Three factors cloud the Belgian in the formative years of the breed. First, Belgium was a battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars, World War I and World War II. A wealth of information surrounding the breed was destroyed. Second, the nation is bilingual. Flemish and French are the official languages spoken in Belgium. Third, a local dialect (patois) is spoken in many districts. Hence, the written record of the Belgian breed is incomplete and cause for confusion. Many of the original Belgians carried several names. Flemish names, French names and patois names. Still, one fact has surfaced which cannot be questioned. Every Belgian horse registered in Belgium, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany, repeatedly descends from Dikke van Onkerzelle, through his two sons, Forton 1st and Orange 1st.
Dikke van Onkerzelle was a light bay horse foaled in 1856. He took his name from Onkerzelle, a village in Belgium's province of Flanders. An inbred horse, his sire, the grey stallion, Francis de Sottegem, like his dam, the bay mare, Marie de Wynhuizen, was sired by Jean, a bay stallion foaled in 1820. Best known by his Flemish name, Dikke van Onkerzelle, "The Thick One of Onkerzelle" was also known by three other names that were French and patois.
Forton 1st was a bay son of Dikke van Onkerzelle that proved a great breeding horse. He covered mares of every size and description then resident in Belgium, leaving sons and daughters uniform in type. The celebrated American sire, Farceur, was a descendant of Forton 1st. However, unlike the seven stallions in the topcross of his pedigree, which were a light bay, bay or red bay in color, Farceur was a chestnut roan.
William Crownover, Hudson, Iowa, imported Farceur in 1912. Grand Champion Stallion in 1913 at Chicago's International Livestock Exposition, the excellence of his offspring was soon recognized. When Crownover dispersed his horses in 1917, C.G. Good & Son, Ogden, Iowa, paid a record figure of $47,500 to own Farceur. He remained at the head of the Ogden stud until his death in 1921. Following the custom in Belgium, Farceur was buried below his own stall.
Farceur's best known sons were Oakdale Farceur, Major Farceur, Paramount Wolver, Paramount Flashwood, Echo Dale Farceur, Farceur's Crown, Monseur, Supreme Farceur and Farceur's King. His daughters were likewise famous. Lista, Salome, Paramount Lulu and Farceur's Civette, were all grand champions at Chicago.
Oakdale Farceur succeeded his sire in the stud owned by C.G. Good & Son. Grand Champion stallion in 1923 at the National Belgian Show; he was Grand Champion stallion in 1924 at Chicago's International Livestock Exposition.
Echo Dale Farceur was Grand Champion stallion in 1922 at the National Belgian Show. Canadians remember him chiefly as the sire of Carman Dale, Grand Champion stallion in 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932 at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. Owned for a time by C.D. Roberts & Son, Winnipeg, Manitoba, he bred exceptionally well. Repeatedly found in the extended pedigree of America's best known Belgians, his genetics are carried by such successful sires as Master's Eddie, Penn State Guster and Charlie H Farceur.
Orange 1st was the second son of Dikke van Onkerzelle that shaped the Belgian breed. A lighter bay in color than his half brother, Forton 1st, he was foaled in 1863. Twice this stallion failed to pass the Stallion Board's inspection, which licensed stallions offered for public service in Belgium. This was cause for a public outcry, for Orange 1st had a great many admirers. Sold following each failed inspection, Orange 1st fell into the possession of a breeder across the frontier in France. Here he was found by Jules Hazzard in 1878, who brought him back to Belgium. Orange 1st was placed at the head of Hazzard's stud, which was located at Fosteau in the province of Hainut. While lame and going blind, the fourteen-year-old stallion won immediate attention. Orange 1st was used extensively in the Fosteau stud until he died from a rupture in 1885, at the age of 22. He was a breeding horse that was game to the end.
Hazzard was a breed improver. He had no fear of inbreeding and practiced it on an extensive scale. The blood of Orange 1st was concentrated, for his sons were often bred to his daughters. The results were spectacular. Horses that carried the Fosteau suffix were soon in demand with Belgian breeders on two continents.
Jupiter was the greatest son of Orange 1st. His sons and grandsons were nine times a champion at Brussels in the ten-year period, 1894 forward. Himself Champion stallion in 1889 at Brussels, his greatest son, Brin d'Or, was Champion stallion in 1900 at Brussels. Brin d'Or succeeded Orange 1st in the Fosteau stud. He remains best known as the sire of Indigene du Fosteau, the "mightiest horse of all."
While Indigene du Fosteau was bred by Jules Hazzard, he changed hands a number of times. For four successive years, 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1909, Indigene du Fosteau was Champion stallion at Brussels and in each of the three years, 1912, 1913 and 1914, sons of the famous stallion secured this award. He sired a number of horses well known in North America, the greatest of all being Alfred de Bree Eyck, Grand Champion stallion in 1916 at Chicago's International Livestock Exposition.
Orange 1st sired roughly fifty sons in the famous Fosteau stud. These were sold across Belgium, into the Netherlands, Germany and France. His influence remains widespread in North America, for Major de Malmaison, Balzac de Bogaerten, Elegant du Marais and Progress descend through the topcross of their pedigree from Orange 1st. Currently it is impossible to locate a Belgian horse registered in Belgium, that is not a descendant of Avenir d'Herse, still another stallion that descends from Orange 1st through the topcross of his pedigree.
Belgian horses registered in North America repeatedly descend from Farceur, Major de Malmaison, Balzac de Bogaerden, Elegant du Marais and Progress. Except for Farceur, who popularized the chestnut roan color for a period, the other four stallions were chestnut or sorrel, as were many Belgians in their immediate pedigree. In stark contrast, Avenir d'Herse won great favor in Belgium. His descendants are bay or bay roan with few exceptions. However, more than color and breeding separates the contemporary Belgian in North America from its European cousin. There is a substantial difference in type.
Rumor has circulated on various occasions, suggesting Clydesdale and Shire blood has been introduced into the North American Belgian. While this could be true, it could also be innuendo. Right or wrong, one fact remains. All registered Belgians in North America are purebred, for every living Belgian in North America repeatedly descends from "The Thick One of Onkerzelle." The fraction of foreign blood, if present, is minimal in the breed.
The first stud book in Belgium was published in 1884 by The Horse Breeders of East Flanders, an organization of Flemish horsemen. French horsemen in Belgium countered, when they published the Stud Book du Cheval Trait the following year. Then the National Society of Belgian Breeders was formed. This Society's first stud book was published in 1888. The three stud books were combined in the Stud Book des Chevaux des Traites Belges in 1890, which was granted official recognition by the Belgian government. Flemish speaking residents of Belgium came to know the Belgian breed as the Belgisch Trekpard, while French speaking residents of Belgium came to know the Belgian breed as the Cheval de Trait Belge.
Once the stud book for Belgian horses was recognized in Belgium, Belgian horsemen started to call members of the breed Brabants; Brabanders to those Belgians who spoke Flemish, Brabancons to those Belgians who spoke French. This came in the early years of the breed's history, for Brussels was where the breed's leading exporters were headquartered and Brussels is found in the central province of Brabant. However, for most North Americans, whatever the name a horseman might use, these horses remain Belgians.
GREAT HORSE OF FLANDERS
Many breed enthusiasts maintain the Belgian breed is the true descendant of the Great Horse of Flanders, massive animals whose presence was first recorded by Julius Caesar. However, this is not totally true. Armored knights in the Middle Ages required strong, upstanding war horses that were athletic to carry the great weight placed on their broad backs. Much of contemporary Belgium, plus neighboring regions of the Netherlands and France had the genetics to produce horses of this type. This geographic area is known to historians as Flanders.
While breeding for the arms trade of that time was common practice, there were no stud books. Breeds as such did not exist, only a type was popular. However, many historians mistakenly call the Great Horse of Flanders a breed.
The English kings imported hundreds of Flemish stallions to the British Isles. Crossed with horses native to the islands, the famous "Black Horse" was developed, which is the ancestor of the Shire and Clydesdale, plus a number of continental breeds, the Belgian included. Representatives of England's "Black Horse" were returned to Flanders in the 17th and 18th centuries, where they were bred to descendants of the Great Horse of Flanders. In essence, many of England's "Black Horses" returned to their roots.
Horses of the type bred in Flanders lost favor in the 18th century, a period of great social, political and military turmoil in Europe. By the turn of the 1800s, one of the few regions in Europe that still produced horses of Flemish type was the western half of what is now Belgium.
The insatiable need for horses during the Napoleonic Wars decimated the remaining population of the true Flemish horse. The geographic region now known as Belgium was a major battleground during this period. It was here the Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815. When the 20th Century arrived, no trace of the true Flemish horse remained in Belgium. However, historians are in agreement, the Flemish horse is the ancestor of the Belgian, Percheron, Clydesdale and Shire.
Dikke van Onkerzelle was neither a Flemish horse nor a Belgian. He was a descendant of the Flemish horse, the ancestor of the Belgian horse. He was foaled in the heart of Belgium, where Flemish horses were crossed with the Ardennes, a smaller, lighter draft horse breed developed in eastern Belgium. Horses that were the cornerstones of the Belgian breed carried roughly seventy-five percent Flemish blood. While the characteristics once common to the Great Horse of Flanders can be found in the Clydesdale and Shire, plus the Belgians and Percherons currently found in North America, breeding in Belgium and France has gone a different direction. The descendants of Avenir d'Herse dominate the Belgian breed in Europe. This trend started around 1925.
Stallions were given even registration numbers when the Belgian stud book was established in Belgium, while females were given odd registration numbers. Belgium was once again one of Europe's major battlefields during World War I. Hence, no registrations were issued from 1914 until 1918. Then, in 1920, all purebred Belgians foaled from 1916 to 1919 were issued certificates of registration. However, at that time, the officers of the Belgian Draft Horse Society decided a new system would be employed. Split registration numbers would be used. The first set of numbers referred to the issue of the stud book a given horse was recorded in, while the second set of registration numbers remained even for a stallion and odd for a female.
To illustrate this point I turn your attention to Aida de Bierbeck, the celebrated mare sold for $1,850 at the Sugar Grove Farm Dispersal Sale at Aurora, Illinois, December 4, 1940. This splendid female was sired by Mercure du Fosteau (33-2018), a stallion bred in Belgium that was foaled in 1929. Her dam Ronommee de Masnuy (31-2641), was a mare bred in Belgium that was foaled in 1927. It is interesting to note Belgian horses registered in Volume 33 of the Belgian Stud Book published overseas were foaled in 1929, while Belgian horses registered in Volume 34 of the Belgian Stud Book were foaled in 1930. This unique system of numbering certificates of registration is still employed in Belgium.
A small market for the North American Belgian has appeared in Belgium over the last few years. While both the North American Belgian and the Belgian in Europe descend from Dikke van Onkerzelle, European Belgians no longer exhibit many traits common to the Flemish horse. However, this type difference could disappear as the 21st Century unfolds. Just as England's "Black Horse" was bred to the Flemish horse, so too, North America's Belgian is being bred to the European Belgian. History is known to repeat itself and the blood of Dikke van Onkerzelle has come full circle.
Sincere thanks is expressed to the late Laurent Rottiers, Brussels, Belgium, who inspired this article; and to his friend, Luc Haine, whose help was invaluable following Laurent's death. Thanks is also expressed to Jim Richendollar, Belleville, Michigan, whose photograph collection is an equine treasure. – Bruce A. Roy