The Irish Draught is one of the great all-rounders of the horse world. Although its heft means that it is rarely one of the top equine athletes, it can manage capably at amateur level in a number of disciplines. It is trustworthy hack, which copes admirably in traffic and can still be used as a work horse if needed.
As its name suggests, the Irish Draught was bred in Ireland to be a solid working horse. Their foundation stock was the (now extinct) Irish Hobby. This was a sturdy native pony or small horse, popular as a riding animal. Height and strength were added by war horses brought to Ireland by Anglo-Norman invaders who later integrated with the local population. Refinement came courtesy of the Andalucian horses brought by the Spanish Armada. Many fleeing ships were wrecked on the challenging coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Horses are strong swimmers and were often able to make their way to shore, where they either roamed feral or were claimed by locals. Throughout the history of the breed the balance of strength and refinement has swung in different direction. At times the Clydesdales, Thoroughbreds and Connemaras have all been added. By the turn of the 20th Century, the Irish government began to take an active interest in the future of the breed. They were well aware of the usefulness of the animals and wanted to ensure that the breed was well-managed and, in particular, that standards were agreed and maintained to stop cross-breeding fundamentally changing the nature of these horses. During the two World Wars, the Irish Draught’s strength was put to use in a variety of ways and vast numbers of them were killed. Those that survived were often slaughtered for food, partly as the introduction of tractors changed the nature of farming. By the late 20th Century, alarm over the future of the breed saw an increase in efforts to protect it. One of the ways the breed’s profile was raised was by cross-breeding it to produce sports or competition horses. While this succeeded in bringing the breed to greater public attention, it created a new danger for its future. Put simply, Irish Draught crosses are currently vastly more popular than purebred Irish Draughts. This means that there is more incentive to breed Irish Draught mares to more refined stallions, which potentially creates an obvious longer-term problem. Various concerned societies are now working to address this.
Irish Draught stallions generally stand between 15.3HH to 16.3HH and mares 15.1HH to 16.1HH. Occasionally individuals may be slightly bigger or smaller. They may be any whole colour and may have white markings, although markings which extend above the knees or hocks are frowned upon. Its face is intelligent, friendly and in keeping with its overall size. Although it lacks the refinement of the more delicate horses such as Thoroughbreds, it’s far from coarse. Similar comments apply to the rest of its body. It is broad of girth, deep chested, with powerful muscles and solid legs. In spite of its size it has clean, fluid movement with plenty of energy along with the power you would expect from such a muscular breed.
If there was one single endorsement of the Irish Draught’s temperament it is the fact that they are hugely in demand as police horses in both the UK and Ireland. In other words they will keep their cool when facing everything from city traffic to whistling, scarf-waving crowds at football matches. They are also highly intelligent and have docile, friendly personalities without in any way being lazy or sluggish. In fact you would be hard-pushed to find a harder-working or more honest horse than the Irish Draught. The only reason they may be unsuitable for very young children to ride is simply the fact of their size. Once children are physically big enough to get on and off comfortably and to be able to use their legs and seat effectively on an animal of that girth, then they would be perfectly suitable mounts and are excellent choices for nervous/inexperienced adults. The fact that they are so popular with the police should also show clearly that they are more than up to any challenge which may be set by more experienced riders.
Irish Draught Health
In terms of health the Irish Draught is probably better thought of as an oversized pony rather than a horse. The breed has been kept free of genetic disorders. For a while interbreeding of a few bloodlines which were known for their prowess in competitions did pose a threat to the genetic diversity of the breed as a whole; however action has been taken to address this. The key point to note is that Irish Draughts are like native ponies in their ability to live and work on next to nothing. This means that they can also be affected by unintentional overfeeding. Although laminitis is less of a risk to them because of their size it can still be a problem and owners will need to be alert for it. As the early signs of laminitis are often general stiffness or lameness, it’s wise to get the vet out at any sign of discomfort when walking or resting.
Caring for a Irish Draught
The Irish Draught is a wonderfully economical and low-maintenance horse to keep. If need be it can live out all year round. Of course, having a stable can make life vastly more convenient, particularly if you want to work the horse in winter. It can also be useful for keeping their weight down in summer. Even rich grass on its own could be enough to send the scales upwards in which case their turn-out time will need to be limited. They will also need regular (ideally daily) grooming, foot-care and worming. Just as importantly they also need interaction and attention. Even though they make minimal practical demands on humans, it is unfair to ignore them and they should be turned out with other animals and visited at least once a day even if they are not being ridden.
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