Belgium is/was the largest producer of coldblooded horses in Europe and was famous for breeding heavy horses in the earlier ages. The greatest bloom of the breeding came in the times from 13th to 15th century. By the coastlines was always bred a heavier and more lymphatic type of horse than in the south part of Ardennes. Among the Belgian coldbloods were at one time recognized three types: The Ardennian, Flemish and Brabant.

The Ardennian (Ardennais) type.

The historical records are showing, that with the Christian Crusades by the Northern Sea came to this area many oriental horses, which were then crossbred with the indigenous heavy (coldblooded) mares in order to add more refinement and speed to the offspring. During the Middle Ages in the whole Belgium were bred horses that were sought out for the specific use as heavy knight-horses in the tournaments and wars; they were also highly praised and very expensive. From these horses the Ardennais had most of the Arabian blood, which was mainly influenced by the Orwal and St. Hubertus monasteries, where the kept, imported stallions were crossed with the local heavy mares for production of warhorses.

Already during the Napoleon wars the Ardennian was sought out for the use by the artillery for pulling cannons. The testimony of just how hardy and durable these horses were could be seen in the failure of the Napoleon invasion into Russia, where the unending suffering the Ardennian horse survived, while the other breeds have simply perished under the harsh conditions. The Napoleon wars inflicted a huge damage to the breeding of the Ardennian horse. The breeding stock was stolen or destroyed. As the consequence, the breeders begun to import heavy horses from the northern coastlines, but it led to very unsuccessful offspring. That is why in the Belgian and French side of Ardennes as well as in the Argonne, the breeders saw the saving of their breed in the Percheron stallions, which truly uplifted the Ardennian breed and gave the foundation to a lighter and quicker coldblooded horses (14 –15 H), which were mainly “rose” (red) gray with “dry”, bulged head, large sparkly eyes and a long body on slimmer legs.

5 yrs old imported Belgian bay stallion, 44 Facteur, born 1923, sire Foch, dam Iportlee, height 16′ 3 hands

This old type did not last long either on the French or the Belgian side of Ardennes as the Germans stole most of the breeding stock during the First World War. Though the Germans were ordered after the war to return the horses, most of them never found their way home. The breeders filled out the gaps of the missing breeding stock with smaller and lighter Belgians and ended up producing so called Belgian type of the Ardennian, that is a smaller, round horse with a large “meaty” head, short legged with lymphatic constitution.

Therefore, the horse that was considered in many other European countries as the Ardennais, was not even from the distance a relative of the Ardennes origin, but he was actually a smaller version of the Belgic from “anywhere”. It was more or less on the French side of the Ardennes where the horses resembling the old type of Ardennais could be found, because the breeders often crossed the horses with the Percherons.

Imported Ardennian bay stallion Spirou, born 1897, sire Favorit, dame Clairette

The Flemish type

The Flemish horse is the actual founder of today’s Belgian horse. He was the most robust of the Belgian horses and already in the early middle Ages belonged to the strongest and most favorite horse of the armored knights. The king Charlemagne (Frank monarch 771-814) donated several Flemish horses to the Baghdad’s caliph Harun al-Rashid in the year 807.

The somewhat smaller Brabant horse was also very sought out a warhorse and with the Flemish horse was in the time of “chivalry” very high priced export. Many of these horses were exported mainly to England; Richard the Lion Heart (1189-1199) returning from a crusade bought a large count of Belgian stallions, which he took with him to England. In England gave these horses in certain regions the offset to the “black warhorses”, known as “black horses” on which foundation the English breeders brought up their coldblooded breeds.

A pair of Belgian stallions in very heavy pull. Note the even and simultaneous lean into the harness and not jumping into it as it is often seen in various draft horse competitions today, where the horses are jumping/plunging into the harness. The plunging into the harness guarantied a failure in any draft tests in the older days.

As earlier mentioned, the old Brabant and Flemish horses were very much sought out and became a great source of wealth for Belgium. However, the invention of the black powder drastically changed the warfare tactics. Too heavy, too slow and clumsy to escape the enemy fire, the knight-horse became useless and already in the 15th and 16th century there was a need for a faster, quicker and more maneuverable horse for the new type of warfare. From the war and tournament horses became draft horses pulling carts or ships; which actually served to their preservation, because their breed lacking the demand was slowly disappearing during the centuries.

In the 19th century, for the improvement through crossbreeding without carefully thought out plan, the Percherons and Boulonnais were imported to Belgium as well as heavy Clydesdales and Shires from England, Bityug from Russia; later even the English halfbloods, times some thoroughbreds yet, and as the consequence of such chaos in breeding the horses naturally became heavier and heavier. During the Crimean War in the 19th century however, the demand for the heavier horse was on the rise again, and the merchants from Germany and France were turning their eyes also toward Belgium. With this, the prices of these horses have also risen which sparked a renewed interest in breeding and especially by some sharp hippologists, who first and foremost managed to stop the state involvement in the breeding. On the incentive of chevalier Henry de Theulegoet the breeders formed a Belgian horse breeders society “Le cheval de trait belge”, whose goal was to uplift the breeding of the heavy horse in the whole country of Belgium and to promote more evenly proportioned and of same type coldblood. All conditions were greatly improved for the intensive nurturing and raising of the young stock. With careful selection and occasional inbreeding there was bred a horse that resembled very closely the old Ardennian and Brabant breed. All other types were systematically suppressed.

For some time, the Ardennian breeders refused this, because they wanted to preserve their indigenous type of horses. Later on they finally left off their demands as they came to recognize that the market for the heavier horse was greater as well as the prices. The former names of the previous types were discontinued and the common name “le cheval de trait belge” was adopted, which is “The Belgian Draft Horse”.

For the uplift of the breed was ordered the following:

  • To establish a Studbook, of which the first edition came out 1887 still separately including the Ardennais.
  • A yearly-organized horseshow, which is in Belgium a national holiday and where high purses are awarded.
  • The establishment of a license commission where the state has it’s own representatives. This commission, especially in its difficult early stages was very rigorous and refused any horse that did not qualified in type and exterior to the standards.

These imposed strict standards managed to improve and unite the breed of the Belgian draft remarkably in very short period of time, whose as a founder was not chosen the heavy Ardennais but more evenly build Brabant. The license commission managed to discover several Brabant stallions of even proportioned massiveness, correct shapes in their individuality, which they passed on their offspring. Most famous were stallion Jupiter ex Bayard, whose sons Re’ve d’Or, Brion d’Or and Mont d’Or contributed most to the development of today’s Belgian Draft Horse. Besides these, there were also highly valued lines of Indige’ne de Fosteau (son of Brion d’Or) and the stallion Conde. The pedigree in Belgium is more important than the exterior. Today, the Belgian Draft Horse is most widely spread coldblooded breed.


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