“Did you know that there are fewer Pecheron horses than rhinos left on the planet today? They are close to extinction.” It takes a moment for my brain to feel the impact of Christine’s sentence.
Her blue eyes turn to the enigmatic, giant Pecheron horse standing meters from us. I truly have never ever seen a horse that size! Standing so close to him, my eyes are level with the top of his front thigh, his neck at least head and shoulders taller than me … and I stand at 1.74 m tall.
Filled with awe, I take in the spectacular far-and-wide view of the landscape surrounding us. The definitive line of the Outeniqua mountain range brings the blue sky and the green foothills together in a harmonious, curving blend of colour. Farms everywhere. The air is so fresh. With every breath I feel myself seeing and hearing clearer. Several beautiful giant horses dotting the landscape, hundreds of birds, the rustling of the leaves in the welcoming summer breeze and floating on it, that very specific smell of a farm.
We move over to the shady veranda of the ‘Outeniqua Moon Pecheron Stud & Guest Farm’, just a few kilometres north of Hartenbos on the R328 to Oudsthoorn . Husband and wife team Christine and Peter met and fell in love in Cape Town. They bought the farm in 2000 and bought their first Pecheron horses (draft horses) in 2002. She grew up in Zimbabwe on a cattle ranch with horses, mainly thoroughbreds and warm bloods. She came to South Africa when she was 21 and met Peter when she was 26. He grew up in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape and always wanted to have a farm and the draft horses.
They bought their first Pecheron horses on an auction at Elsenburg. With that look in his eyes when someone talks about a subject they are passionate and knowledgeable about, Peter says: “The Percherons have energy, and they like to work out. Their energy to work ratio is the best of all the draft horses. They have less feathering as well and seem to tolerate our climate, our heat and change in temperature better than the others. That’s why we favoured Percherons. There are certain areas where Clydesdales are more favoured, like in Natal.”
Christine adds: “The Pecherons all came from the northern European forest horses and they were always this giant size, not bred that way. The depth of shoulder and the big hind quarter and what they look like here on this farm today is actually very rare in the world, they’ve lost that confirmation. There are about 4 500 left in the whole world that have that confirmation. The Percherons are the most numerous and were bred in France.”
She looks at the giant horse approaching the veranda and continues: “The closest to the original forest horses is the Belgian horse and is rarer than a Panda today. The French introduced a little bit of Arab horse blood to fine it down a bit. That’s why the Percherons are so pretty and you get the white colours coming in. The Belgian horse is a dark horse with a dark tail and main. Dominant. They’re all big because they come off that line. Today they breed them. The Percheron in America is probably the most numerous in the world.”
For a moment time stood still as the three of us looked over the lawn at the 4 giant horses lounging around in their garden, around the pool right in front of us. Peter says: “The Pecheron in America is a tall horse, long legs, nice stride but they’ve lost the heavy bone and strength. There are two types of giant horses. The one is what the French calls the ‘Tray’ which is the heavy draft horse and the other is the ‘Diligencia’ which means cart pulling. The horses we have here on the farm are the Tray, the original.”
Christine says: “Horses have ability and a generosity of spirit quite unlike any other animal on earth. They can understand up to 450 commands and they have a low pain threshold. Without the horse we would not have been civilised. We only made a wheel because we had a horse to pull it. They brought food, carried things, and thus enabled change. They made people mobile. If you follow the patterns of civilization, they all started out around horses. Without the heavy draft horses, we would not have had the industrial revolution”.
I look at the strong, beautiful creature standing there in front of me, looking into my eyes while chewing on a bit of grass, his long main slightly lifted by the breeze. His long feather-like lashes softly surrounding those big eyes. I wonder what happened that there are only 4 500 left today?
Christine tells me with sadness in her eyes: “The tractors and lorries came out in the 1930s and they started doing the work of the draft horses. More than 500 million heavy draft horses were slaughtered wholesale around the world. It was expedient because they didn’t need them anymore. Many died in the wars but most were just slaughtered. Which is a shocker if you really think about it! It hasn’t even been a hundred years since the tractors and kids of today don’t know about these draft horses and the role they played in our past. Kids are not taught the history of these majestic animals.” Christine’s mother could still remember cart horses, Percherons, in Cape Town. There were 25 000 Pecheron horses working in Cape Town in the early 1900s.
She continues with passion in her voice and her blue eyes intensifying: “If we don’t do something soon we are going to see the end of the heavy draft horses. I feel this is an immense plight of the human spirit. We fight for the protection of animals just because they’re wild, but we see fit to slaughter anything that we think are domestic animals. If we want to save the heavy draft horses, we have to breed them otherwise they will be extinct. We want to get heritage status for the horses and we’re still pretty much on our own. We want people to join us”.
Peter says: “ We have a volunteer programme so that young people can experience the daily life on the farm with the horses. They learn about the horses and get to work hands-on with them, brush them, feed them and see what it takes to breed with these beautiful horses.”
After a delicious lunch prepared by Christine and her amazing team, we take a stroll through parts of the farm, all the time passing the many Pecheron horses in different camps. Peter shows me around their highly recommended accommodation options, which can sleep up to 15 people. There’s the Family Suite which is their biggest accommodation suite. It has two bedrooms, a living area, a kitchenette and a bathroom with a giant Victorian slipper bath with a big shower in it. They also offer the Blue Suite for two people. The Cottage has the same configuration as the Family Suite but the rooms are just a little bit smaller. Upstairs, with a beautiful view of the Outeniqua mountains, they offer the honeymoon suite which is very glamorous.
Christine says the suites are very comfortable. You can choose between self-catering or fully catered out of her kitchen (including delicious handmade ice cream), depending on what you want. “I’ve never had a single complaint about my food. You must never trust a thin chef.” she says with a chuckle.
All guests staying on the farm are taken on a free tour around the horses and horse centre. There’s an indigenous forest on the farm for long and quiet walks. While the horses are feeding you can sit on their backs, brush them and play with them. They also do outrides but only for people staying at the farm.
Day visitors are also welcome and the price goes up to R200 per person, depending on what you choose to do for the day. You can enjoy a carriage drive, pulled with fervour by one of the giant horses, a tour around the horses, a picnic and much more. In December they also offer their famous ‘Tea, cake and cart ride’.
Much to my joy, Christine invites me for a cart ride. Seeing the gigantic Pecheron horse ready in front of the cart and all dressed up in the beautifully handmade studded brown leather straps kind of transports me to another time and place. I climb onto the carriage and for the first time see the back of this huge creature from an elevated angle. Wow! Subconsciously my hand grips slightly tighter to the frame of the cart. Christine easily finds her place on the front bench, talking gently to the horse whose ear is turned sideways to listen to her voice. She picks up the reins, making a clicking sound and this 1 ton giant starts moving forward into a slow walk. A slow trot follows, and the movement of muscle and mane has me mesmerised.
The gentle swaying of the cart makes me forget about holding on and I just sit back on the cart’s bench, taking in that spectacular far-and-wide mountain view appearing behind the forest’s trees. I look at the giant Pecheron horse pulling the cart so gracefully and with so much effortless strength. My heart swells in admiration for this beautiful creature. A wave of relaxation washes over me, and I silently hope that many people will also have this very unusual experience … especially children and young people.
For more information about joining Christine and Peter on their mission to save the giant Pecheron horses and to book your accommodation at the beautiful ‘Outeniqua Moon Pecheron Stud & Guest Farm’, please visit their website on www.outeniquamoon.com