Clydesdales are a breed of heavy draft horse that originated in Scotland from native farm horses during the eighteenth century and has since evolved into one of the most recognizable breeds throughout the world. They are recognized for their strength, style and versatility, and have been made popular through T.V. commercials world-wide, most specifically shown in multi-horse teams hauling wagons of beer. The vivid body colors, bright white faces, and long white feathered legs with a high stepping gait and a head held proud leave no doubt in your mind that you are looking at a Clydesdale. The breed derives its name from the Scottish district where it was founded, Lanarkshire, through which the River Clyde flows, and which was previously known as Clydesdale.
The Clydesdale horse can be traced back to Flemish stallions that were imported into the Clyde Valley of Scotland in the 18th century. Scottish farmers later began mating some of the larger English and Flemish stallions to the smaller native draft mares. Eventually they produced a powerful horse with a long stride that had a hoof the size of a dinner plate; perfect for working in the soft soils of the rough Scottish farmland. The Clydesdale was primarily bred as a farm and agricultural workhorse but their great strength has been used in the coal mining industry, for forestry work and for general draft and hauling work in cities and towns. In fact, the major cities of Scotland and the North of England and Northern Ireland probably housed as many Clydesdales as the agricultural areas did.
The popularity of the Clydesdale flourished in Scotland in the late 19th century and this led to large numbers of horses being exported to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. In Australia and New Zealand, the Clydesdale Horse Society was formed in 1877; nearly a century and a half after the breed first began to evolve; with the first stud book published the following year. The American Clydesdale Horse Association (ACHA) was formed ten years later in 1878.
As with all heavy draft horses the Clydesdale breed hit a low point in the 1960's and 1970's due to wide-spread mechanization after World War II and little need for draft horses anymore. The breed was kept alive by a number of people out of sentiment more than anything else and now their numbers have increased to a fairly healthy level. The United States has the largest number of Clydesdale horses, with Canada, Great Britain, and Australia trailing in numbers, with over 600 Clydesdales being registered in the United States every year.
Today the Clydesdale is the only draft breed in its native Scotland and it is still a favorite in all nations.
Early drawings of the Clydesdale draft horses show chunky, solid colored horses that were short and close coupled, but by the time photography was in use, the early examples were also mainly dark colored horses with dark legs, still short coupled and very powerful. Gradually, the well-known white legs became fashionable and the breed as you see it now became more clearly defined.
Today, Clydesdales are used mainly for breeding and showing. Horses are exhibited in the Scottish tradition of line and harness events. The breed is also popular with carriage services; and street parades would not be complete without at least one Clydesdale team. Saddles are offered in draft horse sizes and many owners compete in shows next to the more typical riding horses. Under saddle, the Clydesdale excels in many pursuits including dressage, hunter jumper, and for therapeutic riding. They make exceptional trail horses due to their calm disposition.
The Clydesdale has gone through several changes over the years to meet the demands of the times. In the 1920's and 1930's, the demand was for a more compact horse while currently, the demand is for a taller horse. Currently, mature Clydesdale horses range in size from 16.2 to 19 hands high and weigh between 1600 and 2400 pounds, or about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle car. But no matter what the changes have been, one trait has always been retained: the sound legs and the huge sound hooves.
The Clydesdale has a very distinctive look compared to other draft breeds. A Clydesdale should have a nice broad forehead, a flat, straight profile, a wide muzzle with large nostrils, and bright, clear, intelligent eyes. Ears are large and the neck is well-arched and long. The back should be short with well sprung ribs like the hoops of a barrel. The quarters should be long, with thighs well packed with muscle and sinew and the horse stands with the hocks close together. The long, soft, silky hair on the legs that flows to the ground and accentuates the high knee action and hock flex is called the feather and originally helped protect the horse's legs though now it is primarily just for show.
The impression created by a thoroughly well-built horse is that of strength and activity, exhibiting action by lifting the foot high and taking a long stride to cover ground rapidly and easily.
Clydesdales are mostly bay or brown but can be black, chestnut or sorrel with various roans also seen. A white blaze or bald face and four white legs are common, but black legs are also in the genes. White spots can occur on the body, as well as some white on the stomach, but color is usually ignored in the show ring. But a matching team of traditional colors is quite impressive and the increased popularity of large hitches has led to an attempt at stabilizing the color patterns.
The Clydesdales are very easy to train and strong enough to pull many times more than their own weight. They are agile and docile with a willingness to work.
For anyone desiring a stylish and active yet tractable, intelligent and serviceable draft animal for work, show, or simple pleasure, the Clydesdale should come under their serious consideration.