The Percheron is the best known and most valuable of the French breeds of horse, and is certainly of ancient extraction, though it is doubtful whether, as some persons are inclined to believe, the tap-roots of the variety were brought into France by the Crusaders who returned from the Holy Wars centuries ago. It is probable, however, that the Arab had a share in the production of the Percheron; and so far back as the year 1760 it is suggested that the Eastern stallions were utilized by Count Mallart for the service of mares belonging to the Coesme stud, over which he presided. Subsequently, however, the English Thoroughbred appeared upon the scene, and took the place of the Easterns; but in 1820 two gray Arabs arrived in the district and were largely bred from, and to these horses it is generally believed that the modern Percheron is indebted for his gray colour. There is, however, reason for believing that the old blood has pretty well died out, for the department where they originated is only a small place, and as mares and other stock were disposed of, their places were supplied by importations from Brittany and elsewhere, the result being that the old strain became mixed.
The fact, too, that the Percheron exists in three types, or perhaps grades would be the better expression - heavy, middle, and light - goes some way towards confusing the modern seeker after information as to what the original stock was like. It is reasonable, however, to assume that the original Percherons were of the class of animal that was adaptable for stage-coach work, and that as these vehicles became ousted from the service of the public by railways, the breeders of the district applied themselves to the production of a heavier class of animal which could be used for van and light agricultural work. In support of this contention there is the fact that within the past fifty years heavy mares, and stallions too, were brought into this district from Brittany, Picardy, and Caux, and these, no doubt, were crossed with the remaining Percherons. With the view of stopping the further contamination of the old blood, a local Horse Association was established, but it does not appear to have effected much good, as the attempt made to sustain the old light type by instituting trotting competitions simply had the effect of attracting English trotters, though it may be added that some excellent performances are attributed to Percherons located in the department whence they take their name. Indeed the chief merit which is claimed for the breed is the faculty for trotting fast in front of a comparatively heavy load, while the constitution of a Percheron is described as being most robust, his temper excellent, and his endurance and precocity both above the average. As regards his endurance, however, opinions differ very decidedly, as many who can speak with authority consider that the breed is soft.
In height a Percheron ranges from 15 to 16 hands, and at the present day he is more often to be found of the middle than of the light or heavy type. His head is rather large, the forehead wide, the eyes rather full; his neck is short and massive, and is adorned by a very full mane; his withers high; and his shoulders of fair length, and set back. He is deep in chest, and somewhat round in barrel; his back being inclined to be long, whilst his tail is set on high. His legs are short, but the tendons below the knee are rather weak. The prevailing colour is gray, but the opinion has been expressed that it would be desirable to attempt to change in this respect to bay, but how this could be accomplished without a further and possibly fatal encroachment upon the purity of the breed, such as it is, it is difficult to see.
It has already been stated that Percherons of the middle degree of stature and development are the most common; but it may be added that the light-framed type is usually to be found in the Norman portion of the district, such as Courtomer, Moulins la Manche, and Aigle; whilst the chief stronghold of the heavy type is in the neighbourhood of Forte Bernard, Saint Corme, and Maniers.