Draft horses are heavy breeds originally developed as working animals. Selective breeding for size and strength produced equines that are significantly larger than most modern riding breeds.

Some historians believe draft breeds descend from Medieval Europe’s famous “Great Horse.” But most drafts throughout history worked in agriculture, hauling heavy loads and pulling farm equipment.

While some communities still rely on draft horses as working animals, these gentle giants can also make excellent recreational horses. However, due to their size draft horses have unique health and management needs.

This guide will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of draft horse breeds. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for draft horses.

Draft Horse History

Draft horses, although less common today, played a pivotal role in nearly every industry just over a century ago. The ancestors of many popular modern draft horse breeds significantly contributed to the economies of their native countries throughout history.

Origin

Historical records suggest heavy-type horses existed over 2000 years ago in the Ardennes region of modern-day Belgium. The fertile soil in this region allowed local Belgian farmers to develop stronger horses as draft animals.

Research suggests the European “Great Horses” praised as war mounts in Medieval texts may have originated in this region. [1]

As heavy horses spread throughout Europe, regional breeding programs shaped local draft horses into distinct breeds to fit their needs. Studies confirm diverse maternal lineages contributed to the development of modern draft breeds. [2]

Historic Use

Heavy horses reached their peak popularity as war horses during the Middle Ages, alongside the demand for stronger mounts capable of carrying heavily armored knights. However, bone studies suggest that most medieval warhorses stood under 15 hands tall. [1]

A taller and larger type of draft horse emerged through selective breeding for working horses with the size and strength needed to pull heavy loads and perform challenging farm work. As farm equipment became heavier and more efficient, farmers required more horsepower to operate it. [3]

Draft horse breeding surged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with agriculture, railway building, excavation, mining, logging, and road construction reliant on these large equines. [4]

Unfortunately, breed numbers have since been on the decline as tractors and machinery gradually replaced their roles in the economy. Also, many draft horses died on the battlefield or were slaughtered for food during the World Wars. Today, these breeds persist thanks to dedicated breeders and draft horse owners.

Draft Horse Breeds

Popular draft horse breeds include:

Other examples of modern draft horses include the Auxios, Ardennes, Breton Horse, American Cream Draft, and Suffolk Punch.

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Draft Horse Characteristics

Draft horse breeds are easily recognizable by their distinct type. They have several unique characteristics that make them the ideal working equines.

Conformation

Most draft horse breeds stand between 16 and 19 hands tall. The world record for the tallest living horse belongs to a Belgian draft measuring over 20.2 hands.

These horses have heavy conformations, with thick bones and muscular builds. Their shoulders are more upright than riding horses, which is more suitable for pulling. Their hindquarters are powerful and well-muscled.

Most drafts have large heads with straight or convex profiles. Their necks are muscular, and their backs are short and broad. Draft breeds also have large, round hooves.

Colours

Coat colours and patterns vary significantly depending on the breed. Most drafts have solid coat colours, such as bay or chestnut. Excessive white markings are undesirable in some breeds but standard in others.

Some breeds have feathering on their legs. Several draft breeds have traditionally docked tails, but the AMVA and AAEP advocate against tail docking due to welfare concerns. [5]

Temperament

Draft horses are known as gentle giants for their calm temperaments and kind dispositions. They have a willing work ethic and are typically friendly towards people. However, their size can be intimidating for beginner handlers.

Disciplines

Most recreational draft horses are used for driving. The Budweiser Clydesdales are famous draft horses used to pull the Anheuser-Busch beer wagon. Some owners enter their draft horses in pulling competitions that showcase their strength.

Draft horses are still used for work where machinery isn’t practical. For example, logging draft horses transport logs out of forests while minimizing damage to sensitive environments.

Some communities still rely on draft horses for agricultural work. Research suggests draft animals are still a sustainable solution for farming in rural regions with limited resources as long as they receive appropriate care and management. [3]

Draft Horse Health

Draft horse breeds are susceptible to unique health problems related to their size. Some genetic disorders are also more common in draft horses. While many of these disorders don’t have a cure, good care can help manage clinical signs.

Genetic Diseases

Polysaccharide storage myopathy is a common muscular disorder in draft breeds. This disease results in abnormal glycogen accumulation in muscles and can cause tying up in drafts. [6]

There are two types of PSSM. One study found 87% of draft horses with PSSM had PSSM Type 1, associated with the GYS1 mutation. This mutation is an autosomal dominant trait, so drafts only need one copy to inherit the disease. [6]

Belgian draft horses and related breeds can inherit junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB). This progressive hereditary skin disorder causes skin lesions to develop at pressure points. Affected foals have severe blistering that progressively worsens and develops into secondary infections. [7]

Most foals with JEB are euthanized since there is no available treatment. DNA testing for the associated JEB1 gene in Belgian drafts can help avoid carrier matings and decrease the risk of producing an affected foal. [7]

Health Problems

Several health problems are more common in draft horses as a result of their large body mass.

Chronic Progressive Lymphedema

Chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL) is an incurable skin condition primarily found in heavy-type horses. This disease is characterized by lymph buildup in the lower legs, which leads to swelling, skin folds, lesions, and secondary infections. [8]

In horses with chronic progressive lymphedema, clinical signs worsen over time and often result in lameness. The cause of CPL is unknown, but management that supports healthy circulation can help slow the progression of the disease. [8]

Shivers

An estimated 16% of Belgian Draft horses are affected by shivers, a common neurological disorder associated with an abnormal gait and hindlimb hyperflexion.

There is no treatment for shivers, but research suggests vitamin E is critical for draft horses at risk for the disease. [9]

Eye Problems

Cataracts and other eye problems are more common in draft horses than in the general horse population. However, one study found most abnormalities did not significantly impact vision. [10]

Respiratory Diseases

Research suggests draft horses also have a high incidence of complex upper respiratory disorders. One study of 50 competition draft horses found abnormalities in 46 horses. 31 of those horses had several abnormalities uncommon in other horse types.  [11]

Surgical Complications

Draft horses have an increased risk of complications associated with general anesthesia due to their body mass. One study reported a 2.24% mortality rate in draft horses under general anesthesia, compared to a mortality rate of 1% for the general horse population. [12]

Care