Brabant

American Brabant Association

2331A Oak Drive

Ijamsville, Maryland 21754

www.theamericanbrabantassociation.com

Those who see a Brabant for the first time often make remarks like “What is that? It’s so beautiful!” or, “It looks like a wooly mammoth!” (in winter), or “What color is that?” One look and it is evident that the Brabant is a remarkably different draft horse with its massive bulk and impressive presence.

The Brabant (bruh′-buhnt) is a true draft horse with lots of bone and an amiable personality. It is the heaviest draft, yet considered the most docile of all draft horses in the world. It is an excellent choice for the small farmer engaged in hobby farming or sustainable agriculture. Brabants are easy keepers with excellent feet. With the heart to pull, their stable disposition makes them steady, reliable work partners. They are excellent as starter horses for inexperienced people because, as a group, they are so quiet and willing.

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This Brabant stallion has the ideal massive bone, short neck, and sloped croup. Karen Gruner

The Brabant is the foundation for the American Belgian, and they were essentially the same horse until about 1940. Although they share a common origin, the Brabant has retained its working draft characteristics. After World War II, the Brabant was bred in Europe to be thicker bodied and more draft-like, with heavy feathering on the legs, while in the United States the Belgian was bred to be taller, lighter bodied, and clean legged. The Brabant remains the gentle giant of yesteryear, making it an ideal choice as a working farm horse.

History

Draft horses of today are thought to be descended from the Forest Horse of northern Europe that survived the last ice age. This horse developed on lands where abundant rainfall produced lush grasslands and heavy forests, thus resulting in a thick, slow-moving animal.

The earliest recognizable horse type or breed was the Ardennes, a strain of bulky pony that evolved in the area along what is now the French– Belgian border. The Ardennes is an ancient draft breed mentioned in the writings of Julius Caesar, and even in those times it was highly valued. It possibly descended from the fifty-thousand-year-old horses whose remains were found in Solutre, France. The Ardennes was a short horse of about 13.2 hands, and was stout and hairy. In the year 732 CE, the Ardennes was crossed with the Barb, resulting in a slightly taller, lighter bodied horse better suited for mounted warfare. In the Middle Ages, the height of the horse was further increased for agricultural work.

In the early 1800s, the strain of Ardennes found along the Belgian border was crossed with Belgian horses to produce a horse called the Trait du Nord in France. The most successful of these crosses was created in the province of Brabant in Belgium, and the resulting strain took its name from there. These Brabant horses were the foundation Belgian draft horse, which was the undisputed number one draft breed at the time. Its official name was the Belgian Draught Horse.

By the late 1800s, Belgian drafts had three types that differed primarily in size rather than conformational type. Since all draft breeds developed from the black horses (the modern remnant are the Friesians) of the northern lowlands along the Dutch–Belgian border, these black horses produced the indigenous Belgian horse—the Gros de la Dendre. This was a tall, heavy, coarse horse that was predominantly bay in color. A stallion of this group, Gros le Wynhuyze, was an ancestor of Orange I, one of the foundation stallions of the Belgian horse of the early 1900s.

The second strain was known as the Greys of Hainault. These horses were smaller and less sluggish than the Gros de la Dendre type. As their name suggests, they tended to be gray, dappled gray, or roan in color. Baptiste de la Croyette, a stallion of the early 1800s, was the ancestor of Bayard, another foundation stallion for the Belgian horse of the early 1900s.

The Colosses de la Mehaigne, the tallest of the three types, was bred in the agricultural region of southern Belgium. These lighter bodied horses that held their heads up were mostly red bay, black, and chestnut in color.

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A bay roan Brabant mare is deep bodied with short coupling and thick neck. Karen Gruner

These three lines were interbred to form the Belgian horse of the early 1900s. It was massive and deep bodied with short, stout, clean legs, a moderately sloped croup, broad back, wide chest, and well sprung ribs. It retained all the colors of its ancestors including chestnut, red bay, dark bay, gray, black, and roan.

Belgian draft horses were imported to the United States starting in the late 1800s. Until World War I, some thirty-five thousand animals were sold each year in the United States, Canada, and Russia. Between 1850 and 1930, the price tag for a stallion could be up to a million francs. American Belgians were the same type as Belgian drafts in Europe until after World War II, when mechanization of farming meant the end of large-scale Belgian importations to the United States. The breeders in Europe continued to breed a massive, heavy bodied horse, which remained truer to the original type of the early 1900s, while the American breeders began to breed a lighter bodied horse. By 1950, the European Belgian and the American Belgian had significantly drifted apart in type.

Around 1930, Belgium breeders started producing heavier feathering on their Brabant horses, but a little-known disease affecting the horses’ legs progressed to the detriment of the breed, with some horses dying as young as five or six. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, a group of breeders began to publicly address the issue, and a concerned group in Belgium started working to correct the problem. The Belgium people dearly love their big draft horses and continue to produce them, breeding toward more functionality. There are now about fifteen thousand Brabants in Belgium.

European countries that raise the Brabant have different names for it, depending on the country of origin. In southern Belgium, the Brabant is called the Cheval de Trait Belge, or Brabançon, while in northern Belgium, people call it the Belgisch Trekpaard. In France, it is the Cheval Trait du Nord, and in Holland it is the Nederlands Trekpaard. The Brabant is also raised in Denmark, Luxembourg, and Germany.

In the United States

There are four main bloodlines of Brabants in the United States: Babar de Wolvertem, Eros van Berrekenshof, Eminent van Berrekenshof, and Bloc van Velzeke. Two of these stallions are deceased, and the other two are twenty-two years old. At the turn of the twenty-first century, American Brabant Association members imported twenty new horses, thereby increasing the pool of unrelated horses to ensure genetic diversity for the future.

Interest in the breed is growing in the United States, but competition from local and cheaper draft horses hinders the marketability of Brabants. There is concern of losing the Brabant as a breed in the United States and as a type in Europe, yet it is difficult to predict its future. Most people interested in Brabants want them for work on a small farm, either hobby or low-income agriculture.

As the trend toward a lighter bodied draft horse continues, the importance of the Brabant retaining its heavy structure is becoming imperative. According to Deb Bennett, a conformation specialist, for each 1,000 pounds of body weight, the horse should have 8 inches of cannon bone for maximum skeletal integrity and soundness. Horses that have cannons of this width can be expected to remain sound over a long term. This is especially important for riding horses. Most light horses are a little short of this rule, but most draft breeds fall very short. Modern American Belgians have, on average, 5 inches of bone per 1,000 pounds of body weight. Brabants do a little better, as exampled by the mares owned by Brabant breeder Karen Gruner. Her mares weigh about 1,800 pounds and have 11 inches of bone (6.5 inches per 1,000 pounds). The rule of 8 inches of bone per 1,000 pounds is often difficult to achieve.

Registry

In the 1980s, a breeder named Anne Harper became interested in the European Belgian horse and began importing a few stallions and mares to cross with American Belgians. She was the major breeder of European Belgian horses in the United States up until the mid 1990s. About that time, Karen Gruner became interested in the breed when she saw a photo in The Draft Horse Journal of Babar de Wolvertem, a stallion Harper imported. Like others who view the Brabant for the first time, Gruner was impressed with the breed. One look at Babar, and she stopped looking at other drafts and started saving money toward the purchase of her first Brabant.

Shortly after Harper dispersed her herd, Gruner decided to form the American Brabant Association (ABA). The European Belgian, or more accurately, the Belgian Draught Horse, was called its old name “Brabant” to avoid confusing it with the American Belgian.

The goal of the ABA is to preserve the European type Belgian horse in North America and to provide communication between breeders of Brabants and Brabant crosses. The ABA encourages the conservation of the heavy, drafty, workhorse Brabant through careful breeding. With more Brabant crosses in the United States than pure Brabants, it stresses that outcrossing should be done carefully and provides information for maintaining good, genetically diverse lines of pure Brabants as a reservoir for the future.

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Brabants are quiet, willing, and phenomenal for any draft-type work. Karen Gruner

In more recent years, Europe has noticeably been breeding a more modern type of Belgian Draft that is lighter bodied and leggier. If this trend continues, Gruner speculates that in another ten to twenty years, American Brabants will be truer to the old type (circa 1900) than the Brabants in Europe.

The ABA does not have a registry. Horses of pure Brabant breeding and American Belgian– Brabant crosses are registered with the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America. The ABA publishes a member-breeder list and otherwise promotes the breed.

Standards

With its massive bone and general draft characteristics, the Brabant really looks like a farm or logging horse, not a big carriage horse. It tends to appear more like the old-style Shetland Pony, only scaled up in size. It is very calm natured and a willing worker.

The modern Brabant stands 15.2 hands to 17 hands, with the most common size being 16.0 to 16.2 hands. It generally weighs between 1,800 and 2,200 pounds, with 2,000 pounds being average.

Unlike the American Belgian, the Brabant comes in many colors, the most common being red bay and bay roan. Also seen are dark bay (brown), blue roan, black (which is rare), sorrel, strawberry roan, and even gray (also rare).

The Brabant in the United States has a substantial, but neat, head and a short thick neck. Its body is deep and close-coupled. It has a broad chest, stout legs, moderately sloped croup, broad back, and well sprung ribs.

It has a thick, double mane and a long, full tail, which is often cut off evenly with the hocks when not docked because it is so heavy. The Brabant has moderate to heavy feathering on the lower legs, making its legs look even thicker than they actually are. There is plenty of bone in the legs. Big cannon bones are desirable.

The Brabant’s greatest asset is its calm temperament. It is an easy keeper with a quiet, gentle, and willing disposition. And it is an ideal breed for the small farmer with a smaller farm who is interested in sustainable agriculture.

Credit: Karen Gruner; American Brabant Association

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