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Gentle giants: Explore the culture of the Brabant draught horse
World-renowned for its hefty size and docile nature, the Brabant draught horse originates from the Brabant region in Belgium, where it was specially bred to work on the region’s farmland.
A living link to the Middle Ages, the draught horse tradition has pride of place in Flemish Brabant folklore; it was added to the Flanders Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2018. A former powerhouse of farming and country life, the versatile animal is once again earning admiration for its placid nature, natural intelligence and incredible strength.
Many draught horses still roam the region’s country roads. You can learn more about these gentle giants on themed walking and cycling tours in the green belt around Brussels, while exploring the rural charms of Pajottenland and Zenne Valley, west of the capital.
They also boast a noble history. Reputed to be direct descendants of the ‘Great Horse’ of medieval times, the Belgian draught is thought to have once carried chivalrous knights onto the battlefield. Due to their strength, they became the foundation stock for breeds around the world; many draught horses today carry Belgian lineage in their bloodlines.
Until the 1940s, the Brabant and the Belgian were essentially the same breed, but following World War Two, the Brabant was selectively bred to be thicker bodied and heavier for farm work. Over the ensuing years, heavy horses were gradually replaced by tractors for ploughing and heavy-duty transporting duties.
Although its heyday may well be over, draught horses and their culture are undergoing something of a resurgence. A new respect for these hard-working animals means that the traditions and knowledge surrounding them is once again being passed from one generation to another.
This is partly due to nostalgia, but also a recognition that the powerful breed offers an environmentally-friendly alternative to tractors for farm work and forest clearance. Draught horses take pride of place in agricultural shows and traditional activities such as trekking, team competitions, wagon rides and processions. Their culture has also helped revive rural skills and crafts, like farrier work and harness making.
Keep an eye out for these magnificent creatures at work or grazing pastures in Pajottenland, or the area around Geraardsbergen. Ramblers can take the Brillant Walk, which starts at the Museum of the Belgian Draught Horse in Vollezele, near Galmaarden. The trail passes through the Haras de Vollezele stud farm, where you can admire a bronze sculpture of Brillant, the breed’s forefather. It’s also possible to pet his living descendants in fields near the Congoberg.
Fans of two wheels can follow the Diepensteyn Cycling Route along the extensive node-to-node network. Located north of Brussels, its starting point is the Heidemolen in Malderen. The itinerary includes the Drietoren and Diepensteyn castles; the latter in Londerzeel (pictured above) was once the seat of a feudal domain. Now restored by Palm Brewery – its logo features the famous breed – Diepensteyn’s extensive grounds are the perfect place for admiring the heritage horses of its adjacent stud farm. The breed was traditionally used by brewers for transporting their wares.
If you’re a horse rider, get inspired to saddle up by the Flemish Brabant Equitrail around Brussels. The 430km bridal path links numerous places of interest around the green belt, including many horse-related stops. Most of the trail’s starting points are stables, with sufficient parking for horse trailers.
Photos: © Lander Loeckx