Skip to Main Content

Draft Horse Resources

Banner for draft horse historical context materials page

History in the United States

All draft horse types have a common ancestor in the “Great Horse of Flanders”, a breed that existed around 200 BCE. The genetic material has been passed down to many draft-type breeds– horses that are more muscular, taller, and typically do demanding tasks such as plowing. The word draft (synonyms draught or dray) can be traced back to Old English through the Dutch word “dragen” which means to carry or transport. All draft horses are cold blooded, which means that they are typically calm, easygoing, level headed, and relaxed. 

There are numerous breeds, but five common breeds that arose from geographical regions. The most populous breed is the Belgian, descended from the Brabant breed, is from Belgium. Their coats range from chestnut to sorrel to roan, they typically stand around 17 hands and weigh 1800+ pounds, and they are most typically used for farm labor. There is the Percheron, from the former province of Perch in France. This breed has a similar stature and work type to Belgians, but range from black to gray to white over time. The fourth breed is the Clydesdale, which is perhaps the most recognizable breed thanks to Budweiser, although they come in deep bays, black, or roan in addition to the known brown.

They have long feathers on their legs and are leggier, around 18 hands, and more athletic than the stocky Belgians and Percherons, and tend to do more transportation than field work. Next up is the Shire, who resembles the Clydesdale because they share some genetics! The Shire is from Leicestershire, England, and are typically bay, black, gray, brown. Finally there is the Suffolk, or Suffolk Punch, which is the shortest of these five breeds standing around 16 hands but weighing in around 1800 pounds. This breed has the most consistent phenotype of deep chestnut throughout the mane, coat, and tail. (Wikipedia)

Horses have been imported to the United States since its “discovery” in 1492. and once people began to settle they needed strong work animals to till the land. Since American soil had not been previously worked, the farmers needed more power than most oxen or light horses could provide. In addition to this, many of the farm laborers were busy with Westward expansion and the Civil War. Enter the Belgian and Percheron, the most popular choices for teamsters. 

By the late 1800s America had gone through an agricultural revolution where new methods and pieces of equipment were used. Congress saw these developments and created the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862 which led to land-grant colleges which focused on agriculture. Shortly after, the first veterinarian school, Cornell University, opened in 1868. With these advancements farmers were more educated and were better equipped for the care, breeding, and nutritional requirements of their draft horses. Breed registries began to form, dedicated to the preservation of their respective horse breed characteristics.

By 1900 there were over 27,000 registered Clydesdales, Shires, Belgians, Percherons, and Suffolk Punches in the United States. By some sources, it is estimated that around 90% of all public works, agriculture, and resource industries relied on draft horse labor. The total number of horses and mules in The United States peaked in 1920, at about 26 million

There were numerous factors that led to the decline in preferring draft horse power. The automobile industry quickly pushed horses off the streets, and the introduction of the tractor and other farming equipment gave farmers more options. The increase in demand for goods, and the speed at which they were expected led to many choosing mechanized forms. The sizes of farms continued to increase, and the workload outpaced the draft horses’ capacity. Additionally, during WWI and WWII draft horses were shipped off to pull heavy armor over battlefields. 

Some communities continued to choose draft animal power- amish. Much of the knowledge, breed stock, equipment, etc has been preserved thanks to their consistent usage. There is some debate on the treatment of animals in Amish communities, but regardless they are a useful source when it comes to the traditional methods that draft animals are used for. 

In the late 1900s there was a rise in the popularity of draft horse shows or exhibitions. This led to some breeds experiencing a phenotype split– meaning their physical appearances became more varied without a genetic split. For example, there is a division between the classic “farm” traditional style draft horse (as described in the previous section), and the “fancy” or modern style that is used primarily for show and breeding purposes. These modern drafts are taller, sleeker, and more athletic than their “farm” counterparts, but they are all laid-back in character.

The show industry has continued to expand throughout the 2000s. Both county, state, regional fairs and large corporations host draft horse shows. Local organizations host plow days, wagon trains, community rides, and more to bring together those who still utilize draft horses. Breed registries continue to work to preserve breed prevalence and characteristics. Annual meetings, picnics, and expos are held to bring together enthusiasts to share information and resources. 

Younger generations are beginning to examine the typical 9-5 office job work week, leading them to explore other methods of working and providing for themselves. Many have turned to homesteading, a skill that their grandparents may have held. 

A small number of higher educational organizations host draft horses to teach students about the traditional methods, care and maintenance of the animals, and more.