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What is a Draft Horse?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A draft horse is a horse which has been bred to be extremely strong, allowing the horse to handle heavy labor such as pulling a plough or a fully-laden dray, a type of large open cart used to transport things like casks of beer and wine. Draft horses are quite recognizable because they tend to be extremely large; some famous draft horse breeds include Shires, Percherons, Vanner Horses, Belgians, and Clydesdales. Americans may be very familiar with Clydesdales, because these draft horses are famously used in advertising for Budweiser beer.

The draft horse appears to have originated in Europe, and many draft horse breeds are hundreds of years old. Some biologists support the “four foundations” theory of horse breeding, which suggests that modern horses are evolved from four different horse populations, in which case draft horses are probably descended from the imaginatively named draft horse type. These horses have been used in a wide variety of settings from farms to urban environments for hundreds of years, and they were once the main source of power for humans, before the advent of the engine.

The physical build of a horse is known as its “conformation.” A number of things about the conformation of a draft horse set it aside from other horses. Draft horses are quite large, of course, and they tend to have short bodies with very muscular hindquarters designed for pulling. They tend to be Roman-nosed, with broad flat faces which some people find endearing, and draft horses also have very strong shoulders and front legs.

In addition to being bred to be strong, the draft horse has also been bred to have an ideal working temperament. Draft horses are extremely gentle and very friendly; children can ride them and play around their feet without fear, for example. They are also docile and very patient; some well trained draft horses will stand when told without needing to be tethered, for example, a very useful trait in horses used for deliveries.

Despite their heavy builds, many draft horses are very graceful and quite beautiful. Many breeds have feathered feet, meaning that they have tufts of long hair above their hooves, and they are often quite something to see in action, as many breeds have a flowing, high stepping gait. These gentle giants continue to be used for agricultural work in many regions of the world, and some become beloved pets as well as revered working animals.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Mar 14, 2012

@Iluviaporos - Actually, draft horses are still used for farm work all over the world. People use them in sustainable farming, and they use them in communities that don't, for whatever reason, want to use more modern farming techniques.

Draft horses have a good reputation for being gentle and strong and they are also beautiful.

If anything, I think that draft horse breeders are finding it easier and easier to sell off their new stock.

By lluviaporos — On Mar 14, 2012

@bythewell - The problem is that draft horses take a lot of feed. They are extremely expensive to keep properly and most people can't afford to do that with an animal that doesn't really have a purpose for the average farmer.

People who do keep them are keeping them as a hobby or because they have some kind of tourist attraction that needs draft horses to succeed.

I agree that they are a valuable species though, and one way in which they are being used is as breeding stock for crossbreeds that have certain characteristics.

If you want a powerful, fast horse, for example you might try breeding a draft horse type with a thoroughbred or an Arabian.

This works most consistently if you are able to keep the genes pure in both parents, so perhaps the draft horses will be kept around for breeding purposes.

By bythewell — On Mar 13, 2012

It's been a real shame that in the last couple of generations many of the old draft horse species have come close to extinction.

People just don't need to use them anymore for farm work or deliveries and at most they get used as a sort of sideshow attraction or to pull wagons for tourists.

They are such beautiful animals, it would be a real shame to lose them. Worse, humanity would lose their genetic diversity, the result of hundreds of years of breeding for certain traits.

We have no idea whether we will need it in the future, but if it dies out with the horses we'll never be able to get it back again.

I'm glad there are now a lot of organizations springing up which are dedicated to breeding and raising the profiles of draft horses and other rare farm animals.

One day I'm sure another generation will be grateful for the wonderful work that they do.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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