The Rise and Fall of the Flemish Horse

The Rise and Fall of the Flemish Horse

For centuries, the Flemish horse was a symbol of strength and reliability. Once a popular draught animal in Belgium, this breed was believed to be extinct until it was recreated from some stock kept by Amish people in the United States. Read on to learn more about the origin, characteristics, demise and what the breed became.

The Flemish Horse was a breed from Belgium.  It was a draught horse which dates back to the seventeenth century. the Flemish horse was bred specifically for heavy draught work such as ploughing fields or hauling large loads. This breed had immense strength and reliability which made them indispensable in their native Belgium.

Characteristics of the Flemish horse Breed

The Flemish horse stood between 15-17 hands high and weighed 1,100-1,800 pounds. It had a strong build with powerful shoulders and hindquarters which enabled it to pull an impressive load while still maintaining speed and agility when needed. They also had a calm temperament which made them easy to train and handle. The breed’s chestnut coat varied in colour but usually came with white markings on their legs and face.

Demise of the Flemish Horse Breed

By the nineteenth century, mechanized farming began replacing manual labour and horses were no longer needed for heavy work as much as before. As a result demand for working horses declined dramatically leading to a decrease in population numbers for all breeds including the Flemish horse.

Flemish horses merged with the Brabant to become Belgian Draft Horses

In an effort to save it from extinction, it was merged with another Belgian draught horse known as the Brabant creating what we now know as today’s Belgian Draught Horse (BDH).

The history of the Brabant breed is fascinating in its-self and requires a PhD in genealogy to undestand, with so many splits and combinations with other breeds its fair to say that Brabant blood could be in every major heavy horse breed in the world by now. The European Brabant Registry of America has a fascinating history of the breed on its website.

Fortunately, the genes of the breed have also been carried on in the modern day Clydesdale horse.  The genetic traits of the Clydesdale are traceable back to those ancient Flemish horses such as size, temperament and colouration. Read more about the origins of the Clydesdale horse here.

Clydesdales were bred from Flemish stallions

The Clydesdale breed was cultivated from the mid 1700s by mating the superior Flemish stallion with native Lanarkshire mares. James Hamilton, The Sixth Duke of Hamilton and Marquess of Clydesdale, imported the first Flemish stallion to Scotland which he allowed his tenants to use for free.

John Paterson of Lochlyloch brought in a Flemish stallion from England. Lochlyloch stock were highly regarded and their breeding can be traced back to the earliest recorded pedigrees of Clydesdale horses.

Once the Clydesdale breed had become established with the attractive traits required to make it a successful draft horse, the breed was further proliferated through the district system of hiring stallions.  This was a major factor in helping to create today’s modern version of the Clydesdale horse. This system allowed farmers to hire out stallions on a regular basis in order to maintain a certain level of quality across all horses within the region. Records of these hiring societies have been around since 1837, so we can track the evolution of this breed for quite some time.

In addition to this practice, specific breeding programs were set up by various organizations throughout Scotland in order to ensure that only high-quality horses were being produced. These programs focused on producing animals with good conformation and sound temperaments that would be suitable for various types of work or competition purposes. This helped ensure that only good specimens were going into circulation and kept increasing their popularity both at home and abroad.


The history behind the Flemish horse is fascinating and definitely adds an element of mystique that makes them even more special. From crossing Native Scottish work mares with Flemish stallions all those years ago, right up until today with it genes in the modern Clydesdale and Belgian Drafts. It’s heartening to know that although the distinct breed has vanished, their genes live on in the majestic Clydesdales and Belgian Draft Horses we know today

Mack the Clydesdale carrying Flemish genes

Photo of Strathorn’s Clydesdale Mack. He can be ridden and driven. Photo by Katie Watt.

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