What to Know About the Belgian Draft Horse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 08, 2023
5 min read

The Belgian draft horse is a gentle giant owned by many farmers and equestrians. This powerful workhorse originates from Belgium, but Americans played an essential role in the breed’s development. Today, the Belgian is the most popular draft horse in America. 

The breed’s adaptability and calm temperament make it an excellent addition to many farms, family barns, and riding stables. But the Belgian also requires special care because of its immense size. Read on to discover fascinating Belgian draft horse facts.

The Belgian is a huge draft horse built for power and stamina. It has a deep chest, strong hindquarters, and a wide back. These physical features allow the horse to pull immense weights, like wagons and farm equipment. 

European and American bloodlines have a few crucial differences. Early European Belgians had thick bodies, straight shoulders, and low heads. American farmers refined the breed to produce horses with more elegant heads, sloped shoulders and pasterns, and flat bones. The modern American Belgian is a stylish and low-maintenance worker. 

Sorrel is the most popular Belgian color in America. The ideal Belgian has a red sorrel coat, a white mane and tail, a white-striped face, and white socks on each leg. 

Other possible coat colors include:

  • Bay
  • Black
  • Chestnut
  • Bay, blue, and strawberry roan 
  • Gray, rarely

The hair often grows in long feathers around the feet. Traditionally, Belgian breeders docked the horses’ tails to prevent injury during work, but many West European countries now prohibit the procedure.

Despite its physically imposing size, the Belgian has a docile and friendly temperament. The horse’s courage, intelligence, and self-awareness have given it a reputation as an excellent decision-maker. Many horse lovers admire the breed for its sense of humor and quirky personality. 

This draft horse thrives on work and can adapt to many jobs, from pleasure riding to wagon pulling.

The Belgian is an enormous and powerful horse well-suited to pulling heavy loads. The average Belgian draft horse size ranges between 1,800 to 2,000 pounds, though some stallions can weigh as much as 2,400 pounds. Most Belgians are more than 16 hands (64 inches) tall, and they often exceed 18 hands (72 inches). 

A Belgian horse named Big Jake holds the world record for tallest horse. He stands over 20 hands tall.

The Belgian draft horse comes from Belgium, a small country in western Europe. The breed descended from Flemish horses, also popularly known as “great horses.” Medieval knights rode these huge black warhorses into battle. The great horses are the ancestors of most draft horse breeds in existence today. 

In the 17th century, the Belgian people began formally breeding Belgian draft horses. Originally, the breed was used for agricultural and industrial purposes. The Belgium government encouraged the development of the Belgian draft horse by organizing horse shows that provided prize money for the best specimens. Belgium also founded the National Show in Brussels to spotlight the Belgian draft horse. 

During the 19th century, interest in the Belgian grew in America. In 1887, breed enthusiasts in Indiana founded the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America. The Belgium government also exhibited the horses at the 1903 St. Louis World’s Fair and International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. For several years, the breed enjoyed increasing popularity. 

The onset of World War I in 1914 briefly interrupted the importation of Belgians to America, though this practice resumed in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the breed declined again during World War II, as all draft horse breeds fell out of popularity. Factors like labor shortages and the increasing mechanization of agriculture contributed to the loss of interest in draft horses. At the breed’s lowest point, fewer than 200 Belgians were registered annually. 

Draft horses have regained popularity in recent decades due to rising interest in sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. In the 1980s, over 4,000 Belgian draft horses were registered annually. Today, the number of Belgians in America is greater than that of all other draft breeds combined.

The Belgian is a versatile draft horse with many purposes. For example, Belgian draft horses pull some sightseeing carriages in New York City’s Central Park. 

Here are other common uses of this breed:

  • Advertisements 
  • Agriculture 
  • Hitch competitions 
  • Horse shows
  • Logging
  • Pleasure riding 
  • Pulling competitions 
  • Sled pulling

While the Belgian is a relatively hardy breed, its large size and genetic makeup make it prone to several diseases, including: 

  • Chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL): Draft horses like the Belgian can develop CPL, a chronic skin condition that develops when lymph fluid builds up in the lower legs. This fluid causes inflammation, painful skin lesions, and ulcerations. CPL progresses throughout the horse’s life and can lead to disfigurement, lameness, secondary infections, and death. A veterinarian can treat the symptoms of CPL with antibiotics and management techniques, but there is no cure. 
  • Junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB): This genetic skin disorder mainly affects Belgians and American Saddlebreds. Foals born with JEB develop painful blisters and skin lesions that increase their risk of severe infection. There is no treatment for JEB, so most Belgians with this condition are euthanized shortly after birth. 
  • Obesity: The Belgian typically has a slow metabolism, so it can gain weight if given too much food. Regularly exercising your Belgian and adhering to a veterinary-approved calorie plan can help prevent this issue. 
  • Pastern dermatitis: The Belgian’s leg feathers can grow bacteria and fungi, leading to a skin infection. Frequent grooming can reduce the risk of this condition. 

Regular veterinary visits can help prevent and treat many health issues affecting the Belgian.

Draft horses typically have shorter lifespans than smaller horses and ponies. The average Belgian lifespan is 17 to 22 years. 

The Belgian is a strong but gentle draft horse that excels in many areas. This breed can provide ample horsepower if you want a horse to pull your carriage, help plow your fields, or take on a trail ride. However, the Belgian does have a shorter lifespan than many breeds, and its large size means that caring for and feeding this horse can be a substantial investment. But if you have the resources to provide for a Belgian, this docile and intelligent animal can make a great companion and workhorse.