What to Know About the Percheron Horse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 19, 2023
5 min read

If you have ever seen a team of large but sleek-looking horses pulling a carriage, you already know what a Percheron looks like. Percheron horses are a breed of draft horses used in the past for farming and pulling carriages. Today, they're more likely to be spotted in a parade or pulling a decorative carriage around a park than on a farm. Like other draft breeds, they are exceptionally large and strong, with heavily muscled legs suitable for pulling heavy weights and endurance. They originate in France, but they are extremely popular in America and Europe.

Percherons are among the largest and oldest breeds of horses. They are draft horses, bred for size and strength. Other types of draft horses include Clydesdales and Shires. Historically, Percherons were used to pull carriages or heavy farming machinery. Percherons were also used as military horses for centuries before automobiles.

Percherons are notable for their size. The average Percheron horse size is 16 to 17 hands (64 to 68 inches) high at the withers, and they typically weigh 1,900 to 2,100 pounds. Compare this to Thoroughbreds, which average 16 hands (64 inches) and weigh about 1,000 pounds.

The most common colors for Percherons in Europe are black and gray, though in the United States, they are bred to be chestnut or bay as well. They do not typically have many white markings on their faces or legs. They don't have the heavy fur called feathering at their hooves, leaving their legs looking sleeker than those of other draft breeds.

They are usually highly muscled, particularly in the chest and hindquarters. Despite their weight and stocky build, they are agile and have a great deal of endurance. They have high energy and can move quickly compared to other draft horse breeds. 

The Percheron horse's lifespan is longer than other draft breeds. Percherons can live into their 30s with proper care.

The Percheron horse personality is affable and steady. Most Percherons are calm and unlikely to spook, making them ideal horses for parades and other public venues. The easygoing Percheron horse temperament, along with their excellent stamina, is the reason for their reputation as hard workers that were valuable for farming.

Draft horses can be prone to health issues. A common condition among draft breeds is Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM). With EPSM, horses have a buildup of glycogen and abnormal polysaccharide in their skeletal muscles. Signs of EPSM include muscle weakness and wasting, reluctance or inability to exercise, intense sweating with exercise, and recumbency (lying down and unable to get up). The condition can be diagnosed through blood tests and managed with diet changes.

Draft horses such as Percherons can also be susceptible to a condition called "shivers" that causes trembling in the horse's hind end. Symptoms of shivers include trembling of the hind when flexed, trembling of the tail when raised, difficulty backing up, muscle atrophy, and difficulty picking up the hind feet for cleaning or shoeing. There is no cure for the condition, and its cause is unknown. Horse owners can consult with a veterinarian about how to manage it.

Percherons are one of the oldest breeds in Europe. Their exact origins date too far back to be certain of how the breed came to be. The earliest records of them are from the eighth century in documents from Le Perche, a one-time province in the Normandy region of France. Some historians believe that the modern Percheron is descended from the Boulonnais horse, which was used by the Romans in the invasion of Brittany. Others speculated that Percherons were a cross of Arab and Barb warhorses native to Normandy.

Percherons were used as farming horses and carriage horses in France for centuries after their introduction. Their stamina made them ideal choices for pulling mail coaches as well as passenger coaches. The first official modern Percheron horse was called Jean Le Blanc. He was foaled in 1823 in Le Perche, and all subsequent Percherons descend from that horse.

There has been a wide variety of Percheron horse uses over the history of the breed. They were popular among French knights who favored light-colored horses as mounts. They were used in later military operations, including WWI, such as pulling military vehicles to transport equipment and personnel. The breed was introduced in North America in the 19th century, where they were valued as agricultural horses.

As modern vehicles displaced horse-drawn vehicles, Percherons populations dwindled to near extinction. Amish farmers kept the bloodlines alive in North America until the 1960s, when there was renewed interest in draft horses. In contemporary times Percherons are used for recreational purposes such as carriage and sleigh rides. They also appear in parades, including at venues like Disneyland, where they pull Cinderella's coach.

Percherons can be used for riding. Their size means that they are not ideal mounts for all riders. For riders who can handle a larger horse, they can be excellent under saddle in both English and Western disciplines.

Percherons require the same type of care as other horse breeds. They should have adequate pasture space and other horses for companionship if possible. If you house a Percheron indoors, make sure the stall is large enough that it can move around comfortably. All horses must lie down to sleep, so a horse needs enough stall space to get up and down.

Percherons are large horses and need enough feed for their size. They can have daily servings of grain and any health supplements your vet recommends. Horses prefer to graze continually throughout the day, so they should always have access to hay or pasture grass. Your vet can tell you how much grain and hay your horse should eat per day.

All horses should see a farrier regularly to care for their hooves. Hooves never stop growing, so they need to be trimmed every few weeks. For horses that wear shoes, the shoes should be replaced whenever their hooves need trimming.

Most horses need vaccinations and medication to prevent parasites like intestinal worms. Vaccine requirements vary depending on where you live and which illnesses are common there. Your vet can tell you which vaccines your horse should get and how often.

Interesting facts about Percheron horses include: 

  • French knights favored Percherons for their size and coloring. The knights typically rode "white chargers," and the light gray of many Percherons fit the ideal coloring. 
  • Percherons have been called "diligence horses" after a type of passenger coach popular in France. The horses had the straight and stamina to pull the diligence coaches for long distances.
  • Today, Percherons are used in farming and logging. They are ideal for pulling farm equipment and moving logs out of areas where larger machinery cannot easily fit.
  • In 1915, a Percheron was considered the largest horse in the world. The stallion was called Dr. LeGear, and he was 21 hands high (84 inches) and weighed 2,995 pounds.