Although it could be a rather unflattering name for an overweight horse, it is a common term to describe draft horses. These horses evolved to work on the land, transport haulage and pull heavy carriages for transportation. As a result they became the weight lifters of the horse world.
Although specific breeds have distinct characteristics, all heavy horses have developed to the same basic conformation. Compared to a riding horse they are much taller, ranging from 16 to 19 hands. They are also extremely muscular, with broad chests, deep girths, short backs and powerful hindquarters. Developed for pulling large weights and working in rough ground they have extremely strong legs with “a lot of bone”, and an upright shoulder so they can push their weight into the collar when pulling. This conformation also helps them dig into the ground and push through their body to increase the amount that can be pulled over distances. Their necks are a lot wider than a riding horse, which tends to be more upright. Many breeds also have feathered legs, making them hardy to keep on farm land as well as naturally protected when ploughing furrows.
Their hooves will be large and shallow to help spread their weight and get a better purchase on muddy terrain. Most breeds also have a straight or roman nose. This makes them look honest and thoughtful.
When humans began to domesticate horses they needed animals to do a variety of different tasks. Lighter horses were needed for riding and quick transport. Others were needed to work on the land and move heavy loads. The ancient breeds in the United Kingdom most likely tried their hands at everything until owners started to select horses for courses. Farm work required larger, stronger and most importantly calmer animals than those used for riding.
Throughout the Medieval Era each region started to develop their own farm horses, breeding to those animals that suited the type of environment and farm activities they were required to do. Those that worked in clay soils lost some of their feathering as it would slow many horses down. Those used in logging developed agility, patience and trust in their handlers. Horses used on trade routes developed the strength and endurance to carry large loads over long distances.
With the rise of the Industrial Age, the role of the heavy horse changed. Not only did they need to work the land, they needed to haul larger loads and passengers across the country. Some were also used to pull canal boats to supply coal to factories. Breweries employed teams to transport beer and ale to pubs across the country. Those regional breeds that were able to adapt spread to towns from the countryside. Some breeds were also exported to America and Western Europe.
With mechanisation horses started to disappear on farms, many being sold for meat. During World War I half a million were also used to pull artillery and supplies in the battlefields; many didn’t return. Handfuls of breeders over the world maintained the original breed, using them in ploughing competitions as well as to show.
Luckily many of the original breeds still exist today. Breeds you can still see in the United Kingdom are:
Shire – a breed first referred to in the 17th Century, it originated in the Midlands. A relative of the Old English Black, they were mainly used to move heavy loads across the countryside. Their strength and ability to cope with rough roads made them perfect dray horses. They are now one of the most common breeds shown, and are still kept by a number of breweries delivering beer even today.
Clydesdale – developed in Scotland, this breed became popular due to a system created by breeders in 1830 of hiring stallions across the country. Exported to Australia, they thrived and helped develop the colonies proving they were hardy and hard working. The most famous horses of this breed you will see work for the Budweiser Brewery, starring in many television advertisements. A number are also drum horses with the British Household Cavalry.
Suffolk Punch – mentioned as far back as the 15th Century, this breed specifically evolved to work on the land in East Anglia. They have influenced a large number of breeds across Europe and Russia. Compact and muscular, they have slowly declined to near extinction. They are still used in forestry and ploughing competitions.
Percheron – a French breed from the 17th Century, they were imported to the UK as carriage horses. Lighter than the native breeds with more extravagant paces, it was a common mount as a war horse in France. In the 1800s it was brought to the UK to pull buses and used in the Boer War. The largest group of working Percherons can now be found in Disneyland Paris, pulling trams around the park.
Despite their endangered status, you will find many for sale in the UK. There are many breeds available across the country, so you can visit your local shows to find breeders who can advise you and show you animals for sale.
Not only are they displayed on working farm exhibits and County shows, they can also ridden! Despite their height and girth, they are sound, quiet rides perfect for leisure riders. Trekking centres have specifically recruited heavy horses as they are great for amateurs, not easily frightened and very patient. Some owners are now also training them to do dressage. Naturally they also make perfect driving horses, easy to train and manage under harness.
Draft horses have also been key to the development of the sports horse, passing temperament and bone width. This made the sports breed’s patient, easy to ride and strong limbed. Crossing your horse to a heavy horse will also increase their height and endurance.
Heavy horses make great companion animals. Despite their size, they are easy to feed and can live outdoors even in bad conditions. They are very gentle and affectionate, bonding easily with their owners and other horses.