Draft Horses - the Gentle Giants of the Equine World
Tuesday 17 January 2012
A draft horse is a very large, yet compact and stocky looking, horse which has been bred for extreme strength in both muscle and boning to give the horse the ability to handle very heavy labor such as pulling a plow through hard or even frozen soil; or hauling a fully-laden cart or wagon used to transport heavy items such as lumber, coal, marble, or casks of beer and wine. They are often hitched in matching teams of two or more when the items to be hauled are extremely heavy; or if speed is essential in getting a heavy load to its destination, there may be several teams hitched together. Draft horses are quite recognizable because they tend to be extremely large equines that stand 15 to 17.5 hands high; larger than the average family riding or carriage horse. Some of the more common draft horse breeds include Percherons, Shires, Gypsy Vanner Horses, Belgians, and Clydesdales. Americans are probably the most familiar with the Clydesdales, since this breed of draft horse has been used extensively in advertising for Budweiser beer over several decades. And many have been surprised to learn that Clydesdales are not only draft horse breed; they are simply more in the public eye than the others.
The draft horse appears to have originated in Europe with many draft horse breeds being centuries old. Some biologists support the “four foundations” theory of horse breeding, which suggests that modern horses evolved from four different horse populations, or types, which means that the draft horses are probably descended from the aptly named draft horse type. The Belgian draft horse is thought to be the oldest modern draft type going back to the "Great Horse" of medieval time, and that all other draft horses have Belgian in their foundations.
These horses have been used in a wide variety of environments; from farmlands to forests to urban settings for hundreds of years. They were once the main source of power for humans, before the engine was invented, and the mechanization of transportation such as trains (the Iron Horse) and automobiles (the horseless carriages) lessened the need for the heavy draft horse. To this day, engines are still rated in "horsepower"; a term that was coined by James Watt in the late 18th century, who determined by experimentation that a horse could move a total of 33,000 lbs a distance of one foot in one minute while hauling coal from a coal pit. However, that is actually about 50% more than the rate an average horse can sustain for an entire working day.
A number of things about the physical build, or conformation, of a draft horse set it aside from other horses. Draft horses are quite large yet they tend to have short legs and short bodies with very muscular hindquarters designed for pulling. They also have extremely strong shoulders and front legs for the same reason. Their heads tend toward being Roman-nosed, with broad flat faces that many people find endearing.
In addition to being bred for strength, the draft horse has also been bred for a very special workable temperament. Draft horses are extremely gentle and very friendly; children can ride them and play around their feet without fear. 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. A rogue draft horse that cannot be trained or trusted would be the most dangerous horse that one could imagine.
But despite their heavy builds, many draft horses are very graceful and quite beautiful. Many breeds have feathered feet, which means that they have tufts of long hair on their fetlocks above the hooves and it is quite enjoyable to see that hair in action, since many breeds have a flowing, high stepping gait; it's almost like they know their feet are beautiful and people are watching. 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 show animals in many of the equine exhibition disciplines.