To Plow Or Not To Plow

Before the Industrial Revolution horsepower meant just that:  powered by horses.   Today 1hp stands for 746 watts, but regardless of its current definition a surge of horsepower makes the heart skip a beat. 

It should come as no surprise that raw horsepower requires certain conformation traits in the same way a 429 cubic inch ‘Cobra-Jet’ engine needs to be designed and finely tuned to power a Ford Grand Torino down the hardtop.   It also stands to reason that bone ratios (gear ratios) also are important.  Do you want that horsepower for getting out of the starting gate fast and to sprint down the racetrack with quick, short, thrusting strides and to keep a draft horse is that powerful but slow first gear, or do you require the longer, slower stroke of third gear for dressage, jumping, gaiting?

The requirements of horsepower in no particular:

1) A well-placed lumbo-sacral  joint (created between the last lumbar vertebra (L6) and the first sacral vertebra (S1) that the entire hindquarter pivots on).  The LS joint needs to be located at, or in front of, the point of hip to get the full benefit of;

2) Good length of pelvis, at least 33% of the entire body length, however, if you want to get serious about horsepower that number should be 35%, and we certainly would welcome more.    Put into perspective, a pelvic length of less than 33% gets you the chugging power of a 4-cylinder minivan.  When was the last time you saw one of those on the drag strip, or pulling a 4-horse trailer?

3) Proper angulation of the hind leg.  Over angulation of the hind leg (a leg mathematically too long for the body) is a no-no.  That type of leg can’t get under the body to power a horse forward, and tends to trail out the back, where it leaks energy like a tire with a puncture.   It’s also prone to injuries like curbs and bog spavins, and is often accompanied by cow hocks or bow-leggedness.  And while a post-legged hind leg (a leg mathematically too short for the body) lends itself to thrusting with power, it’s also a no-no as that power tends to be just ‘up’ (like a pogo stick) rather than ‘up AND forward’, and it places too much stress on the stifle and hock with their wide open, and therefore unprotected, joints.  Sticking stifles and arthritic hocks are often occurrences.

4) Hocks and stifles set low; that is stifles that are at elbow level or lower, and hocks that are only slightly higher than the knees.  (Note:  hocks can never be lower than the knees and there is one exception – sprinters will have low hocks and ‘higher’ stifles)  The height of hocks and stifles is determined by bone lengths in the hind limb.  Ratios of those bones to each other plays the role of determining ‘gear ratio’ (mentioned earlier), as well as the general ease or difficulty of the horse to engage.

5) A loin no greater than medium in length, so that all the power generated by the haunch can be transferred forward without blowing up the loin (transmission).   Short is okay here, it really is.  As the loin is a freespan (has no ribs to support and add strength), length is its enemy.  Yes, a short loin loses some lateral flexibility, but strength in this area carries far greater importance, especially if the horse has great pelvic length (big engine).  You can’t put an eight-cylinder ‘Cobra-Jet’ engine in a Grand Torino and then pair it with a Mini Cooper transmission and expect it to work.  We also need broadness across the loin and depth.

6) Either a square build or a ‘proper’ rectangular build.   A square built horse is compact front to back and stands low to the ground; height and length of the body are the same.  A ‘proper’ rectangular build is a slightly longer body, where the horse stands over more ground, but doesn’t stand over a lot of air.  This horse is also low to the ground.  It’s the leggy horses, simply for the sake of legs that need to be avoided, whether they are compact front to back or not.   The leggier the horse, the more things can go wrong and the harder it is to prevent the energy created by the haunch from ‘leaking’ out.   Pair long legs with a long body and evasion just got a whole lot easier making for energy wastage, not to mention an automatic, significant reduction of longitudinal strength. 

7) Substance.  Big, clean joints and lots of bone thickness for;

8) Massive muscle of the fast twitch variety with clean, strong attachments.


The Percheron is a breed with great horsepower.  It was once the most popular heavy draft breed in North America, far exceeding the combined numbers of the other three heavy draft breeds of the time; Clydesdale, Belgian and Shire.  It should be noted (with much emphasis) that most of those original Percheron individuals were imported from Europe, or bred from imported European stock.  

Following World War II, its population was decimated leaving but a handful on the entire continent.  Cars, trucks, tractors and other machinery became the pullers and carriers of all things heavy.  But then in the 1980’s there was a resurgence of popularity and the result, well, I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  

The argument, of course, is that the jobs of the breed had changed over this time period.  So it’s safe to assume the breed changed to accommodate the new needs.   Here I make another note (also with much emphasis) that the more recent increase in Percheron population wasn’t due, mostly to or mainly because of, the importation of more European horses.   In other words, we of North America are responsible for the current good and bad now associated with the breed on this continent, by having chosen which individuals to breed.  Rest assured, somewhere in there (as what happened in Europe and NA earlier on) not all the individuals chosen to propagate the breed were purebred Percherons.

I quote from   The Percheron Association Of America:    And the sculpting goes on.  In the 1930s the conventional wisdom was that the battle to the truck was lost completely and the heavy tillage on the farms was as good as lost, so a deliberate effort to downsize the breed was undertaken. Now, the appeal of the big hitches has reversed that trend. The present demands reach in several directions at the same time. The times call for a versatile horse.  At that, the Percheron has had a lot of practice.

Keep that quote in mind as we view Percherons over the years and discuss their roles. 

Here are some pictures of popular North American Percheron stallions ‘back in the day’ exhibiting conformation traits conducive to their role in life at the time; farming, forest clearing, pulling coaches through narrow, muddy city streets, pulling cannons and other heavy machinery.

Each one possesses the conformation traits listed above to produce masses of horsepower, do their jobs, and stay sound.   They also possess other traits required for their job.

 In no particular order:

1) Laid back shoulders to easily carry a collar to pull against.  (A laid back shoulder is one of 45 degrees or less – measured against the horizon)

2) A neck set on high and deep, keeps that collar in place.

3) A level build, allowing for ‘4-wheel drive’.  A downhill build creates momentum, like a snowball rolling down a hill, but power comes from the lowering of the haunch.  A horse built downhill, simply cannot lower their haunch as much as a horse that starts with a level build.

4) The intangible – quiet, laid back personality; as much a product of their build and central nervous system as anything else.





It is now time to discuss the ‘modern’ roles of the Percheron breed; plow horse for closed farming communities like Old Order Mennonites and Amish, private forest management on farms where owners don’t want large, heavy equipment making a mess and killing the undergrowth, pulling wagons for parades, weddings, hay rides, and to occasionally tote a rider for whatever purpose, pleasure or work.

Hey, wait a minute!  Isn’t that kind of, sort of, what they did in the old days?  They plowed, pulled timber from bush, pulled heavy loads, were bred to lighter individuals (crossbreeding) and then the offspring were agile enough to be ridden in mounted war and carried their owners to places they wanted to go, or needed to be?  Why, yes, I do believe what they did then is pretty much the same as what they do now.

So what’s the APAA talking about?  Sculpting?  Let me show you.


1) L-S Joint PlacementPASS   –   The joint is in alignment with the point of hip, so it’s good.

2) Good Length of PelvisFAIL   –   He’s about 31%, so he definitely meets minimum equine requirements, but when we consider every one of those pictured ‘old’ Percherons were all over 35%, with one bordering on 40%, this guy definitely lacks in the power department.  How useful is a heavy draft horse with no power?

3) Proper Angulation of the Hind LegFAIL   –   This one actually presents (if we drop a plumb line from point of buttock to ground) as post-legged (a parallel cannon bone falling in front of the line).  But look how he stands with his croup ‘popped’ up into the air and still he’s got some angle in those joints, which would suggest he’s over-angulated behind.  In the end, it doesn’t matter which one he is.

4) Hocks and Stifles Set LowFAIL   –   Hocks are high because he’s got too much length in his cannon bones, and his stifles are too high because he’s got too much length in his cannon bones AND in his tibia.  The femur is the right length for the pelvis but the pelvis is too short, so that technically makes the femur too short as well, combined with the long tibia and long cannon bones; he’s got all the wrong gear ratios.  Think spinning your tires (at about 10mph) on a patch of ice.

5) LoinFAIL   –   The length of his loin lands right on the outer reaches of medium, but it lacks breadth and depth, therefore it’s weak.  Fortunately, he’s got no engine and bad gear ratios so the loin is as strong as it needs to be.   We’ve got a Mini Cooper engine with a Mini Cooper transmission.

6) Square or ‘proper’ Rectangular BuildFAIL   –   He manages to stay fairly compact front to back, but he stands over way too much air with those long legs.  There’s going to be a lot of energy that doesn’t get into the ground.  With those long tibias, it’s almost certain he’s cow hocked and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those hocks twist with instability with every step.

7) SubstancePASS   –   This is obviously a leaner muscled animal, therefore lighter.  He looks to have enough bone for his size and his joints are big.  I do question their cleanliness.

8) Muscle Content and TypeFAIL   –   Even considering this one has a higher lean, slow twitch muscle content and lacks in the engine size department, therefore not requiring as much mass, he’s still a fail.  The front end looks about right, but the haunch clearly lacks volume.  There’s minimal pants muscling and nothing on those long, thin gaskins.   His hamstrings attach high, are thin, and cut in. 

9) Front End and LevelnessFAIL   –   I wanted to pass him, really I did, but I just couldn’t.  He’s got a lovely shoulder, but technically it’s not laid back at 50 degrees.   A collar would still fit and probably not rub, but it’s not going to sit the way it should for maximum contact to lean into and pull against.  The neck is set on high and deep as it should be and is structured correctly.  The knees are too high, though, and he’s too downhill built.  With the weak structure of his haunch, there’s no hope he’ll be able to lower those haunches enough to make up for the lack of levelness.

As a whole, this stallion fails miserably in almost every category.  He’s a draft horse in overall size only.  He’s no more suited to modern day tasks, as he would have been decades ago tasks.  Maybe he has a good personality?

Here’s another of those modern sculpted Percherons, this one owned by people who clearly understand that presentation of a stallion is key.


1) L-S Joint PlacementPASS   –   Joint is in alignment with the point of hip, so it’s good.

2) Good Length of PelvisPASS   –   This one is between 36-37%, so really quite good.  It’s the steeper slope of the pelvis that makes it look like he’s short (and the fact he’s standing on a slope with his hind end lower than his front end, further increasing the slope). 

3) Proper Angulation of the Hind LegFAIL   –   This one too presents as post-legged when we drop a plumb line, however, the horse is not standing on flat ground.  He’s standing on a slope with his haunch artificially lowered and his joints ‘closed’.  If he was standing on flat ground, he would present over-angulated and his haunch would ‘pop’ up much like the previous horse.

4) Hocks and Stifles Set LowFAIL   –   At first glance things look okay, but they aren’t.  We can see in the picture that his hocks are lower than his knees.  That’s not a physical possibility in the equine, so it confirms that he’s standing on a slope.  When we correct for the slope, the hock height is okay.  It would be better if both the knees and hocks were slightly lower by having a shorter cannon bone.   Continuing to correct up for the slope, the stifles are going to clearly be above those elbows.  This is a result of that dreaded long tibia again.  While this one has a better set of gears for the job of a draft, and certainly more power potential, this one is going to ‘slip a gear’ now and again.

5) LoinPASS   –   The loin is medium with good breadth and depth.  Because we lose some of the power generation with a less than ideal set of gears, this loin with do the job. 

6) Square or ‘proper’ Rectangular BuildNEUTRAL   –   In my opinion, he misses by a bit.  He’s definitely compact front to back, but there’s just too much air under him behind for me to pass him.  I won’t hold it against anyone, though, who does pass him in this category.

7) SubstanceFAIL   –   There just simply isn’t enough bone on a horse this size.  His joints are big enough, and I really like the cleanliness of his fetlocks, but his knees and hocks look a tad muddy, and he’s cut out below the knees.

8) Muscle Content and TypeFAIL   –   He’s better balanced than the previous horse, holds more pants muscling, but then he should since he has so much more pelvic size to cover with muscle.   Still, when you compare the haunch to the front end, you can’t help but want more muscle behind.

9) Front End and LevelnessFAIL   –   I wanted to pass this one too, and just couldn’t bring myself to it.  He’s not even level of build when positioned on a hill.  On flat ground, with those hind legs, he’s just not going to be able to utilize the power potential of that pelvic length.  The shoulder has the right slope, and the neck is set on deep, but not as high as it should be.  The knee being cut away, a bit dirty and a bit too high sealed the grade.

As a whole, this stallion fails as well.  Perhaps not as badly as the first, but a fail is a fail.  While possessing some really strong, appropriate draft traits, there just isn’t enough of a support system for them.  He’d make a fine gelding, but he’s not stallion material no matter how kind he may be.


So what should a modern day ‘sculpted’ Percheron look like?  One that can do everything it needs to past and present (which is essentially the same when we boil it right down).


1) L-S Joint PlacementPASS   –   Joint is in alignment with the point of hip, so it’s good.

2) Good Length of PelvisPASS   –   This one is approximately 36%, another that’s really quite good. 

3) Proper Angulation of the Hind LegPASS   –   This one presents perfectly angulated when we drop a plumb line, and even after we measure individual bone lengths to get total hind limb length, he’s still perfectly angulated. 

4) Hocks and Stifles Set LowPASS   –   There’s not much to say, they’re positioned where they should be.   Note how much shorter his tibia is than the previous two horses.

5) LoinPASS   –   The loin is short with great breadth and depth. 

6) Square or ‘proper’ Rectangular BuildPASS   –   Classic square build and this horse is 17h, proving you can have height without adding masses of leg length to get it.

7) SubstancePASS   –   Plenty to go around.  It’s interesting to note that his horse actually possesses more bone behind than in front (like the older Percherons), the opposite of the other two ‘modern’ Percherons.   Doesn’t it just make sense that the end the horse uses the most, should be the end that has more substance?  And since we all know, that a horse should work (no matter the discipline or task) from the haunch…

8) Muscle Content and TypePASS   –   Equal muscle back to front.  And while he’s generally ‘lighter’ than the older Percherons, he still shows plenty of mass to get the job done.

9) Front End and LevelnessPASS   –   He has a laidback shoulder with a deep, high set neck and he’s level built.  If I have one criticism (and I do), I’d like to see the point of shoulder a bit higher, adding some length to the humerus and making it a little less horizontal.  This would also smooth that chest muscling out a bit.  However, that isn’t required for him to do his job well.

This stallion passes all day long, every day, and is an example of what a ‘modern’ Percheron should look like.  Interestingly enough, he’s from Europe.  Some information from his owner:

He was shown in hand and in trade harness classes. He was also ridden by my sister-in-law. She took him into ridden Percheron classes and also took him hunting with the Sinnington.

His progeny were either pure-bred or breed to specialists for heavy horse harness classes. A couple went to a farm and stud, where they specialize in Percherons, and do ploughing competitions, and train people to work them.

Two teams of four of his colts went to breweries to be dray horses. Predominantly that’s PR, exhibition and showing.

We did some crossbreeding with him under the ‘hunter improvement programme’, so he did have some ability to jump! Put to Irish Draughts or ¾ Thoroughbred with Clydesdale produced some decent heavy hunters with even better ability and potential.

He went on to a specialist Percheron stud, not too far from where our place was.

I looked at dozens of NA Percheron stallions and couldn’t help but be disappointed in what was/is winning in the show ring.  I did, however, find this guy.  I hope their flogging his semen.



14 thoughts on “To Plow Or Not To Plow

    • All the same would apply to Haflingers, though, I’ve not seen such breed variances in Haflingers in general. I’d have to do some research, but essentially, yes, I can do this with Haflingers and will put it on my future list.

      • There are very different types of haflingers today. Sport is tall and refined, and then there are the short and drafty ones. Mine is in the middle. I am concerned with the breed getting too refined. Some lack a good hind end and chest. I would hate to this breed lose the strength it is noted for!

        • Ugh! I just have never understood the reason to morph a breed away from its traditional type. Certainly breed out weaknesses, but the whole idea of making a breed taller, finer for a ‘sport’ type is what creates so many of the issues we see in other breeds. Just pick another breed that already possesses the traits you want. It’s not like there aren’t other choices.

  1. I LOVE what you say, we breed modern French style Percherons in Australia but the fashion is heading towards the Nth American type in Percherons and Clydesdales with them being shown with extreme action, reactive temperament, low back pasterns with upright back legs, it scares and horrifies me. Why do this with such a big animal? It is tragic and while it may look impressive to have them flying around with their hooves and heads up, the purpose of these animals was to move heavy things, that’s it. Which is best accomplished with economical action and sound conformation with increased mass. Ours are ridden, compete in carriage driving, work on the farm, compete at Agricultural shows and heritage field days and do lots of parades and demonstrations. They are big, elegant and useful as they have been for hundreds of years.

    • Welcome to the blog, Helen. It sure sounds as if you’ve got it right and the horse benefits from your knowledge and understanding. We need more owners like you.

  2. My percheron PMU mare is 7yrs. I purchased her at 3years old. At 5 years old she developed lines across the front of both hocks, She is not lame. My descipline is classical dressage and I worked her in-hand, long line and lunged her in a rectanglur arena. I do not believe in round pens. I never kept her in a circle and I did not back her until she was five and only lightly, No one seems to know what these lesions are, draft owners, vet, internet, etc. Please enlighten me if you can. There are no sore areas either

  3. This article is disappointing on so many levels and fails to understand working heavy horse conformation and the conformation that was desired at the height of the draft horse boom. All of the modern conformation “studies,” would have been thrown our of the ring at the Chicago International. At the International horses were not winning based on if they would make good plow horses, but if they would produce useful horses for city freight hauling. Hauling freight requires a very different conformation. Breeders were looking for high hocks on long cannon bones. Bone was to be flat, flinty and wide.Hocks to be square, broad and free from fluid. pasterns to be we angled and hoofheads to be broad and soft. Feet to be large and hard. After WWII Percherons in France were bred to be meat animals, their soft, spongy round bone, fluid filled hocks and short upright pasterns would break down with just a day’s work. Most of these modern horses in France break down without any work. The differences seen in the French type from 1890 to the 20s and then after the war is striking. Look at the mares Julia and Nerva for examples. The state studs of France have had to import stallions from North America just to add some degree of functionality back into their horses. There is often a romanticism attached to the horses of the early 1900s, but a massive fault that was often criticized by breeders of the day is that they were shown extremely fat. The bulk so many modern people admire required show horses to lose huge amounts of weight just to regain fertility. As for thinking the Percheron of the past was just a big puppy dog, one only has to look to Corona IVs Hope. The faults of the modern Percheron is not is head and neck sets, or the flat bone many exhibit, but the lack of kidney girth, foot and width of bone. Many horses are over shod to try to compensate for loss of foot and to create more action. However some of the best halter and driving mares of today would be better received by breeders in the 20s than the French bred horses or the squat, tiny footed riding Percherons.

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