Their numbers declined precipitously after the advent of trucks and tractors, but today draft horses are making a comeback. Some of the demand is driven by the small farmer who wants to go organic when plowing, not using fossil fuels, the specialty carriage horse business or a person who wants a "gentle giant" as a riding or driving horse.
In the U.S., the title of the most popular breed of draft horse, based on registration numbers, goes to the Belgian. According to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America, the number of Belgians actually outnumbers all other draft breeds combined. Originating, of course, in Belgium, reasons for the breed's popularity include their good temperaments, willingness to work and relatively low maintenance. They're known in the horse world as "easy keepers." Most Belgians are light chestnut with white socks, mane, tail and facial blaze.
World's Largest Horse
The all-time largest draft horse recorded was the Belgian stallion Brooklyn Supreme. He stood 19.2 hands tall and weighed 3,200 pounds. This big boy lived to the age of 20, as he was foaled in 1928 and died in 1948. Guinness World Records lists the world's current tallest horse as another Belgian, Big Jake, who stands 20.68 hands high. However, this gelding weighs "only" 2,600 pounds, 600 pounds less than Brooklyn Supreme.
Smallest Draft Breed
Draft horses are bred to pull weight, but not all of them are immense. The Haflinger, originating in Austria, is generally pony-sized, under 14.2 hands in height. Even larger Haffies might only reach 14.3 or 15 hands, sort of "hony" sized. Always chestnut, with flaxen or white manes and tails, these tough little horses excel whether used for plowing, driving or riding. The dun Norwegian Fjords are only slightly larger than Haffies, standing between 14 and 15 hands.
The rarest draft horse breed is the American Cream, with only a few hundred registered animals. Developed in the U.S., the American Cream is a light-colored horse with amber eyes. The breed is a mid-sized draft, standing between 15 and 16 hands high.
Birds aren't the only creatures with feathers. The Feathered Friends Horse Society describes horse feathers as the long, silky hair on the lower half of the legs, but hair that lays over the foot is termed "spats." Draft breeds with heavy feathers include the Clydesdale, Shire, Ardennes and Drum. Lightly feathered drafts include the Percheron and Belgian.
If you want to watch draft horses compete, there are plenty of opportunities. Pulling contests focus on individuals and teams pulling massive amounts of weight, while draft horse hitches might feature six or more animals parading wagons. There are halter classes, the equivalent of beauty pageants for drafts, along with plowing classes. Of course, drafts also compete with light horses in open shows. You might see them in pleasure driving classes, or even in dressage.
Arguably the world's best-known draft horses and beer brand identifier, the Budweiser Clydesdales reside at Grant's Farm, outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The property, once owned by President U.S. Grant, was also the longtime home of the Busch family, former owners of Anheuser-Busch. In order to become a Budweiser Clydesdale, a horse must stand at least 18 hands tall, weighing between 2,000 and 2,300 pounds. He must be bay with a white blaze and white feathering on each leg. Only geldings are used for the hitches, but breeding mares and stallions are part of the Clydesdale stables on the property.
Draft horses not only provided horsepower on farms and in cities, but also on the field of battle. Medieval knights jousted from the backs of draft horses, an activity recreated at Renaissance fairs. Draft horses pulled the artillery and provision wagons for armies until replaced by the internal combustion engine.
- Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America: America's Favorite Draft Horse - The Belgian
- Michigan Great Lakes International: Welcome to MGLI’s Fantastic 36th Anniversary Event!
- Eastern Connecticut Draft Horse Association: Draft Breeds Page
- Grant's Farm: Clydesdale Stables
- Percheron Horse Association of America: The Origin and History of the Percheron Horse
- Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association: Interesting Draft Horse and Mule Facts
- Guinness World Records: The World's Tallest Horse
- Feathered Friends Horse Society: What are Feathers?
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.