The Belgian is no "overnight success." Its popularity has been hard won over the last century on thousands of farms and ranches, in countless pulling contests and show rings, and on the streets of America and Canada with hitches pulling the freight wagons that once fed the people.
History shows that Belgians are the most direct lineal descendants of the "Great Horse" of medieval times.
The Belgian, as the name implies, is native to the country of Belgium. This little country is blessed with fertile soil and abundant rainfall providing the thrifty farmers of Belgium with the excellent pastures and the hay and grain necessary to develop a heavy, powerful breed of horse.
Belgium lies in the very center of that area of western Europe that gave rise to the large black horses known as Flemish horses and referred to as the “Great Horses” by medieval writers. They are the horses that carried armored knights into battle. Such horses known to exist in that part of Europe in the time of Caesar. They provided the genetic material from which nearly all the modern draft breeds are fashioned.
The origins of this remarkable breed can be traced back to the 1850s and one man’s vision. Realizing stronger horses would be required to pull heavier machinery during the industrial revolution of Europe, horse breeder Remi Vander Schueren began to interbreed the four draft horse types found in Belgium. The result was a single breed, which he named the Belgian draft horse.
The government of Belgium played a very prominent role in horse production. The official stud book was established in 1886 and the National Show in Brussels became the great annual showcase. The government encouraged the efforts of large and small breeders alike to promote the breed. A system of district shows was established to determine which horses should be eliminated from the breeding program. Many of the grand champions of Brussels became the leading sires of the breed and they provided the pattern for future breeders. The result was a rapid improvement as the draft horses of Belgium came to be regarded as both a national heritage and treasure. The Belgian draft horse became one of Belgium’s greatest exports.
The American Association was officially founded in February of 1887 in Wabash, Indiana. The breed offices still remain in Wabash. The first importation of Belgian horses into Canada was in 1902.
In 1903 the government of Belgium sent an exhibit of horses to the St. Louis World's Fair and the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. While this effort was attended by plenty of controversy over which type of horse best suited North Americans, it also generated a great deal of interest in the breed.
From that point forward the breed's acceptance grew steadily. Nearly every major importer in the country included Belgians in their offering. In terms of importing seed stock and establishing new breeders it was none too soon, for the onset of World War I in 1914 brought all importations to a halt. Suddenly, North American Belgian breeders were on their own. Fortunately, they had plenty of the "right kind" with which to develop their own style of Belgian horse.
It was during the draft horse decline in the 20's that the Belgian moved into a very solid number two position in this country. Thus, it should not be surpassing to know that during the 20's there was a resumption of importing from Belgium on a small scale. With the dramatic upturn in draft horse fortunes in the mid-30's, the importation of horses from Belgian again assumed major proportions for a few years. The last importation was landed was landed in New York by E.F. Dygert, Iowa importer, on January 15. 1940, four months after World War II had started and four months before the German invasion of Belgium.
It was about that time that a number of things conspired to nearly end draft horse breeding of any kind. The labor shortage of World War II, the introduction of small, rubber-tired row-crop tractors, and the tremendous push for mechanization in the wake of World War II put all draft breeds under severe pressure. The decline of interest in draft horse breeding was precipitous, obituary notices were a dime a dozen. The number of annual registrations even dropped under the 200 mark for a couple of years during the early 50's.
Then slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the return of the draft horse got underway. As the price of horses recovered so did the breeding. Registrations and transfers made slow but steady gains until, in 1980, they surpassed the all time high set in 1937. An average for the next five years was over 4000 registrations and close to 6000 transfers...easily the greatest five year period in the breed's history.
That is where you find the Belgian horse today...way out in front. Looking at the following reasons will explain the resurgence in draft horse fortunes and the reasons for the remarkable success of the Belgian in particular.
The Belgian Draft Horse has made great strides over the past decade. The increase is evident in both quality and quantity. The future holds great promise for the breed which sees its popularity and demand increasing year after year.
Fairs and exhibitions realize more and more how popular the draft horse events are with their patrons. It is at these competitions that the draft horse exhibitor is doing what he/she loves best; showing their stock, socializing with their fellow exhibitors, and conversing with the public on the subject most dear to his/her heart – Belgian horses. We see the Belgian draft horse rising in prominence.
A growing ecological awareness that some of the tools and methods of modern agriculture is destructive, causing many to seek alternatives, among which is the draft horse as a source of power
An economic crunch that makes home grown power, that runs on home grown fuel, which in turn enriches the soil in the form of manure, reproduces itself plus providing surplus for sale, and appreciates rather than depreciates for the first half of its life, look better and better.
Their beauty. The draft horse at his best is a spectacular beast. Once booted out at some fairs for being behind the times, they are now welcomed back as crowd pleasers. More increasingly big commercial firms are also looking to the Belgian hitch as an advertising vehicle.
Nostalgia plays a role, albeit a minor one. Increasing numbers of horse-minded people are finding their pleasure horse in the form of a team of Belgians. Their good disposition and willingness to work make them great favorites on some of the small part-time "sundowner and weekender" type farms that continue to increase in number.
Many of the breeds first imports were roundly criticized for being too thick, too low headed, straight shouldered, and round boned. There was even an expression for it..."the Dutchman's type." But even with his faults, those early Belgians made friends because they were easy keepers and willing workers with amiable disposition. The American farmer decided that the breeds' assets far outweighed its faults and the American breeder set out to retain what was right and remedy what was wrong.
People own Belgians for many reasons and each has his/her aspirations – be it showing, raising stock, working, parading, pleasure, or just having them in the pasture. The personal satisfaction of doing what you enjoy most with your Belgians is very rewarding and a good advertisement to encourage future investors.
Belgian Draft Horse Associations world-wide boast of increasing memberships. The interest of owning a Belgian is high and a challenge goes out to keep this enthusiasm mounting.
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Rural TV did a great piece on Draft Horses at the Keystone. Click here to watch!