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Ardennes Horse Facts You Might Not Have Known

by Amber King

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Relatively unknown to North American horse lovers, the Ardennes horse (AKA Ardennais) is an ancient breed of European draft horse that is distinctly different from other heavy horses of its caliber. It’s been around for 2,000 years, and its history is marked by war, political influence, reverence, and overall admiration. With their heavily muscled bodies, impressive strength, extreme hardiness, and gentle demeanor, the Ardennes is an instant favorite for anyone who has the chance to see one up close. 

Ardennes horse with harness

Check out these facts about the Ardennes horse to learn exactly why they’re so special.

1. They’re considered one of the oldest draft breeds in the world.

As far as history can tell, the original Ardennes horses were bred 2,000 years ago in the Ardennes plateau near the border of Belgium and France. To go even further back, it’s believed that the Ardennes horse is a descendant of the now extinct Solutré horse. These horses existed in France 17,000 years ago during the Paleolithic Age and were known for their hardiness and strength. The ancient horses were witness to some of history’s greatest events, and breeding has led to only subtle differences in the modern Ardennes horses. 

2. Napoleon had a hand in making the Ardennes horse how it is today.

The ancestors of today’s Ardennes horses looked similar to how they look now, but there is one noticeable difference. During the Roman era, these draft horses stood only around 14 hands high. They also didn’t have the stamina or endurance of other heavy horses used regularly for both farm work and military marches. That began to change when Napoleon decided to add Arabian blood to the mix. Through selective breeding, the Ardennes horse gradually got taller. It also increased its endurance. Today they still only stand 15-16 hands high, but the extra height seems to have made a difference in the horse’s already impressive strength. Napoleon used his Ardennes horses during his Russian campaign when other horse breeds perished in the harsh conditions and under heavy loads. 

Brown horse coming from the Ardennes. A landscape in Belgium

3. They were the preferred mounts for knights and soldiers.

There were few horse breeds that could carry the weight of a knight in full armor. History has evidence that the Ardennes horse was often used by knights going off to battle in the Middle Ages. These knights commented on the breed’s strength coupled with its impressive agility and ability to travel long distances in extreme weather. Their popularity spread, and the horses were continually used on the battlefield. Their calm personalities made them easy to train in wartime conditions, and they were imperative for large armies wanting to transport armored soldiers and heavy equipment.

4. Despite their huge size, the Ardennes horse is considered one of the most docile horse breeds.

Weighing between 1,500 and 2,200 pounds, a full-grown Ardennes horse is huge even for draft horse standards. Having a horse of that size charging toward you is intimidating (another reason they were rock stars on the battlefield), but most Ardennes horses wouldn’t hurt a fly. They’re the true definition of “gentle giants.” Most people describe them as being kind, tolerant, and almost always calm. They’re so gentle, they’re considered to be great mounts for children and beginner riders. 

Portrait of Ardennes horse, close up.

5. They’re easy keepers.

Due to their immense size and work ethic, most draft horses have a reputation for being hard keepers. They need huge amounts of food to keep them in good health, and their diets should be rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Ardennes horses, however, are generally considered to be easy keepers. They mature earlier than other horse breeds, and despite their size, you don’t need a big budget to keep your Ardennes well fed. They were traditionally fed harvested forage like alfalfa, and it’s sometimes recommended to give them a protein supplement if they’re working on a regular basis. 

Have you ever met an Ardennes horse? Let us know what you think about this big breed in the comments!

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