail docking in horses: a review of the issues. Animal. 2007. View Summary
  4. McCue, M. et al. Glycogen Synthase 1 (GYS1) Mutation in Diverse Breeds with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. J Vet Int Med. 2008.View Summary
  5. Hackett, E. et al. Exercising upper respiratory videoendoscopic findings of 50 competition draught horses with abnormal respiratory noise and/or poor performance. Equine Vet J. 2018.View Summary
  6. Brakenhoff, J. et al. The Prevalence of Laryngeal Disease in a Large Population of Competition Draft Horses. Vet Surg. 2006. View Summary
  7. Kraus, B. et al. Laryngoplasty with ventriculectomy or ventriculocordectomy in 104 draft horses (1992–2000). Vet Surg, 2005.View Summary
  8. Krueger, K. et al. Basic Needs in Horses?—A Literature Review. Animals. 2021.View Summary
  9. 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 Int Med. 2008.View Summary
  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. Nutrient requirements of horses: 6th ed. The National Academies Press. 2007.
  12. Houpt, K. et al. Effect of water restriction on equine behaviour and physiology. Equine Vet J. 2010.
  13. Geor, R. Pasture-Associated Laminitis. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009.View Summary
  14. 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 Int Med. 2008. View Summary
  15. O’Donovan, K. et al. Risk of anesthesia-related complications in draft horses: a retrospective, single-center analysis. Vet Anaesth Analg. 2023.View Summary
  16. Bass, L. et al. Effects of Feeding Frequency Using a Commercial Automated Feeding Device on Gastric Ulceration in Exercised Quarter Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2018. View Summary