Few Belgian horses remain in the country that gave them their name – and they must earn their keep.
Willie Mertens, an organic farmer in Belgium, is a ready advocate for the draft horse known worldwide for its sturdy pulling power.
Mertens owns 12 Belgian horses ranging in age and colour that are used to work the land. He also helps his father give scenic horse-drawn tours with a 28-seat double-decker bus in the city of Antwerpen from April 1 to Oct. 31 each year.
“Working in the field our average speed is three kilometres an hour – tough or light work is done by the same amount of horses, and we have no seats on most implements. In North America, it’s about six kilometres an hour; more horses are used if the work is tough, and all machinery has a seat,” he said.
In some areas of the world, the Belgian horse has changed considerably. The North Americanbred modern horse as it is known today, although having the same origin, reflects a completely different specimen than its counterparts back home in Belgium.
The tiny country in northwestern Europe borders the North Sea on the west and shares borders with the Netherlands to the north, Germany and Luxembourg to the east, and France to the south. It extends 174 miles in length and is 137 miles wide with a total area of 11,780 sq. miles. In comparison, the province of Manitoba is nearly 21 times the size. However, Belgium is a highly populated country with an estimated 10.7 million people, or nearly nine times the population of Manitoba.
The countryside is somewhat reminiscent of Vancouver Island – without the trees and mountains. Acreages and towns overlap and the majority of buildings in northern part of the country are made from brick due to a shortage of lumber. Barns and homes are often combined with living quarters either above the barn or at one end.
“Farm land in Belgium is very expensive,” Mertens said. “That’s what happens when you have too many people and not enough land. Everyone wants it.”
The most recent piece of property he acquired was back in 1994, when he paid 50,000 euro for a hectare of land adjacent to his buildings. That translates to roughly (C) $32,468 per acre. Today he estimates that hectare to be worth 100,000 euro.
Mertens explained that because of the shortage of land in the country, most farms including theirs, buy their feed in the form of pellets and have it trucked in because they cannot grow enough of their own grain for feed. He has been fortunate enough the past number of years, to hay some government-owned land close to his farm. He does this, of course, using horsepower.
“There are seven colours of Belgian horse – bay, bay roan, sorrel, sorrel roan, black, blue roan, and dapple grey,” he said. Mertens owns at least four of these colours.
“That horse over there was the first dapple-grey stallion in 60 years allowed for breeding purposes,” he said, pointing to one of his horses. “All breeding stallions here must be approved before the offspring can be registered. This stallion was only allowed in 1994, just for one year. In 2005 a non-related stallion to him is allowed until today. Seems there were only three of us that appreciated dapple-grey stallions, and unfortunately, two of them have now passed,” Mertens said.
“Every horse registered is entered in the Stud Book which has been printed each year since 1886, except for during the First World War and the Second World War, called ‘Le Cheval de Trait Belge.’”
The aim was to breed a strong and uniform race. After all, Belgian draft horses are celebrated worldwide at shows and exhibitions. The Belgian draft horse became one of Belgium’s greatest exports in the early 1900s.
Nowadays, there are very few Belgian horses in the country of Belgium. Willy estimates that number to be around 1,000 births annually.
The Belgian horse evolved from four local types of draft horses found in various regions of Belgium. In the 1800s, these types were interbred to result in a single breed, which became known as the Belgian draft horse.
The Belgian horse has changed dramatically through the years, with significant differences in colour, type and size. Belgium seems to prefer and breed more of a Brabant-type horse, a lower-set, longer-bodied, thicker, draftier type of Belgian horse which is not as popular in Manitoba. Their focus seems to be on “the working draft horse” and their breeding represents this. Both the more modern type and Brabants are registered in the same Belgian horse registry, as they are in North America.
Another prominent difference is their long tails.
“Docking has been forbidden in Belgium since 2001,” explained Mertens, “unless there is a medical reason why the tail needs to be removed.”
Mertens speaks fluent English, in fact, he is fluent in at least four languages – Dutch, German, French and of course English. He has visited both the U. S. and Canada several times in the past and has a basic knowledge of North American culture.
Mertens recently obtained his Canadian documents so he can begin working on an organic farm on Prince Edward Island in April using only horsepower.
His dream is of farming in Canada, and liked what he saw in his brief visit to Manitoba two years ago. Eventually he would like to buy a farm here and continue his organic farming practices, specifically in the beef sector, and incorporating, of course, draft horses.