Heavy Horse Breeds
The Workhorses of a Bygone Era
Draught horses are the large, heavily-built horses that were indispensable in days gone by before mechanisation took over. Draught (or heavy) horses of one sort or another pulled ploughs and wagons on farms, logged timber in the forest and pulled brewery wagons and pantechnicons in towns. Let's not forget they also pulled gun carriages during times of war. Even before those times they were used as chargers for the knights-of-old. Only powerful horses were able to carry the knights in their armour.
Many of the haulage and transport tasks that heavy horses used to do have been taken over by machinery but in some cases the old ways are proving to be the best and the benefits of utilising the draught horse is again being recognised. Draught horses have great strength and stamina but they are also incredibly patient and docile. In forests and vineyards they are likely to do less damage ecologically than wheeled or tracked vehicles.
Many work almost entirely from voice commands from their handler and quickly learn the logistics of the task they do. Thus horses in cities pulling milk-carts, butchers' carts, etc soon learnt where they were to stop on their daily round.
As a type, draught horses are usually quite tall and exceptionally muscular. Many have a convex profile, commonly called a Roman nose. The neck is extremely short, the back quite short and the hindquarters are very well developed. Compared to a riding horse where comfort is important, the draught horse has a straighter, more upright shoulder which is suited to pulling heavy loads. To carry the bulk and mass of their muscular development, they need strong, thick bones. The legs may be relatively short and the body massive.
Many countries or areas have an indigenous breed of draught horse. The four main heavy breeds used in Great Britain were the Shire, Clydesdale, Suffolk Punch and Percheron. The Irish Draught, despite its name, has not the same conformation characteristics. It is more of a light draught type. Certainly it was used for agricultural and haulage but it has the look of a heavyweight hunter type rather than a true draught animal.
The Shire is endemic to the eastern counties of England. The predecessor of the Shire was the medieval Great Horse, a war horse capable of carrying a fully armoured knight plus its own protective armour.
The Percheron is actually from the Le Perche area in France but was used extensively in Great Britain. It is almost always grey or black. The Percheron is also quite clean-legged.
The Clydesdale is endemic to the Lanarkshire region of Scotland. The Budweiser Clydesdales are well-known to Americans. Clydesdales made up the bulk of heavy horses in Australia too although there were representatives of Britain's four main draught breeds.
The Suffolk Punch came from Suffolk and nearby counties. It is always chesnut (correct spelling of 'chestnut' for the Suffolk Punch horse omits the first 't') in colour and is clean-legged. The heavy clay soils of its native country do not suit heavy horses with the hairy legs or 'feather' of some of the draught breeds.
The Gypsy Heavy Horse, sometimes known as the Gypsy Cob or Gypsy Vanner, is becoming increasingly popular for its spectacular colouring which is always piebald or skewbald. Although capable of pulling a gypsy's caravan, most gypsy cobs are lighter than the 'true' heavy breeds. It was bred for the purpose at the time with no real thought given to establishing a breed that bred true to type. It has a compact, powerful body, feathered legs and an excellent temperament.
The gypsy cob is perhaps more a type than a breed. Its background is a mixture of pony breeds and draught breeds. In general they are docile and very reliable. Heights range from 12hh to 15.3hh. Those that have Shire or Clydesdale bloodlines make good 'drum horses'. It was only in 1996 that a breed registry was instigated.
Continental Europe is home to many draught breeds. As already mentioned, France is home to the Percheron.
The Breton hails from Brittany in the northwest of France. There are two strains – a heavy and a smaller, more active strain. They have tractable temperaments and good endurance. The heavy type matures early and is powerfully muscled. They are usually chestnut or red roan. The smaller type, the Postier-Breton, has more active gaits and is used for light draught work in vineyards and on farms.
The Trait du Nord comes from north-eastern France but is now rare. It has Ardennais, Boulonnais and Brabant in its makeup.
The Boulonnais is from northwest France. It has great endurance and energy and is usually grey. It stands around 16.3hh and is bred mainly for the meat market. It has an elegant appearance. The fine skin and tracery of veins has seen the breed given the nickname of the 'White Marble Horse'.
The Poitiven breed is also known as the Mulassier (mule breeder). It is a lethargic breed which became almost extinct. Enthusiasts are now breeding the animal again. It was crossed with the large Poitu donkey to produce mules.
The Belgian Draught, sometimes called the Brabant, is endemic to Belgium but is one of the most popular breeds in North America. Its ancestors include the Ardennais. The modern Brabant is lighter and longer in the leg than the heavier Ardennais. It can reach to 17hh and has a massively muscled body. There is no excessive feathering.
The Ardennais (Ardennes) is one of the heaviest of the heavy horses. It is part of the Ardennes-Flemish group of draught horses and has a rather primitive air about it. It has great strength and a quick, energetic action. They are very often strawberry roan in colour and range from 15hh to 16hh.
The Dutch Draught is the heaviest draught horse for its height. It is docile and willing and surprisingly active for its size. It is early maturing and has good longevity, working well into its twenties. The modern breed was officially registered in the early 20th century. The Royal Association of the Netherlands Draft Horse began a stud book and from 1925 on, only horses with parents registered in the stud book were admitted to the register.
The Italian Heavy Draught is a newish breed which was developed in 1860. In its early history, Arab, English Thoroughbred and Hackney blood was used. At the beginning of the 20th century, a stronger breed was required. Crossings with the Brabant, French Boulonnais, Ardennais and Percheron were all unsatisfactory but eventually the Postier-Breton was tried resulting in a smallish, energetic animal with lively action. It is used for agricultural work and for meat.
The Schleswig Heavy Draught is smallish and has had an interesting history. Despite its name its appearance is more like a cross between a heavy horse and a large cob. It ranges between 15.1hh to 16.1hh. It is sometimes rather plain-looking and is usually chestnut (often an attractive chocolate colour) with a wavy, flaxen mane and tail. The Schleswig-Holstein area is in northern Germany.
The Russian (Soviet) Heavy Draught horse developed in the early 20th century. Native mares were crossed Belgian and Percheron stallions to produce a very strong animal with an easy, nimble gait. It is generally chestnut or bay and stands around 15.2hh. In appearance, it is more like a heavy cob and does not the heavy feathering of some draught breeds.
The Vladimir Heavy Draught was developed after the Russian Revolution and was registered as a breed in 1946. Each horse put up for registration is subject to trials involving heavy draught work and endurance tests. Cleveland Bay, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire, Suffolk Punch and Ardennais were all used in its formation.
The Jutland is endemic to Denmark and is one of the old, massive types. It is thought the Danes took Jutlands with them to England when they invaded. It is possible that the Jutland had a hand in the Suffolk Punch. The Jutland is massive and docile with very strong legs and large feet. It stands between 15hh and 16.2hh.
Mankind owes a debt of gratitude to the draught breeds for the huge part they played in the development of virtually every country.