Draft Horses - Draft Breeds & Info
Draft Horse Breeds are listed Below; click on each for breed history, photos, and breed association links.
Draft horse breeds include those of heavy horses traditionally used for farm work, mining, logging and for the hauling of freight. From prehistoric times, it seems any race of people who conquered parts of the world were aware of the value of the horse. The importance of horses to Man grew through the centuries, and new breeds were developed to handle various types of tasks.
Once domesticated, horses proved to be the world's most versatile work animal, and the heavy horse was often the right horse for the job. They provided the power and mobility that enabled man to forever move forward.
The origin of the draft horse is unclear. Some prehistoric cave paintings already show horses of a type that we associate with draft horses. Horse phylogenists have postulated a post-glacial wild horse as ancestor of today's draft breeds. No such wild horse population survived until modern times, though, and all draft breeds are influenced enough by other breeds to make it impossible to determine a "draft genotype".
According to some hippologists, the primitive wild ancestor of the heavy horse was a horse of northern cold plains and steppes; according to others it was more of a forest horse. In any case the origin of the draft horse it is believed to have been related to the wild Nordic pony, today still represented in the Exmoor of southwestern England, sharing several anatomic characteristics. Both wild horse forms were adapted to survival in a wet and cold climate, and to thrive on coarse feed of low nutritional value. The two wild horse forms may have interbred at an early time, and sort of fused into what remained as the Nordic pony, sometimes leaning in phenotype more towards the pony type, sometimes more towards the draft type.
Draft horse breeds of today are a blend of many breeds, and it is indeed hard to pinpoint what exactly we should consider draft characteristics. If a horse like the Exmoor pony could be blown up in proportion to 15,2 or 16 hands, it would very much look like a draft type horse. Other characteristics are considered to be draft characteristics that are hardly found in the Exmoor, but it is hard to say where they actually stem from. The Mongolian wild horse, or Przewalski's horse, exemplifies those to a large degree, only that it cannot have been the ancestor of our draft horse breeds, because it has to be generally disregarded as an ancestor of our domestic breeds, having a different chromosome count and a mtDNA genotype not found in domestic horses*). Przewalski's horse may well be a separate "branch" of the ancestral "draft" subspecies which survived in Mongolia.
Draft horses are called a "cold blood", even though it may be a purebred representative of a draft breed. Generally, "hot blood" refers to a lightly-built, quick, more active, sometimes high-strung horse, designed for speed and endurance, while "cold blood" denotes a heavier, coarser, slower-moving horse, which includes the draft horse breeds. The classification into "hot bloods" and "cold bloods" was made a long time ago, and will serve for lack of better terms. The actual temperature of the blood is of course the same in all horses. Some refer to hot blooded horses simply as "blood horses". The appearance of draft horses can be deceiving, though, as they can be just as sensitive as a Thoroughbred, they only show it differently.
Draft horses are not only different in conformation, but also in attitude and in the way they react. Where a hot-blooded horse's tendency is to jump or buck or run away, a draft horse might stall, or even go backwards, or put up a fight. Where a hot blood may be persuaded to try this or that against his instinct, a cold blood might stubbornly keep refusing. The natural instincts of the ancestor of draft horses had to be different for survival -- not having enough speed and stamina to save himself from an attacking predator, it was more likely to hide quietly, and, if attacked, would put up a formidable fight to defend himself. Horses of certain breeds that show draft influence have been knon to fight off wolves and even bears.
Draft horse breeders have constantly tried to give their horses more nerve, movement, even refinement, by crossing it with light horse breeds, including Arabs. Most draft breeds are a blend with pony blood, Iberian blood, and some oriental blood, and often show this in their conformation. Some lighter draft breeds are borderline cases between draft and warmblood, or draft and pony. The tallest of draft horses, the English Shire, got his size from Iberian blood. The West Friesian, often just referred to as "Friesian", may be considered such a borderline case. Also known to have received a shot of Iberian blood, some breeders insist that it is not a draft horse breed, even though the breed shows unmistakable draft characteristics.
Some draft horses weigh more than a ton (2000 pounds), and were bred for heavy farm work, and freighters. Most draft breeds were bred for smaller farmers, or for those preferring to work with teams, and that breeding goal asked for more agility. Frugality was also often an issue in breeding draft horses, because the farmers that depended on them for their livelihood were often, if not mostly, rather poor. A smaller horse usually offers more power in relation to its size, and in relation to the amount of feed it needs.
The draft horse, even in relatively recent history, and for many years in every country, delivered the merchandise, took people where they needed to go, hauled just about anything that needed to be moved and did the jobs that needed to be done. Although they have mostly disappeared in their once commonplace presence on city streets and farms world wide, they are still the mighty steeds of the show ring, in hitches, multiple hitches, in parades, in horse pulling contests, and plowing contests. A Man continued to develop horses for this or that task, crossbreds using draft horse blood, were often produced. In international sport horse competitions, for instance, the Irish hunter made a name for himself, which was basically a Thoroughbred x draft cross.
The history of draft horses is a rich history and spans the history of civilization, the role of the heavy horses being in the nature of a necessity to man up through the end of World War II, which marked the last spurt in the use of draft horses in city streets. No longer a necessity in the everyday life of Man and his needs, the draft horse ceased to be a part of the everyday life of man as the machine age began to take over. Man however does not seem inclined to live life without horses, and societies and associations still exist to preserve the pure draft breeds. Let us all hope that these gentle giants continue to be part of our world in the future.
In various parts of the world, types and then recognized breeds of draft horses were developed and became famous as they were exported to other countries where they were also bred pure, and also crossed with local stock. Many of these draft horse breeds are listed below as links to separate pages concerning that particular breed's origins, history and modern day status. (For links to governing associations for each breed below, visit their individual breed pages.)
*) Jansen, Forster, Levine, Oelke, Hurles, Weber, Olek, "Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse", 2002, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Article by Hardy Oelke, photos © Oelke or archive Oelke, if not otherwise stated. For information regarding the Sorraia horse, the Vale de Zebro Wild Horse Refuge, and the Sorraia Mustang -- visit www.sorraia.org
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DRAFT HORSE BREEDS:
American Cream Draft Horse
Belgian Draft Horse
Clydesdale Draft Horse
Rhenish German Draft Horse
Shire Draft Horse