The hard-working Clydesdale was bred for work on farms and suffered greatly through being replaced by tractors. Fortunately the breed managed to find new niches for itself and today, although its numbers are well down from their peak, it is making a recovery.
The origins of the Clydesdale can be traced back to the mid-18th Century when stallions from Flanders were brought to the Clydesdale area of Scotland where they were bred with local mares. It took until the early 19th Century for people to start keeping track of the ancestry of these horses and it is known that the name Clydesdale was in use by 1826. 1877 saw the formation of the Clydesdale Horse Society of Scotland, which was followed by an equivalent society in the U.S. (which also served Canada). Clydesdales were widely exported, particularly to the U.S.A, Australia and New Zealand which in part helped them to survive the two World Wars. In the U.K. many of them were requisitioned for war work, with consequently high fatalities. After this period the greatest threat to the future of the breed came simply from mechanization as horses gave way to tractors. The Clydesdales however found an unlikely allay in the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company – the makers of Budweiser. After the repeal of prohibition August A. Busch Jnr bought a hitch (similar to a dray) and a team of Clydesdales as a gift for his father August Anheuser Busch Snr. Impressively he managed to keep the gift hidden until the big day. Father and son both recognized the publicity value of the horses and thus a legend was born. Today in the United States Clydesdales are practically synonymous with the Budweiser brand and the company owns one of the largest herds of the horses in the world, regularly taking them on tours of the U.S.A. and overseas. Likewise the British Household Cavalry uses them as drum horses, the drums in question weighing well over 100lb (over 50Kg) each. These horses have to be specially trained as their riders have to operate the reins with their feet, so that their hands are always free to beat the drums. Clydesdales are also popular performing horses, particularly for acrobats who perform tricks on their broad backs, making the most of their comfortable paces and reliable natures. They are also becoming increasingly popular simply as riding horses.
The modern Clydesdale generally stands at least 16 hands high only a few grow taller than 18 hands. In theory they can be any colour, in practice as well as being the most common colour, bay is often the most preferred colour amongst breeders and buyers (possibly a case of cause and effect). In the U.S. this may be attributed to the fact that the Budweiser Clydesdales must be bay. Interestingly the Clydesdales used in the Household Cavalry are often piebald or skewbald although this is not currently a strict requirement. They do have white feathers on their legs, which are thick, but less thick than those of Shires. Clydesdales have the sort of conformation you would expect of a horse intended for draft work. They are powerfully built with thick legs and large hooves. In spite of this, however, they move very well with flowing, energetic paces.
It's easy and accurate to describe the Clydesdale's temperament as docile, but it fails to do it justice. Clydesdales faced wars with courage and today they are trusted to play a key role in a major military display which is invariably watched by huge crowds making a significant noise and doing all sorts of things which must seem very strange to a horse and to perform precise manoeuvres when carrying significant weights and only guided by a rider's feet. Clydesdales may be big and gentle but they are also very intelligent and energetic. They can easily be trusted by beginner riders but will equally happily live up to the challenges set by the more experienced. While they'll never match lighter horses for pace, people are often surprised at just how quickly they can move when given the chance.
The only significant health issue which has been observed as affecting Clydesdales is Chronic Progressive Lymphedema, which causes swelling and cuts on the lower leg. At current time this is incurable although there is a good chance it can be controlled with proper management. It is worth noting that the emphasis on breeding for certain colours has led to instances of horses being chosen for colour rather than health. As buyers are becoming more accepting of “alternative colours” i.e. not bay or black, this may become less of an issue. With this exception Clydesdales are a healthy breed and owners can anticipate minimal vets bills.
Caring for a Clydesdale
Clydesdales are a fairly hardy breed and can live out much of the time. They'll need rugs and these, along with much of the Clydesdale's equipment will carry a premium for the simple reason that they are supersized in comparison with most other horses. On the plus side equipment such as rugs and tack will last, if not a lifetime, then certainly a good few years. Although they are good doers, they will probably need feeding over the colder months and certainly if they are working and of course bigger bodies mean bigger meals and therefore bigger food bills. They also mean more wormer and bigger shoes. Having said that, it doesn't tend to take longer to shoe Clydesdales than to shoe smaller horses, particularly since they tend to be sensible about the procedure, so farrier's bills shouldn't be that much bigger. During the very coldest months, they will appreciate being stabled at night and obviously will need a box in keeping with their size otherwise there will be a danger of them becoming cast. This essentially means they lie down and get stuck against a wall. Cast horses can often be freed with human intervention, although in some cases it can have sad consequences, particularly if the horse panics.
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