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Draft Horses - Yesterday and Today

Updated on December 3, 2011

The draft horses that are now kept mostly for show were once used for everything from moving heavy loads to plowing fields. These large horses, often the gentlest of breeds, were not riding horses. but the horses that enabled man to open the west, put down railways, pull huge military wagons, and plant crops. Over time they were replaced by oxen and smaller horses. Despite the thousands that were imported from Europe by the end of the Second World War, the big horses had seen their day. They were replaced by tractors, cars and trucks. Sadly at that time hundreds of them were sold for meat and the breeds declined steadily for many years.

Draft Horse Gallery

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Belgian horsesClydesdale horseShire horsePercheron horsesClydesdalesBelgiansShire horse
Belgian horses
Belgian horses | Source
Clydesdale horse
Clydesdale horse | Source
Shire horse
Shire horse | Source
Percheron horses
Percheron horses
Shire horse
Shire horse

Draft Horse Breeds

The four most popular breeds of draft horses are the Percheron, Shires, Clydesdales and Belgians. The Belgians were developed in Belgium under a government program designed to breed horses of a three different sizes based on the needs of the communities. These horses were to be carefully bred and selected for the right confirmation at horse shows run and judged by government representatives. If the horses were judged below standard they were dropped immediately from all government breeding programs. But, if they were of the quality that was being looked for the owners were given subsidies to encourage continued breeding. By 1860 there was a stud book and the Belgian horse breed became official. Horse breeders were proud of themselves and their work. Their country had developed this incredible large working horse. These horses are usually sorrel color with a white to cream mane and tail. They can be seen as bays or roans also. They are now used as pulling horses as well as in competitions. They are known as easy going hard workers.

The Percheron originated in an area of France, less than one hundred miles from Paris, called La Perche. They are commonly bred as blacks or grays though the less common bays can be accepted for registration after parentage testing. This breed and the Belgians are very similar in appearance. They are both heavy horses with good muscling, short backs and strong legs with good feet. Neither breed has the feathering on their legs that the Clydesdales and Shires have. Although the Percheron can be anywhere from fifteen to nineteen hands at maturity, they tend to average about sixteen and a half to seventeen and a half hands and weigh approximately twenty five hundred pounds.

The Shire is the tallest of the draft horses. This horse was very popular in England as the knight’s horse. Considering that the knight and armor combination could weigh more than four hundred pounds it is not a surprise that the bigger the horse the better. These horses were able to serve many purposes so after being taken to war they were able to plough fields and in more modern times they were used on the docks to move freight from the ships to the cities. Shires, like Clydesdales, are often used at promotional events.

The Clydesdales were named after the Clyde River, which was near where they were raised. They were developed as a large breed to help the farmers plow their fields, but also to help pull loads in the coalmines. These draft horses have a slightly different build than the other draft breeds. They are most likely to be bay, but can also be black, sorrel and chestnut, should have four high white socks and lots of feathering on the feet. The breed is slimmer, straighter with long legs and large knees. Despite the popularity of the other breeds, it ranks third of the four top breeds, the Clydesdale is likely the most easily recognized by the public because of the Anheuser Busch Budweiser trucks the Clydesdales have been pulling for years.

No matter which of the draft horses you favor, be it for the shapes of the body, the temperament or the working ability you should remember that these horses eat a lot more than the average sized horse. This is absolutely a consideration when you are thinking about purchasing one of these giant beauties; the food bill will be considerably higher.


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  • Gerber Ink profile image

    Charlotte Gerber 6 years ago from upstate New York

    Hi homesteadbound, I love the Clydesdales too in the Bud commercials, always looking forward to the Super Bowl commercials each year. Where I live, Percherons are very popular with the Amish population as are the occasional Belgiums. I'm always in awe of their size!

  • homesteadbound profile image

    Cindy Murdoch 6 years ago from Texas

    This was very interesting. I have always admired the Clydesdales in the Bud commercials. Altough big, they seem majestic.

    I found it interesting about the knight and his armor weighing so much therefore needing a larger horse.

    Interesting hub.