Gentle Giants: Draft Horse Breeds

At the age of 5, Larry Wise recalls, he was often hoisted onto the lead horse of his grandfather’s plow team. With Wise in front, he and his grandfather would guide the team through a day’s work in the garden of the Wise’s Virginia farm. “I thought I was the biggest person in the world,” he reminisces.

Credit: Heidi Melocco The Friesian breed, originally from the Netherlands, has been threatened with extinction, but today is growing steadily. This sleek, black horse measures around 15 hands, and is admired by both riders and the harness world for powerful bone structure and a fast, high-stepping trot.

True, the perceptions of a child can be exaggerated. But Wise had reason to believe that he’d ridden at soaring heights: He was aboard a mighty draft horse.

Here, we’ll cover what some have already discovered about the draft horse: behind its size, power, and muscle, lies a “gentle giant” that can be a perfect trail mount and rock-solid equine friend.

Noble Beginnings
The history of the draft horse takes us back many centuries to the romantic tales of knights and their noble steeds. While lighter horse breeds were being developed throughout other parts of the world, a large, strong-boned animal endured the harsh conditions of north-central Europe.

War-waging societies of the early Medieval Period used these heavy horses as battle mounts. It was during this period, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 A.D., that the Black Horse of Flanders was established as the foundation of today’s draft horse.

The word “draft” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word dragan, meaning to draw or to haul. It’s unclear as to when and where draft horses became the animal of choice for farmers and wagoneers, but their role as powerful harness horses has inspired selective breeding for centuries.

Horses as tall as 18 hands high and weighing 2,000 pounds are common in such breeds as the Percheron and Shire. Breeders selected not only for size and strength, but perhaps more important, a quiet calm temperament, distinguishing draft-horse breeds as cold-blooded animals.

When horsepower replaced horse power, heavy horses’ numbers dropped to drastically low levels. Since then, the breeds have recovered, yet the majority of the draft-horse industry is still dominated by their demand as harness horses. But now, more than ever, equestrians are taking advantage of generations of selective breeding.

On the Trail
Since the days on his grandfather’s farm, Wise, now age 52, has spent a lifetime with a number of horse breeds, but he always comes back to his gentle giants. As president of the Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association, he enjoys helping others fall in love with draft breeds.

One such person is Karen Attanasio. Far from the image of giant hooves and trampling steps, Attanasio paints a picture of grace and elegance as she and her Percheron, Smoke, roam the farms and wooded trails of the Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia.

She says that trail-riding is now a team effort. “Smoke is such a wonderful mare,” she says. “I enjoy her spirit and her willingness to do what I ask of her. She’ll stop to look at something as if she’s thinking about the best way to go around it or to tackle the task at hand.”

When Linda Tweedie rode her first draft horse, a Gypsy Vanner, she claimed she’d found the “My Little Pony” of her dreams. “If everyone had one, the world would be a happier place,” she says.

The Gypsy Vanner, related to the Gypsy Horse, is a draft type that has only recently been appreciated in the United States. These horses’ flashy color and average size – between 14 and 15 hands high- may seem to diverge from the draft-horse standards. Nonetheless, their gentle nature, solid structure, and strong work ethic are what tie them to other draft breeds.

The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society is one of the smaller draft-horse registries, with approximately 1,500 registered members since it was established in 1996. Since then, several additional organizations have been founded in hopes of developing this unique horse that originated from the animal that carried gypsies across Europe.

If you don’t mind garnering attention while on a trail ride, the draft horse can make an excellent trail mount. “We’re a parade unto ourselves,” says Tweedie, who now breeds her beloved horses at Gypsy Vanner Ranch in both Redmond, Washington, and Ocala, Florida.

Of course, it’s not all about striking appearances. “The demographics [of draft-horse buyers] are people who’ve paid their dues with hot horses,” says Tweedie. “Their search is for a pleasurable horse.”

Credit: Courtesy of Cream Acres Ranch The American Cream Draft is the only draft breed with beginnings in the United States. It was developed in Iowa in the early 20th century. While it’s not considered a color breed, these all-American horses are known for their light, creamy color, pink skin, white mane and tail, and amber-colored eyes.

Pia Johansson had so many visitors begging to get a glimpse of her big, beautiful Clydesdales, she finally opened her farm, Hightower Creek Clydesdales, to the public. Commonly associated with the Anheuser-Busch team of noble bay giants, Clydesdales are rarely appreciated for their abilities as riding horses. Johansson recalls the reactions that she has encountered on the trails of northern Georgia.

“People say, ‘You can ride those things?’ Most of them don’t think they can be used like that,” she says with a laugh. But Clydesdales are Johansson’s mount of choice. “When you’re cantering through the woods, you feel secure, strong, and surefooted,” she says.

Over the years, Johansson has developed an affectionate bond with the 10 gentle giants at her farm. “It’s like having 10 kids out there,” she says. “They’re really special horses.”

You may’ve ruled out a draft horse as trail mount because of common misconceptions associated with these breeds. Here are several myths, and the reality behind each one.

Myth #1: Draft horses are slow.
Reality: Cold-blooded doesn’t mean sluggish, and you don’t have to use a lot of leg to keep a draft horse going.

“A healthy draft horse has just as much energy and is just as capable of cantering and galloping as any other breed,” says Beth Valentine, DVM, PhD, professor of anatomic pathology at Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine, a draft-horse owner, and co-author of Draft Horses, an Owner’s Manual ( Draft horses want to please, owners say. You won’t have to don spurs to keep up the horses’ sweeping, steady stride.

Myth #2: Draft horses are harness horses, not riding horses.
Reality: It’s true that the colossal size of some draft horses makes them majestic creatures. But don’t be put off by their height or weight – they’re nicknamed “gentle giants” for a reason. And not all draft breeds are made up of towering horses. Smaller draft breeds include the Gypsy Vanner, the Norwegian Fjord (see “Rare & Wonderful,” Breed Showcase, November/December ’06), the Haflinger (see “The Haflinger Horse,” Breed Showcase, May ’08), and the Friesian.

Credit: Courtesy of Mountain View Spotted Drafts, Inc. Because it’s often crossed with other draft breeds, the Spotted Draft’s most consistent features are its flashy coat color and a gentle, willing disposition.

Myth #3: It’s impossible to mount a draft horse unaided on the trail.
Reality: While it can be difficult to mount a tall horse on the trail, there are ways to overcome this challenge. First, train your draft horse to stand still while you mount. (For a technique from top clinician/trainer Julie Goodnight, see “Mount Up!” Natural Horsemanship, March ’09, or visit

On the trail, stop alongside a sturdy rock or log. Stand uphill from your horse to gain a few inches on him. And consider investing in a mounting aid, such as the E-ZUP Stirrup Extender (877/865-1497;

Before You Buy
If you’re considering buying a draft horse, you may need to make some adjustments to accommodate his size. Dr. Valentine encourages owners to keep their draft horses outside as much as possible. But if you plan on bringing your draft horse into a stall or barn, make sure the quarters are big enough for a large horse to lie down and stand up in. Also make sure your trailer’s stalls – in length, width, and height – will accommodate an oversized horse.

And of course, you’ll need to meet your draft horse’s tack requirements. Finding the right saddle may require some research. A custom-made saddle with a wide tree is best, but it’s not the only option. Attanasio compares products online; Johansson recommends finding a draft-horse store or sale. Both say that they’ve also sought the help of people who still use draft horses for work purposes, such as the Amish. Another factor is feeding. Surprisingly, a draft horse doesn’t need more feed than a lighter horse; he needs less, but of a different composition.

According to Dr. Valentine, draft horses need about three-quarters of the amount of feed per body weight than light breeds. For example, if a full-grown 1,000-pound light horse requires 15,000 calories per day, a 2,000-pound draft horse would need about 22,500 calories per day.

The type of feed is critical to maintain muscle health. “Drafts should not be fed starch and sugar,” says Dr. Valentine. “Instead, they need fat calories to maintain muscle health.”

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