Belgian draft horses in action
Castles & Museums Cool for Kids Hainaut Miscellenea

The rise and fall of the Belgian draft horse

The tiny village of Vollezele was once the hub of a thriving Belgian export industry.

These days, the tiny village of Vollezele, which lies equidistant between Halle and Gerardsbergen, is so small it’s hardly noticeable. It’s therefore difficult to imagine that from the 1880s until the 1930s Vollezele was not only bustling with activity but was indispensable to the nation’s economic success.

The origins of this remarkable story can be traced back to the 1850s, and one man’s vision. Realising that the industrialisation of Europe would require stronger horses to pull increasingly heavier machinery, horse-breeder Remi Vander Schueren started to interbreed the three types of draft horse existing in Belgium. The result was a single breed, which he named the Belgian draft horse.

draft horse 7His work soon paid dividends with the arrival of the magnificent stallion named Brillant. Between 1878 and 1884, Brillant was crowned champion at major draft horse competitions in Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Hanover.

Below is Brillant in bronze.

draft horse 3

Belgian draft horses – particularly those sired by Brillant – were suddenly in demand throughout Europe, and for good reason. Powerfully built and standing between 16 and 17 hands, they were incredibly strong, able to pull up to two tons. Yet they were docile and would willingly let themselves be attached to wagons or machinery. They thus became indispensable in a variety of industries such as agriculture, forestry, mining, shipping and brewing.

draft horse 5Vollezele became a magnet for horse dealers, initially from western Europe and then, as word spread, from the eastern Bloc and Russia. They would travel by train to Brussels and then by horse-drawn coach to Vander Schueren’s farm in Vollezele. By this time other local breeders had jumped on the bandwagon. At one time no fewer than four renowned breeders of Belgian draft horses lay within the boundaries of Vollezele. Frequently over one hundred buyers would pass through Vollezele each day. At any one time there might be 160 stallions for sale.

Records from 1891 show that Belgium exported draft horse stallions to the government stables of Russia, Italy, Germany, France, and the old Austria-Hungary empire. The Belgian government was quick to see a potential goldmine across the Atlantic. In 1903 it sent Belgian draft horses to the St. Louis World Fair and the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. American farmers loved these powerful horses and demand was huge. The following year, 1600 Belgian draft horses were exported to the USA, most of them from Vollezele.

By 1912 the export of Belgian draft horses was bringing 50 million Belgian francs (1.24 million euros) into the nation’s coffers each year. King Leopold II publicly congratulated the Vollezele breeders, and Prince Albert (later King Albert I) visited the village to express his appreciation.

However, the success was short-lived. During the First World War draft horses from all over Belgium were requisitioned by the German and Allied armies to transport ammunition, artillery and supplies to the front line. Most of them didn’t survive the experience.

drft horses 8In 1917, Henry Ford developed the Fordson, the first mass-produced tractor. With almost embarrassing haste, natural horse power was replaced by mechanical horse power. Although they continued to be used in forestry, especially where narrow hillside tracks were inaccessible to the early tractors, the golden age of the Belgian draft horse had abruptly come to an end. Nowadays they are still bred, but mainly for show purposes.

Anyone interested in horses or simply fascinated in the past, the Belgian Draft Horse Museum in Vollezele is worth a visit.

Draft horse 1The walls are covered with black and white photographs of these magnificent animals in action. Upstairs is a huge ornamental harness that would have been worn by a draft horse in a championship.

draft horse 2Documents describe the vast numbers of horses sold. It’s fascinating to see how prices rose as their popularity increased. The museum is open only on Sunday afternoons or by appointment for groups.

In a strange turn of events, Vollezele is once more attracting international visitors. They may not be flocking in the same numbers as a century ago, but horse-loving visitors from Denmark, America, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have passed through the museum in recent years and signed the guest book. Who knows, maybe their ancestors once visited Vollezele and signed a contract for a Belgian draft horse?

An interesting story was related by a Flemish lady who visited the museum. She had just returned from the USA. While sitting in a train in Ohio she got into conversation with an Amish farmer. The train passed a field full of horses, which both of them recognised as Belgian draft horses. The lady told the farmer that she was from Belgium. “I‘ve never been to Belgium; I’ve never even been outside Ohio,” said the Amish farmer. “The only place in Belgium I’ve heard about is Vollezele, where America’s Belgian draft horses originated from.” Even in the 21st century, the name of Vollezele as the centre for the Belgian draft horse still lives on!

draft horse 4

15 comments on “The rise and fall of the Belgian draft horse

  1. Love this post because these are such magnificent animals and really appreciated learning their history. We have a local farm that still uses them and they also offer sleigh rides in the winter. Handsome, big-hearted, proud horses. 🙂 Thank you.

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    • You are so lucky to have them so close to you Judy. And it’s so great to hear from a fan of them. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. Thanks for this interesting story and a little peek into the past Denzil. There’s a small rural town not far from here where a festival is held every year to celebrate the draft horse. I wonder if the horses are descended from Vollezele horses. I must check it out this year.

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  3. When I was walking Streek-GR Hageland I discovered this brasserie in beautiful Zoutleeuw. It is entirely dedicated to the Belgian draft horse and apparently a meeting place for owners and breeders: http://www.cafedenbrabander.be/#!home/mainPage

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    • What an interesting place Guido. Thanks for the tip. Would you believe that I was in Zoutleeuw in the spring and visited one of the other cafes on the Grote Markt but missed Den Brabander, which was a shame. Still, next time …

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  4. I volunteer at a horse rescue. We accept a couple of Belgians every year; however, most of them are the lighter color vs. the dark browns. They are wonderful animals, very gentle. When I clean their feet, I am reminded of HUGE dinner plates! LOL

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    • That must be interesting work Sue. It never ceases to amaze me how such immensely powerful horses can be so gentle and placid. Real “gentle giants”!

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  5. andalvin1962

    Belgian horses in North America are one of the most at-risk breeds of horses for being put into the slaughter pipeline. Amish and Mennonite farmers routinely discard them at auctions when their “useful” life is over. From auction the majority end up at slaughter plants in Canada. Bouvry Exports of Calgary Alberta has thousands of Belgians in primitive conditions on huge feedlots. Their purpose? Being live shipped to Japan for “sushi”.

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  6. If my dad did have some of these on our Canadian farm, I wonder where in the world he bought them from? There were many Flemish people in our area.

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    • They were very popular in the States and presumably Canada too Yvonne. Belgian stock were imported and bred over in North America. I guess he bought them from a local breeder?

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