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Percheron breeder says the horses are becoming popular again

Originally used to carry knights into battle, gentle giants are finding homes on small acreage and vegetable farms

January 11, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • Jim McGowen nuzzles his favorite stallion, Excalibur, Thursday at his Carousel Farm near Shepherdstown, W.Va. McGowen breeds Percheron horses for riding and carriage use.
Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

LEETOWN, W.Va. — The 20 or so horses that roam Carousel Farm off Darke Lane are huge, gentle beasts that come in colors from black to gray to white.

One of those horses, Excalibur, a big, black 7-year-old Percheron stallion, is a prime example of the draft horse breed that farm owner Jim McGowen has been raising since 1984.

A big stallion can stretch 18.2 hands high and weigh up to 2,500 pounds, he said. Many Percherons weigh more than a ton.

McGowen began breeding Percherons in Calhoun County, W.Va., and moved to his 90-acre Jefferson County spread in 1986. His current herd is fifth generation.

The sturdy, docile horse originated in the Perche Valley area of northern France. Early on, Percherons were favored by knights to carry them and their heavy armor into battle. During the Crusades, Percherons were cross-bred with Arabian horses, McGowen said.

Percherons, because of their size, stamina and demeanor, were favored among draft horse breeds for pulling large wagons and carriages, even city trolleys.

He hitches his horses to a four-passenger fancy carriage he had made in 1989. He rents the rig and horses out for weddings, social events, weddings and similar events.

Percherons, which found favor with American farmers in the days before tractors, are becoming popular again on small acreage and vegetable farms.

"They're environmentally friendly," McGowen said.

He said he breeds his horses for size, refinement and temperament.

"You don't want these big horses to be mean," he said.

The breed had lost its popularity in America around the early 1950s, McGowen said.

"They were nearly extinct," he said. "In the beginning of the '70s, you could buy a Percheron for $500. By the end of the '90s, they were $3,500 to $4,000."

He sells his horses to buyers around the country.

McGowen sometimes cross-breeds his Percherons with thoroughbreds to produce still large, but lighter horses for use in events like cross-country racing, dressage and stadium jumping.

They are also popular among fox hunters, he said.

"They're sturdy and can jump a 4 1/2-foot fence," he said.

"Genetically, Percherons come in black, gray and white with gray being the dominant color. Grays often turn white as they get older," McGowen said.

"That's why it's hard to maintain a matched team of grays," he said. "One of them will always turn white. If they're born black, they don't change color, but grays do. You can't breed for color. It's the luck of the draw."

At one point during a recent afternoon visit, there was a blur of black, gray and white, pounding hooves and shrieking whinnies when a half-dozen Percherons grazing on a hillside raced across the field to greet a mare that McGowen had just turned out.

"They get along well," he said.

In addition to breeding and selling Percherons, McGowen sells a leather-protection product interchangeably called Leather Honey and Harness Honey, depending on whether it's for home or commercial use.

The formula, still a secret, was developed by his father, Dan McGowen, for use on leather soles. It was found to be useful on all leather products, from harnesses and saddles to furniture and clothing, he said.

Kryssie Ward, who works for McGowen, spends her time packaging and shipping more than 100 orders a day, all of which come in over the Internet.

Shipment sizes of the product, which is made off the premises, range from 8-ounce bottles, to gallon jugs, to 5-gallon buckets, depending on the buyer, McGowen said.

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