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How Big is a Draft Horse?

Updated on January 18, 2019
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Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.


While most people think of big when they think of draft horses, it is more a matter of what the horse does than its size. That being said, the majority of draft horses are large in size, as the work they do requires they have more strength than the light horse. Called cold-blooded because of their place of origin, which was Western Europe about the time of the Roman Invasion of AD 43, the draft horse can trace its heritage to the European wild horse know as the Black Horse of Flanders. This draft type horse was larger and blockier than the swift hot-blooded horses of the Orient.


Defined by its use the draft horse was developed first to carry knights into battle. With armor weighing up to four hundred pounds it was necessary to have a mount that was strong and also agile in battle. These horses were war machines; the weight of warrior and horse was in and of itself a weapon and used to batter their foes.

There are five major breeds of draft horses in America: Percheron, Belgian, Suffolk Punch, Shire and Clydesdale. All of these breeds had their origin in Europe and were imported to the US as American grew and needed work horses. There are also several minor breeds, and draft ponies. The ponies share the qualities of the draft horse, which are strength, stamina, and even temperament, but they measure 14.2 hands or less. Examples of draft ponies are the Halflinger and Norwegian Fjord. To complicate the definition further, enter the draft type miniature horse. These chunky little guys are measured in inches, rather than hands, standing 38 inches or less. They are popular driving horses and look particularly cute pulling little buckborad wagons or stage coaches.

Morgans and Friesians were originally considered draft horses, but now have been bred to be more refined and are used primarily as saddle and carriage horses. The old type Morgan was used extensibility for logging and farm work. The Friesian originated in the Netherlands and dates back to the middle ages. It was used for farm work and for transporting goods and people. The Friesian nearly became extinct and no longer exists as the old type. A close relative, the Oldenburg, was crossed with the few remaining Friesians to salvage what remained of the breed, but is now a more refined horse. It is becoming popular in the United States as a dressage horse.

Percheron Team
Percheron Team

Today there is a unique group of horse owners in who have taken it upon themselves to preserve a part of our heritage, partnering up with the heavy horses to plow and work fields, mow and rake hay, skid logs, pull horse drawn vehicles and compete in horse pulls and horse shows.

This return to the good ole days' way of doing things can in part be attributed to the rising cost of fuel and environmental concerns. Many people can remember when working with horses were the norm rather than a novelty and are returning to using draft horses for nostalgic reasons.

In the tradition of early settlers who pooled their labor for big jobs like barn building, breaking ground for farming and quilting bees, some of today's draft horse owners hold events like plow days, horse pulls and field days so they preserve and pass on the skills of working with horses to future generations. As gas prices continue to rise the draft horse may take on a more important role in farming like it did before the post WWII years in the 1950s when farmer began to use tractors.

Breeders hoping to produce sporting type horses for eventing, jumping and dressage cross draft horses with light horse breeds. Drafts are also crossed with donkeys to produce mules, which are also making a comeback in America. The draft horse is even raised as food in some parts of the world. In France the Boulonnais is currently used for meat production, and about 95 percent of all male horses are butchered. Only the best stallions are used for reproduction.

Whether working or as pleasure horses, the gentle giants that helped build the country are back, and breed associations are seeing a resurgence the number of foals being registered.


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