They're the strongmen of the horse world, blending both power and patience in one gargantuan package. But there's a lot more to draft horses than meets the eye.
Once the preferred mounts of medieval knights, these "super-sized" equines have a long and colorful history of service to humankind. That service continues to this day, thanks to a renewed appreciation of their beauty and versatility.
The word "draft" (or "draught") refers to an animal's ability to pull heavy loads. Draft horses come in a range of sizes, depending on the job for which they are bred. But it is the massive heavy drafts that have captivated the imagination for centuries. These noble beasts tower up to 20 hands high and weigh 2000 pounds or more. Considering that an average saddle horse stands between 15 and 16 hands, and tips the scales at about 1000 pounds, the difference is very impressive!
But don't let their size intimidate you; most drafts are good-natured family animals. "Most of our visitors are really impressed by them," said the Kentucky Horse Park's Horse Drawn Tour Manager Tracy Walker, who has worked with the big horses for over 20 years. "I tell people it's just like petting a really big teddy bear...most of these horses are very gentle.
"We've even had folks come here from the local rehabilitation center, patients who were practically non-responsive. And a couple of our big draft horses will lay their heads right down on their laps, and they'll pet the horses, and feel a kinship...it's really neat to see."
Draft Horses--A History of Service
"Great horses" of the draft type emerged in Europe during the Ice Age, and were known to exist at the time of Caesar. By the early medieval period (500-1000 A.D.), the father of modern drafts--the so-called "Black Horse of Flanders"--was cultivated for his strength and endurance, qualities necessary for toting armor-clad knights into battle.
During times of peace, those same traits rendered drafts indispensable in both town and country--whether pulling a plow, a wagon, a carriage, or heavy logs in the forest.
Indeed, they helped settle the New World, hauling families across the frontier, tilling their land, clearing forests, and carting ore from mines. They proved useful in the cities, as well, and by the late 19th century, were towing everything from coaches and fire trucks to circus wagons and canal boats.
Yet the advent of the truck and the tractor nearly put an end to these amazing equines. After World War I--in which many drafts played a role--the heavy horse population fell into decline.
Today, drafts are making a powerful comeback thanks to a renewed interest in farming and logging practices that are both economical and environmentally conscious. Equipped with natural traction control, they're more satisfying to work with than cold steel and rubber--and, in many cases, more efficient. Nor do they pollute the air.
Drafts have also been re-discovered in the recreational sector. There's no more magnificent sight than a draft team in full regalia at a major horse show, where the "big hitches" are now welcome attractions. State and county fairs have resurrected the draft harness, conformation and pulling classes, with the various breed associations hosting national shows and even world congresses. Clinics in draft showmanship and horsemanship abound. Even the medieval spectacle of jousting has enjoyed a revival.
Thanks to meticulous breeding programs, the future of the draft horse now seems secure. And the current trend towards "sport horses" bodes well for these behemoths, with draft crosses in particular demand for many equestrian pursuits.
Draft Horses at the Kentucky Horse Park
The Kentucky Horse Park is home to about 27 draft horses. You can see them during the "Beginnings" and "Exodus" presentations, meet them in the Parade of Breeds, and enjoy a tour of the park aboard a draft-drawn trolley.
All of the major breeds are represented, with a preponderance of Percherons and a few lesser-known breeds like the Suffolk Punch and Mammoth Mule. "We've got all kinds of interesting personalities here," said Tracy Walker.
To many people, the term "draft horse" means one thing: the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales. Introduced by Anheuser-Busch after the repeal of Prohibition, this flashy eight-horse hitch has been the breed's best advertisement for nearly 70 years. The Clydesdale was first bred by 19th century farmers in the Lanarkshire (formerly Clydesdale) district of Scotland. Blessed with a huge hoof, a long stride, and an abundance of protective hair (or "feathers") around the legs, he was perfect for working rugged terrain, not to mention coalfields and forests.