They’re the strongmen of the horse world, blending both power and patience in one gargantuan package. But there’s a lot more to draft horses than meets the eye.
Once the preferred mounts of medieval knights, these “super-sized” equines have a long and colorful history of service to humankind. That service continues to this day, thanks to a renewed appreciation of their beauty and versatility.
The word “draft” (or “draught”) refers to an animal’s ability to pull heavy loads. Draft horses come in a range of sizes, depending on the job for which they are bred. But it is the massive heavy drafts that have captivated the imagination for centuries. These noble beasts tower up to 20 hands high and weigh 2000 pounds or more. Considering that an average saddle horse stands between 15 and 16 hands, and tips the scales at about 1000 pounds, the difference is very impressive!
But don’t let their size intimidate you; most drafts are good-natured family animals. “Most of our visitors are really impressed by them,” said the Kentucky Horse Park’s Horse Drawn Tour Manager Tracy Walker, who has worked with the big horses for over 20 years. “I tell people it’s just like petting a really big teddy bear…most of these horses are very gentle.
“We’ve even had folks come here from the local rehabilitation center, patients who were practically non-responsive. And a couple of our big draft horses will lay their heads right down on their laps, and they’ll pet the horses, and feel a kinship…it’s really neat to see.”
Draft Horses–A History of Service
“Great horses” of the draft type emerged in Europe during the Ice Age, and were known to exist at the time of Caesar. By the early medieval period (500-1000 A.D.), the father of modern drafts–the so-called “Black Horse of Flanders”–was cultivated for his strength and endurance, qualities necessary for toting armor-clad knights into battle.
During times of peace, those same traits rendered drafts indispensable in both town and country–whether pulling a plow, a wagon, a carriage, or heavy logs in the forest.
Indeed, they helped settle the New World, hauling families across the frontier, tilling their land, clearing forests, and carting ore from mines. They proved useful in the cities, as well, and by the late 19th century, were towing everything from coaches and fire trucks to circus wagons and canal boats.
Yet the advent of the truck and the tractor nearly put an end to these amazing equines. After World War I–in which many drafts played a role–the heavy horse population fell into decline.
Today, drafts are making a powerful comeback thanks to a renewed interest in farming and logging practices that are both economical and environmentally conscious. Equipped with natural traction control, they’re more satisfying to work with than cold steel and rubber–and, in many cases, more efficient. Nor do they pollute the air.
Drafts have also been re-discovered in the recreational sector. There’s no more magnificent sight than a draft team in full regalia at a major horse show, where the “big hitches” are now welcome attractions. State and county fairs have resurrected the draft harness, conformation and pulling classes, with the various breed associations hosting national shows and even world congresses. Clinics in draft showmanship and horsemanship abound. Even the medieval spectacle of jousting has enjoyed a revival.
Thanks to meticulous breeding programs, the future of the draft horse now seems secure. And the current trend towards “sport horses” bodes well for these behemoths, with draft crosses in particular demand for many equestrian pursuits.
Draft Horses at the Kentucky Horse Park
The Kentucky Horse Park is home to about 27 draft horses. You can see them during the “Beginnings” and “Exodus” presentations, meet them in the Parade of Breeds, and enjoy a tour of the park aboard a draft-drawn trolley.
All of the major breeds are represented, with a preponderance of Percherons and a few lesser-known breeds like the Suffolk Punch and Mammoth Mule. “We’ve got all kinds of interesting personalities here,” said Tracy Walker.
To many people, the term “draft horse” means one thing: the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales. Introduced by Anheuser-Busch after the repeal of Prohibition, this flashy eight-horse hitch has been the breed’s best advertisement for nearly 70 years. The Clydesdale was first bred by 19th century farmers in the Lanarkshire (formerly Clydesdale) district of Scotland. Blessed with a huge hoof, a long stride, and an abundance of protective hair (or “feathers”) around the legs, he was perfect for working rugged terrain, not to mention coalfields and forests.
The modern Clydesdale is typically bay, black, brown or chestnut with white legs and face. Although his distinctive appearance and high-stepping style make him an ideal parade horse, Clydesdales and Clyde crosses also excel as hunter/jumpers, dressage and even trail horses. According to the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A., they are also used for therapeutic riding.
“The Clydesdale tends to be a very friendly breed,” Walker noted. “And people like all that hair! But those heavy feathers are really challenging to take care of.” The Kentucky Horse Park has three Clydesdales named Thunder, Lightning and Ted. “Visitors [to the park] always come looking for the Clydesdales, because they’re the most publicized,” Walker admitted. “But they leave having learned about so many others.” Like the Belgian, who outnumbers all other draft breeds combined in this country. He originated in the tiny country of Belgium, where he is believed to have provided the genetic foundation for many other types of draft horse.
America’s love affair with Belgians began after their exhibition in the 1903 World’s Fair. Soon chestnuts or sorrels with white blazes and socks were all the rage, and this coloration became their trademark in this country.
The modern American Belgian is a compact, docile fellow with good bone, a stylish head and neck, and short, stocky legs. He is a study in both economy and power, with a vigorous way of moving either in the traces or under saddle. The Kentucky Horse Park’s tallest draft horse is a Belgian named Jerry, who stands 18.3 hands high and weighs 2500-2600 pounds. This is unusual, because while Belgians are typically the heaviest of the draft breeds, the Shires are generally the tallest. Still, as Walker explained, “In this day and age, many people are breeding them for hitch horses–and they like the tall, lanky ones because they have a little more flash.”
Another well-known draft is the mighty Percheron, a largely gray or black animal from the Le Perche province of France. This breed forged its reputation in the coaching trade, where its generally light color made for increased visibility.
Close-coupled and heavily muscled, the Percheron boasts a refined head that hints of Arabian ancestry. Endowed with a pleasant, workmanlike disposition, he was the first of the draft breeds to come to America. And no wonder: he is versatile enough to haul timber one day and pull a carriage with flair the next.
Charlie, an 18-year-old black Percheron, is one of the Kentucky Horse Park’s better-known drafts. “He’s our lead horse in the show hitches as well as on the trolley tours,” Walker explained. “He is very flashy and very smart. We often say that if Charlie could hold a pencil, he’d be able to write his name…and when you’re driving him, you have to stay two steps ahead of him; otherwise, he decides, ‘We need to go THIS route!'” Another favorite is Fefe, a 12-year-old Percheron mare who was foaled at the park and is a rare sorrel color. “She’s a very intelligent horse, and more the ‘old style’ Percheron; very blocky like they used to be in the old days, and a good pulling horse,” Walker explained. “She’s also trained under saddle. She performs tricks, and has been a flag horse for the Rolex Three-Day Event.
“Depending on the breed, drafts tend to have a little bit longer, joltier stride [under saddle],” the veteran horsewoman continued. “And you’re kind of doing the splits! Fefe, however, has a very smooth stride, and it’s like riding a big, fluffy cloud–unless she’s mad. That’s when she’s really funny; she does what we call a ‘thunder trot,’ which you feel all the way through your teeth, and out your toes!”
England’s best-known draft breed is the elegant Shire. A descendant of the Old English Black Horse, he hails from the English Midlands, and was given his name by King Henry VIII. A strong yet gentle animal capable of moving more than five tons, the Shire is the largest of the British drafts. He has a slight Roman nose, and is generally bay, black or gray, with a striking blazed face and flashy, white feathered legs. A cart horse extraordinaire in his native country, the Shire proved equally popular in urban America, where he often pulled brewery drays through the city streets. These days, he is ridden and driven primarily for pleasure or show.
Although there’s only one Shire in the Horse Drawn Tour area–an 18-hand individual named Camelot–Walker said that he holds his own when teamed with the Clydesdales. His counterpart in the Parade of Breeds is a Shire named Ambassador, who is often shown in “Knight’s Horse” attire.
There are numerous other draft breeds around the world, including the Suffolk Punch, the American Cream, the Irish Draught, the Russian Heavy Draft, the North American Spotted Draft, the Ardennes…and the list goes on.
Though classified as “critically rare” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the English-born Suffolk Punch has two park representatives in Ned and Doc, a young pair just hitting their stride as a team. The smallest of the drafts on average, the Suffolk Punch is a true farm breed known for his outstanding pulling power. And what about the park’s Mammoth Mules, Bo and Bullet? They, too, are the product of at least one ALBC-designated rare breed. “A Mammoth Mule comes from a registered Mammoth Jack [a jumbo donkey] bred to any breed of draft horse,” Walker explained. “They tend to be a lot bigger, heavier and stouter than a regular mule.
“Mules are smarter than some people I know! And we use them on the trolley tours.”
Draft Horse Events
People from all walks of life attend the Kentucky Horse Park’s driving courses, many of which utilize draft horses. “Some people just want to get back to their roots, and this is an opportunity to get their hands on the lines without having to own a team,” Walker explained. “Others want to get their own teams to work small acreage, to show, or just drive around their farms.”
For a lesson in draft horse history, visit the park this spring, when The Knights of St. Denys present a medieval re-enactment. A group comprised largely of members from Indianapolis, Indiana and the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, area, the Knights have been staging this event for several years.
“We do the time [period] from 1429 to 1500,” says Victor Vick, who poses as Baron Victor Von Vick while in costume. “We will be setting up a tourney field so we can ride, joust and fight safely for the spectators. We will do two shows for the parade of breeds, and set up an encampment so that the visitors can walk through and talk with the lords, ladies and knights.”
Vick’s mount of choice is a Percheron. “I find my big pie pan-footed baby to be one of God’s gentle giants,” he said. “They would do anything for you and are easy to train.”
The park also hosts a Carriage Driving Weekend in the spring. According to Walker, “It’s a casual weekend; they’ll do some clinics and group get-togethers. A lot of people bring their draft horses and draft ponies to these carriage events.”
For a real thrill, check out the park’s four-by-four hitch, with it eight black Percherons. And the five-breed hitch is a special treat for both driver and spectators. “As far as we know, it’s the only one in the world,” Walker enthused. “A lot of people either don’t have all the breeds, or don’t like to work different breeds together, because their strides are so different. And it does make them a challenge to drive!”
One thing’s for sure: there’s something about these mammoth animals that’s hard to forget. “To have these horses out in front of you, to feel all that power, and yet to know they’re so gentle…with that big kind eye…it gives you a wonderful feeling,” Walker said.
Tips for Prospective Draft Owners
Interested in a BIG purchase? Once you get acquainted with draft horses, size ceases to be an issue. “Some people find them ‘scary’ because they are ‘SO BIG,'” said Sharon Duke of Duke Shire Horse Farm in Marietta, Ohio. “But they don’t seem big to me, because they are all that I have…and other horses look small!”
Still, there are a few things to which a draft “newbie” must adjust–like picking up the animals’ humongous feet (which the Kentucky Horse Park’s Tracy Walker likens to hoisting a bowling ball)! Luckily, most drafts adapt readily to outdoor life, and get by on the same rations as a large Thoroughbred. But if stabled, their box stalls should be more spacious the standard 12′ x 12′ affair. And be sure to invest in a sturdy mounting block; it’s tough to enjoy these horses without one!
Above all, research your prospective purchase before snapping the shank onto that halter. Start by contacting the appropriate breed association and inquiring about local breeders. Other sources of information: the publications Draft Horse Journal, Rural Heritage and Small Farmers Journal. Finally, Duke stressed, “Have a good pre-purchase vet check before buying.”
Then get set for the ride (or drive) of your life. “They are VERY easy to train,” the longtime owner/breeder attested. “And once they are trained, they never forget the training. I can leave them in the pasture for months at a time and they drive or ride perfectly the next time I take them out. The stallions are also easy to handle.”
This article originally appeared in Discover Horses magazine. Visit DiscoverHorses.com to get involved in the world of horses.