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  • The Horse Lady

What exactly IS a draft horse anyway?

I guess any regular followers of this blog, or in fact, of the Red Gate, know that our horses are draft horses, but what does that mean? What makes a horse a draft horse? Is it a horse than can withstand cold air coming in a window? Maybe it runs so fast that it creates a draft?

All right really now, lets start with a quick (olde) English lesson.

Long before we talked about trucks and freight, we talked about drayage. Drayage was the transport of things, or stuff, using horses. So a draft horse was used for drayage. Simple enough so far? In the immortal words of Robin Williams, "brace yerself Effie".

If using horses for drayage is the same thing as using them for freight, then it makes sense that these horses are usually larger than the average horse. Much larger. Like, some are big as a house larger. The horses in the Budweiser Clydesdale team must stand a minimum of six feet at the shoulder and weigh on average about 2,200 lbs. Just the sight of some of these magnificent animals can make Mr Bush's shock and awe look ho hum by comparison. A fit draft horse is a study in incomparable beauty and majesty. (Above, my grandfather and his friend Murray, with Tom).

Suffice it to say that working with any horse that large is a special experience in risk. A regular horse will badly damage an unprotected foot when he steps on it. A draft horse can remove the foot. No kidding. Look it up.

Draft horses actually originated in breeding programs from almost fifteen hundred years ago. The English stud books for the draft breeds go back, well, dinosaurs weren't still on earth, but the hole from the meteor that erased them was still smoking. I encourage those with any interest to research this topic. In any case, in came the era of King Arthur, and knights, and jousting, and horses in warfare. Horses gave a king at war a tremendous advantage, the more the better. Think about that scene from Braveheart, where the horses are galloping the knights toward the rebels. Even though the rebels had the nasty long sticks to stave off the horses, they were terrified. And no wonder!

So lets think about this. A war horse had to be courageous, loyal, and not prone to panic. He had to be careful and very aware of the parts of his body, as well as submissive and calm, so not to kill his keepers. Hate to see the early experiments on that one. And he had to be willing to gallop toward certain death if his master asked him to. He had to be massively powerful to greater enable victory on the battle field. Oh yes, and one more detail, a man fully clad in battle armor would have weighed about 200 lbs. ( If that doesn't sound like much, at a gallop, I know a few dude-ranch horses you should talk to.

So these fabulous and awe inspiring horses were developed and used in battle and parade to dominate and inspire awe. This was done throughout most of the world. It was kind of like the military parades in the old USSR - I got bigger tanks than you got. I suppose we do the same thing. Never mind, this is about horses.

As large horses that ate a lot and didn't earn their keep became less popular, and there were fewer small kingdoms and more large ones, war horses fell out of favor. While there is still royalty and military tradition, there will always be horses, but their use on the battlefield was eliminated altogether after WWI.

What became more important after the age of chivalry was the ability to keep your subjects fed. Kingdoms fell when food stocks ran out. So enabling the agriculture that supported kingdoms became the cause celebre of the day. And lo and behold, there were these honkin' great horses on hand that could be re-purposed. And holy Hannah could they pull a plow!

In the time since draft horses became an agricultural phenomenon, their breed characteristics have been refined to ensure they are patient and compassionate. In the same way the war horses had existed all over the known world, their conversion to agricultural implement did so too. Breeds therefore developed all over the world, according to geographic and cultural suitability.

Here is a list then, with some small information. It's not exhaustive, but rather a taste. And then I send you out into the world, to the country fairs and parades and farmyards, to experience the magic that is drafts. Where I didn't know the information I got it from Wikipedia.

Clydesdale: Bred in the Clyde River Valley in Scotland, these lovely darlings are usually brown or bay, but are also being bred in black. They are generally considered not as tough as Belgians or Percherons because they are slightly finer boned. When not fashion models for a beer brand, they average between 16hh (5'4") and 18hh (6 ft). They usually have abundant hair or feathers around their feet, originally intended to protect them from the brutal Scottish climate, but many owners simply shave them to stave off frequent skin conditions and to eliminate the elaborate care required to keep those gorgeous feet looking their best. (Duke and Suzy are Clydesdales)

Percheron: Originating in Western France, in the now defunct province of Perche. The first world war brought them to Great Britain. Usually black, but many are born dark and "grey out" to grey pattern or white. Our Shannon is very typical of this type. There are variations in size for percherons bred around the world, from 15hh (5 feet) to 19hh (6'4") at the shoulder. Weight is anywhere from 1900 to 2600 pounds. Below is my great uncle Frank, sitting on the back of one of the family percherons. Note the look of surprise on the horse's face.

Above, my grandfather with his last team, taken right about the time he sold them. They are Percherons Pat and Mike, and my life has been replete with stories of them. This photo was folded lengthwise and sideways, just small enough to fit it in his wallet.

Boulonnais: This breed also originated in France, and almost became extinct after WWII in Europe. There was a very large population in the US, but it died out mostly through cross breeding, just as the breed was being revived in France. There is one stallion in the US, and he is a fantastic example of the breed. He is an ideal Candidate for regeneration in the US. He is grey, huge, and moves like poetry in motion.

Ardennes: reaching back to Ancient Rome, the breed is now recognized to be from the Ardennes region of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The maximum height is 15hh but their weight tops out at 2200 lbs. This is a very stocky horse. They are usually bay or roan. These are often seen in the summer time with the entire body shaved except the feathers.

Belgian: The Belgian is in fact an American horse based on european breeds, like the Ardennes and the Belgian draft, brought to the new world. American breeders have striven for height not originally present. Belgian horses are now so large they sometimes reach 20HH. Usually considered to be the most powerful draft horse.

Canadian Horses: Canada's national breed comes in two size ranges, a riding and a draft bloodline. Always black (brown when faded in the sun) the Canadian is extremely hardy, powerful and really pretty. The Canadian was derived from horses sent to New France from the King's stables in the 17th century, to ensure the success of the colony. The Canadian horse is the foundation stock for the Morgan horse, among others. Almost extinct by the latter part of the 20th Century, the breed is enjoying a resurgence in popularity especially in recreational carriage driving circles. For examples go to

Shire Horses: Having no connection to the place where hobbits originate (with all due respect to JRR Tolkein), Shire horses developed in the rural provinces, or Shires, of England. Often black, but coming in other colours, they have white, or chrome, usually on their faces and their socks. Often confused with Clydesdales, and in fact they are very similar, the one major difference is that Shires are generally larger. Oh yes, there is one more thing: when my great grandfather had the chance to breed his "brown mare" with a shire, he did so.

The receipt above reads: Received from Mr John Toner, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. The sum of ten dollars in for for service of his brown mare "Liaison of 1903" - by my imported Shire Stallion "King of Trumps" 5152 E.S.S.B June 18th 1903. By the above service she produced a bay horse May 30th 1904.

Those interested in the draft breeds can go on Facebook and request membership in a page called "Draft Horse Friends". All of these make appearances there.

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