Draft horses were once a mainstay of our civilization. Tractors, automobiles, and other forms of mechanization replaced them. Many of the popular draft horse breeds suffered a population decline before a renaissance in popularity secured their status again. Today, the most popular draft horse breeds are found working in tourism, on farms, in forests, and as recreational riding and driving animals.
There are many horse breeds throughout the world, but some are more popular than others. Four count among the most popular draft horse breeds, Belgian horses, Clydesdale horses, Shire horses, and Percheron horses. These four have made an indelible mark on society and the lives of many equestrians, forever cementing their place on the list of popular draft horse breeds.
Belgian horses are the most popular draft horse breed in the United States. These gentle giants often have a blonde or chestnut coat color with a flaxen mane and tail making them easily recognizable. There are other colors too, including blue roans. They are also well known because of Big Jake. He held the Guinness Book of World Records tallest horse accolade from 2010 to 2021.
Like all draft breeds, these are large horses. Belgians are usually between 16 and 18 hands (although Big Jake was a little over 20 hands) and 1,800 to 2,400 pounds. Those bred in the United States are taller and more athletic than their European counterparts.
The Belgian breed contributed to other draft breeds, including the Ardennes horse, by adding size, strength, and their amazing temperament.
Clydesdale horses are the most iconic draft horse breed. The Clydesdale has become synonymous with the Budweiser Clydesdales, a famous hitch of horses known for their high-stepping knees while pulling the wagon for the Anheuser-Busch Companies.
The breed originated in Scotland where they were used for heavy work including on farms and in coal mines. They were also imported to the United States, where additional breeding took place. Clydesdales also have a distinctive appearance with a dark coat color – usually bay or brown – white socks and a blaze, and beautiful feathers on their lower legs.
Many of the popular draft breeds descend from the war horses of Europe, including Shire horses. They were bred in England to carry knights into battle and do other heavy work. Their claim to fame is being the biggest draft horses. The average height is 17.2 hands high, and they weigh around 2,000 pounds.
Shire horses are known for their striking black, bay, and brown coat, with a blaze, white socks, and incredible feathering on their lower legs. They are incredibly docile too. This characteristic was sought after because of the precarious situations that the horses were often in. A few breweries use Shires in their hitches to pull wagons.
France developed their own draft breed – Percheron horses – in the Perche region of the country. Less is known about the development of this breed. However, their contributions to agriculture and society were just as important as the other draft breeds. Arabian horses were used to provide the Percheron breed with more endurance and stamina.
Percherons were imported into the United States in the 1800s. This started a love affair with the breed that has made them the favorite draft horse breed among farmers and teamsters. Horses are generally between 16 and 17 hands tall, weighing 1,900 to 2,100 pounds. They have a mild temperament, similar to the other draft breeds.
Other Draft Horse Breeds
There are other draft horse breeds, although the Belgian, Clydesdale, Shire, and Percheron are arguably the most popular. The Ardennes horse has a faithful following. The American Cream Draft was developed in Iowa in the early 1900s. They are a rare breed with only around 400 horses, but beloved by those who own them.
The Suffolk Punch is another draft breed from England, and again, not as prevalent as its counterparts. They are usually chestnut, and shorter and stockier than the other draft horse breeds, with a good temperament.
Draft Horse Breeds Today
Draft horse breeds today are enjoying a bit of a renaissance after stabilizing from their declining breed numbers. They are still used for agricultural and forestry work, although to a lesser degree, and many are used in tourism and recreation. The kind and gentle temperaments that made these horses invaluable in developing communities around the world are just as popular today with families, equine enthusiasts, and the general population. Each of these breeds has unique attributes that endear them to those they meet.
Sources: American Shire Horse Association, Belgian Draft Horse Corporation, Clydesdale USA, Budweiser Clydesdales, Percheron Horse Association, and Horse Illustrated.