Trait du Nord, previously also known as Ardennais du Nord is a breed of heavy “draft horse”, developed in the area of Hainaut in western Belgium and in north-eastern France.
Originally, considered a sub-type of the Ardennais, it was recognized as an individual breed with the opening of a STUD BOOK in 1903. Developed in the fertile Flemish grasslands, it was bred for size and ‘pulling power’ for agriculture work. By 1855, the horses bred near Hainaut were considered, by some vets, to be superior to other Flemish draft breeds. The Trait du Nord was used extensively in mining from the late 19th century through 1920, with lesser use continuing through the 1960s.
The Trait du Nord continued to be used for agriculture through World War 2, but, after the war, this usage and the breed population declined significantly, as farming became increasingly mechanized. During the mid-20th century, the breed was in demand for the production of horse meat, and , due to this was bred to be ‘larger’ and ‘heavier’. In the early 1970s, the market for horse meat began to decline, ad the Trait du Nord, like many European draft breeds, was in danger of extinction. It was not until the 1990s, that the breed experienced a slight revival through an increased interest in recreational riding and driving.
The Trait du Nord is large with stallions weighing upwards of 1000 kilograms. The breed reached the peak of its physical structure in the early 1930s. It was then described as a “born labourer”, built for traction and with a conformation that allowed it to move huge weights over short distances. The average size in the breeds is 16.2-16.3 hands for stallions and 16.1 for mares. The breed is found in solid colours, although ‘bay’ and ‘roan’ are the most common. Chestnut (including Liver Chestnut) is also allowed as are black, brown and grey. The head is generally small in proportion to the mass of the horse, with a flat profile. The neck is of medium length and strong, often slightly arched. The “withers” are prominent and the shoulder long and slightly oblique. The back is short and straight and the body compact, solid and very muscular. The chest is deep with a broad muscular breast. The “croup” is wide and powerfully muscled. The hooves are hard and strong. Two slightly different types of Trait du Nord are found —— a larger type used for heavier pulling and a lighter type used for faster work. It is known to be gentle and easy to handle.
The breed is considered to be ‘endangered’ by the French Government, with fewer than 100 new foal births a year. The National Breed Registry in France is working with local groups in an attempt to promote this breed and bring the population numbers back up. The breed, currently, is in danger of inbreeding due to the low number of breeding stallions. According to the French National Stud, the current official name of the breed is Trait du Nord. The name has changed several times during its history. In the mid-19th century it is mentioned as the “large horse of Hainaut”. Beginning in 1913, it was known as the Trait Ardennes North, and from 1945-1965, it was known as the Northern Ardennes Draft. The name of Trait du Nord became commonly used around 1961.
The Hainaut region is the true birthplace of the breed in France. The Belgian draft breeds, the Ardennes and the Trait du Nord share the same ancestry. The region of Flanders is particularly conducive to agriculture, an din the 19th century the drainage of the swamps and improved farming techniques led to a major expansion in cultivated areas and farm sizes. As there were no existing horses in the area that were suitable for ploughing the farmers found it necessary to create a breed of draft horses specifically for their use. From the 1850s on the farmers selected horses that eventually became the Trait du Nord.