As the gentle giants of the horse world, draft horses are as beautiful as they are fascinating. With dozens of different breeds from all over the world, these “heavy horses” have captivated the hearts of thousands. From the majestic Clydesdale to the rare Suffolk Punch, draft horses have been bred for centuries to fulfill specific purposes. They’re working horses that make human lives easier, and they’re also friendly companions. Today, draft horses are popular whether you want to haul a heavy wagon or go on a carefree trail ride.
History of Draft Horses
History dates draft horses all the way back to medieval times when “Great Horses” were bred to carry heavily-armored knights into battle. These horses needed to be exceptionally strong and stoic. A full suit of armor could weigh over 100 pounds, and that didn’t include the knight himself, his sword, or any of his provisions. Without draft horses, these chivalrous warriors would have had no form of transportation. They valued their large horses and continued to breed them based on their strength and fearlessness in battle.
It’s believed that the “father of modern drafts” was the Black Horse of Flanders. This early draft horse was bred specifically for strength and endurance. From there, different breeds emerged around the globe.
From their days carrying medieval knights to tilling the land in the New World, draft horses have made their mark on history. They plowed fields, pulled carriages, cleared forests, and carted ore out of mines. Draft horses also towed canal boats, fire trucks, and carried soldiers into war.
After World War I, when trucks and tractors became more popular, the need for draft horses almost came to an end. Their population took a nosedive as people moved away from horse power and chose machines instead.
A Modern Comeback
Today, draft horses are once again a valued part of society. A renewed interested in organic farming and eco-conscious logging has brought draft horses back from the brink. Business owners, farmers, loggers, and miners have recognized the strong horses as being both more economical and environmentally friendly. They don’t pollute the air with exhaust, and they have minimal affects on the natural environment. Many businesses have come full circle and are replacing gasoline-chugging equipment with well-trained draft horses.
Besides working for big businesses and farms, these giant-sized horses have also caught on for recreational use. Their confidence and friendly personalities make them great riding mounts. You’ll likely need a tall mounting block to make it work, but most draft horses have a smooth, lumbering gait. Despite their size, they’re perfect for beginner riders.
You’ll also see draft horses competing in shows—both big and small. State fairs have brought back conformation and pulling classes, and it seems no parade is complete without an impressive showing from a “big hitch” team.
While any draft horse is an impressive sight, the Budweiser Clydesdales are arguably the most famous horse team in the world. The regal-looking Clydesdales are the mascots for the American beer company and live on a picturesque Missouri ranch. While there are dozens of Clydesdales at the ranch, only horses that stand at least 18 hands high, weigh between 2,000 and 2,300 pounds, have a white blaze and white feathering on each leg are chosen for the iconic hitch team. Seeing these horses in full regalia and working as a perfect team is always impressive.
The Budweiser Clydesdales have international fame, but the Belgian is by far the most popular breed of draft horse. According to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America, there are more Belgians in the U.S. than all other draft breeds combined. These chestnut-colored horses typically stand 16.2-17 hands high and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They’re still used for plowing and logging, but they’re also chosen for showing and pleasure riding.
Meanwhile, the American Cream is one of the most rare draft breeds. Beautiful with their light-colored coats and amber eyes, there are only a few hundred of these horses in the world. They’re considered a mid-sized draft and are around 16 hands high.
More Than Their Size
One of the reasons why people love draft horses is because of their sheer size. With most standing between 16 and 19 hands high and weighing anywhere from 1,500 to 2,300 pounds, they’re amazing to look at it. Add in the feathering on their legs that is common in most breeds, and you have a stunning example of equine beauty.
The largest horse in recorded history was a Belgian stallion named Brooklyn Supreme. He stood 19.2 hands high and weighed a massive 3,200 pounds. He passed away in 1948 when he was 20 years old.
Today’s tallest horse is yet another Belgian. At 20.68 hands high, Big Jake would have towered over Brooklyn Supreme. But even with those extra inches, Big Jake is a gelding that “only” weighs 2,600 pounds.
Draft horses are known for their incredible size, but there are also smaller breeds. The Gypsy Vanner, for example, is pony-sized. They are usually only about 14.5 hands high. Their height, however, doesn’t stop them from performing typical heavy horse tasks. They are still incredibly strong and excel at plowing and driving.
Their height and heft might be what first attracts your eye, but draft horses are also recognized for their gentle and friendly personalities. They’re true gentle giants and are typically eager to learn and please their people. Once you get past their intimidating size, they’re usually great mounts for beginner riders. They’re also employed as therapy horses for their instinctive way of connecting with people.