The Irish Draught is a strong and versatile horse breed originating from Ireland. Descendent from native Irish horses crossed with various imported horses breeds, Irish Draughts are recognized as the official national horse breed of the Republic of Ireland.

Contrary to their name suggesting a draft-type, Irish Draughts are technically warmblood horses. Their athleticism and size made them popular additions to sport horse breeding programs worldwide, but demand for crosses almost drove the purebred Irish Draught to extinction.

Modern efforts to maintain traditional traits and improve genetic diversity have have reinvigorated the breed. Purebred Irish Draughts are now recognized as versatile and willing equine partners, frequently participating in athletic disciplines.

Although these horses are generally healthy, Irish Draughts need good care and management to perform their best. This breed profile will review the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of the Irish Draught breed.

Irish Draught History

Irish Draught horses have a rich history that traces back to medieval Ireland, but the breed first gained international recognition in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

The breed’s evolution from its Irish roots to its current international acclaim was largely driven by its legacy in serving the needs of Irish farmers.

Origin

Historians believe the Irish Draught descends from the Irish Hobby, an extinct small horse breed developed in Ireland in the Middle Ages. These horses crossed with Anglo-Norman war horses brought to Ireland in the 12th century to produce a sturdier type. [1]

The 16th century saw a surge in trade, introduced imported horses from Spain and other European nations to the Irish breeding population. Breeding programs in Ireland primarily produced cavalry horses until the mid-19th century.

Irish farmers sought to create the ideal all-around horse during this period to meet the diverse needs of their rural communities. Crossbreeding with Clydesdales increased Irish horses’ size and hauling capabilities, while Thoroughbred blood maintained the horse’s stamina and lighter conformation. [2]

Governmental registration and inspections of the resulting horses were introduced in the early 20th century, establishing a foundation stock for the Irish Draught breed. [3]

Historic Use

The original Irish Hobbies were small, swift horses used for racing and light cavalry riding. The introduction of larger war horses to Ireland during the Middle Ages led to the development of purpose-bred cavalry horses that were strong enough to carry armoured knights into battle.

Irish Draught horses can trace their development directly to the rugged landscapes of Ireland, where a sturdy, adaptable horse was essential for daily life. These horses were expected to perform a variety of tasks, from plowing fields and hauling goods to carrying their riders to church on Sundays.

Unlike Europeans breeding programs, which bred separate horses for light riding and heavy farm work, Irish farmers wanted to create a single breed suitable for any purpose. Thus began the development of a versatile breed that could do farm work, haul carts, and hunt foxes. [1]

These horses also needed to be economical to keep and sensible to handle. Word eventually spread about the adaptable Irish horses that could excel under saddle, under harness, and in front of a plow. As a result, demand for Irish Draughts grew throughout the British Isles.

However, Purebred Irish Draughts experienced a setback in 1922 when a fire in the Four Courts destroyed the original studbook records. World War I and II also led to significant declines in the breed’s population, and many Irish Draughts were sent abroad for breeding. [3]

Irish Draughts also gained popularity as breeding stock to produce crosses with Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods. As the resulting Irish Sport Horses and Irish Hunters experienced success in several disciplines, the number of purebred Irish Draughts declined. [3]

Breed Registry

The Irish Draught Horse Society was founded in 1976 to preserve the purebred breed. The society supports research into improving genetic diversity while maintaining characteristics of the pure Irish Draught horse.

Established in 1993, the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America promotes the breeding and ownership of purebred and part-bred Irish Draughts in the United States and Canada.

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Breed Characteristics

Breeding programs for Irish Sport Horses prioritize the production of horses for competitive equestrian disciplines, while Irish Draught horse breeding follows an established breed standard.

The characteristics described by the Irish Draught breed standard reflect the breed’s versatility and heritage.

Conformation

Irish Draught Horses stand between 15.1 and 16.3 hands tall. These horses have a similar conformation to light draft horses but are more athletic. The ideal Irish Draught displays a proud presence with substance and quality.

These horses have generous but pleasant heads, expressive eyes, broad foreheads, and long ears. A slight Roman nose is acceptable. The neck is set high and connects to well-defined withers, and the chest is not too broad.

Deep heart girths, strong backs, and powerful quarters add to their substance. The croup is long and sloping, not flat-topped or short like some draft breeds. Their legs are straight with flat, clean bones and generous hooves. Cannon bones are short and strong.

Irish Draughts have smooth and free movement without the exaggerated animation of some lighter breeds or the heavy gait of draft horses.

Colours

Irish Draughts come in every solid coat colour, including gray. Excessive white leg markings above the hocks or knees are undesirable.

Temperament

Irish Draught horses have a gentle and intelligent nature. The breed is known for its docile disposition and sensibility, which makes it an enjoyable pleasure horse for riders of all levels. Many Irish Draught owners appreciate the breed’s easy-going personality and adaptability.

Studies evaluating personality variations between breeds found Irish Draughts ranked lowest for anxiety and excitability, alongside American Quarter Horses.

These results suggest Irish Draughts could be more suitable for timid riders who want a reliable English mount. [4]

Disciplines

While Irish Draughts do not have the specialized abilities of other sport horses in top-level competitions, their versatility allows them to hold their own in various show arenas. These horses frequently participate in jumping, eventing, dressage, and driving events.

The Irish Draught’s athletic jumping ability and courage make them popular fox hunting mounts, providing a link to the breed’s deep-rooted heritage of hunting with farmers in the Irish countryside.

Irish Draught Health

Irish Draught horses are generally robust but, like all horse breeds, they are vulnerable to various health conditions depending on their lifestyle.

Although the declining purebred population has led to concerns about the breed’s genetic diversity, breeders have made significant efforts to preserve rare bloodlines.

Genetic Diversity

The Irish Department of Agriculture has classified the Irish Draught as an endangered breed. A 2018 report by Horse Sport Ireland evaluating genetic diversity in Irish Draughts found that while the rare bloodlines remain in Ireland, they are critically at risk.[5]

This report also revealed a 10% increase in foal registrations from the previous year, but noted that only 17 rare fillies and 13 rare colts were registered in Ireland between 2013 and 2017. If rare bloodlines are lost, Irish Draughts could experience a significant decrease in genetic diversity. [5]

Maintaining genetic diversity is critical for preserving health in all breed populations. As inbreeding increases and the gene pool declines, the risk of inherited disorders and health problems also increases.

Assisted reproductive technology, such as freezing semen from rare stallions, could help preserve future diversity. [6]

Health Problems

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is a common genetic disease in warmbloods and draught breeds. Researchers have identified the GYS1 mutation responsible for PSSM type 1 in Irish Draught crosses, but horses can develop PSSM type 2 without this genetic mutation. [7]

This condition is characterized by an abnormal accumulation of glycogen and abnormal energy generation in muscle cells that can cause episodes of tying up in affected horses. Nutritional management with a low-starch diet and ample exercise can help control clinical signs. [7] The diet must also have properly balanced mineral supply and may sometimes provide additional calories from fat.

Developmental orthopedic disease (DODs) such as osteochondrosis dissecans can also affect growing Irish Draught horses. Mineral deficiencies or imbalances and excessive calories leading to rapid growth heighten the risks of this condition, potentially leading to lameness and poor performance. [8]

Lameness can also arise from degenerative joint diseases, such as