Every winter when I was a kid, my friends and I looked forward to the week before the Pasadena Rose Parade. That was the time when the Budweiser Clydesdale horses came to town and stayed at our local stable. We’d all ride (horses or bikes) up to the barn and hang out for hours watching their handlers bathe and groom the gentle giants. We’d never seen horses that big—approximately twice the size of our own. The average riding horse stands around 15 hands tall (five feet at the withers, where the neck joins the back) and weighs about 1000 pounds. The Clydes stood 18 hands (six feet) and weighed around 2000 pounds. They were so big their grooms had to stand on long tables in order to reach the top of their backs and necks. Their feet were three to four times bigger than our horses’ hooves and their huge horseshoes were said to weigh five pounds. They were a wonderful, exotic sight.
Of course 50 years earlier they wouldn’t have been exotic at all. For millennia draft horses were the tractors and trucks of the world. They pulled plows to work the land, logged the forests, hauled freight wagons and coaches, and sped the early fire wagons to their destinations. During World War I, the U.S. shipped more than 1,000,000 horses to Europe to haul artillery and pack supplies and ammunition.
The conformation (build) of draft horses differs from that of riding horses because they are used for pulling, instead of carrying. In addition to being big and powerful, they have an upright stance, which is better for working in harness, and huge hindquarters that, combined with their over-large feet, give them tremendous pulling power. Most also have lots of hair, known as feathers, on their lower legs, heavy bones and either straight or roman noses. They come in a variety of sizes, ranging from about 1300 pounds to over 2400. The largest horse on record, a Shire named Samson, was 21.2 hands high and weighed approximately 3,300 pounds.
No matter the breed, one characteristic all drafts have in common is a calm, sweet temperament. While a fiery, aggressive attitude might be desirable or at least tolerated in some riding horses, a 2000 pound hot-head would be extremely dangerous. So they’ve been bred to be patient and docile. Children routinely handle the powerful animals. The faithful, loving farm horse is not a myth.
Drafts were vitally important to American agriculture from about 1820-1920. Before that oxen were cheaper to use. But a revolution in farm machinery required bigger, more powerful and faster animals, so the work horse came into its own and helped create the breadbasket of America. Then in the 1920’s the motor vehicle entered the picture. Tractors and trucks took over and the number of drafts decreased dramatically, with some breeds actually becoming endangered.
In the 1960’s people became interested in them as pleasure animals and their popularity grew. Today they are mainly used at shows and parades, in pulling contests and for carriage and wagon rides. However, some are again being used for logging and farming too.
Drafts are also sometimes crossed with lighter riding horses to create sturdier sport horses used for jumping and cross-country competitions. While most drafts are used in harness they most definitely can be ridden and you will see them both on the trails and in the show ring.
Here are a couple of videos showing draft horses in action.
Clydesdale photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trinity/219597161/sizes/s/in/photostream/
Draft photo: http://tinyurl.com/mfw3ce2
Three horses photo: http://tinyurl.com/ms8al65