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What is a Draft Horse?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

A draft horse has been bred to be strong.
A draft horse has been bred to be strong.

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.

The draft horse likely originated in Europe.
The draft horse likely originated in Europe.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a draft horse and what are they used for?

A draft horse, also known as a draught horse, is a large horse breed specifically developed for heavy work such as plowing and farm labor. They are known for their strength, patience, and calm demeanor, making them ideal for tasks that require pulling heavy loads. Historically, they have been indispensable in agriculture and transportation, and today they are also used for forestry, hauling, and as show horses.

How do draft horses differ from other types of horses?

Draft horses are distinct from other horse breeds due to their large size, muscular build, and greater weight. They typically stand between 16 and 19 hands high and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Their conformation is characterized by a broad back, strong hindquarters, and powerful legs with large, round hooves. These physical attributes contribute to their ability to perform heavy labor that other horse breeds cannot.

What are some common breeds of draft horses?

Common breeds of draft horses include the Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire, and Suffolk Punch. The Belgian is known for its strength and is one of the most popular draft breeds in the United States. The Clydesdale, famous for its feathered feet and association with the Budweiser Clydesdales, originates from Scotland. The Percheron, from France, is known for its agility and endurance, while the Shire is the tallest of the draft breeds, and the Suffolk Punch is recognized for its stamina and hardiness.

What is the average lifespan of a draft horse?

The average lifespan of a draft horse is typically around 15 to 20 years, although with proper care, some can live into their 20s or even 30s. Their longevity can be influenced by factors such as genetics, diet, workload, and healthcare. Regular veterinary check-ups, a balanced diet, and appropriate exercise can help ensure a draft horse lives a full and healthy life.

Can draft horses be ridden, or are they solely for work?

Draft horses can indeed be ridden and are often praised for their gentle and steady nature. While they are primarily bred for work, many people enjoy riding draft horses for pleasure, trail riding, and even in certain competitive events. Their calm temperament makes them suitable for riders of various skill levels, including beginners.

How much can a draft horse pull, and does it vary by breed?

The amount a draft horse can pull varies by breed, individual strength, and conditioning. On average, a draft horse can pull a dead weight of up to twice their body weight, and even more on wheels or rollers. For instance, the Belgian draft horse is renowned for its pulling capabilities, with some individuals able to pull several thousand pounds. The specific weight a horse can pull will depend on factors such as the horse's size, health, and the type of harness and footing.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


@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.


@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.


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.

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    • A draft horse has been bred to be strong.
      By: Wildcat
      A draft horse has been bred to be strong.
    • The draft horse likely originated in Europe.
      By: dozornaya
      The draft horse likely originated in Europe.