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History of the Draft Horse

The Ice Age Leads to the Heavy Type Horse

Europe and south to the Middle East and Northern Africa. With the coming of the Pleistocene, (the last ice age), many of the horses were isolated for long periods of time by massive glaciers. These groups eventually developed distinct characteristics in order to survive their particular environments. Over millions of years, the early horse migrated across the Bering land bridge from North America to what is now Siberia. From there, they spread across Asia into Europe and south to the Middle East and Northern Africa. After the glaciers were receded, the heavy horse spread throughout Europe. By the early Medieval period (500 to 1,000 AD), a particular type of heavy horse known as the "Black Horse of Flanders" had settle in the European low country, in what is presently Belgium and Northern France. This would be the father of all modern draft Horses. 

Draft Animals in Early America

Oxen Provide Power to the 18th Century American Farms

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, horses in America were used primarily for riding and pulling light vehicles.  Although two draft type horses, the Conestoga Horse and the Vermont Drafter, were developed in the new nation, both were absorbed into the general horse population by 1800. Oxen were the preferred  draft animal on most American farms. They coast half as much as horses, required half the feed and could be eaten when they died or were no longer useful.  Oxen, however, worked only half as fast as horses, their hooves left them virtually useless on frozen winter fields and roads, and physiologically they were unsuitable for pulling the new farm equipment developed in the 19th century. The revolution in agricultural technology, westward expansion, and the growth of American cities during the nineteenth century, led to the emergence of the draft horse as America's principal working animal. 

American Becomes World Breadbasket

The Revolution of Agriculture Technology 

In 1862, Congress passed the Morril Land Grand Act which led to the establishment of state agricultural, there was a corresponding improvement in the care, feeding, and breeding of horses. 

The new and improved farm equipment greatly increased the productivity of the American farmer. With the McCormick reaper, which both cut and tied grains into stocks, one man could do the work of thirty. New steel plows, double-width harrows and horsepower. Toward the end of the century, the typical Midwestern wheat farm had ten horses, which each worked an average of 600 hours per year. During harvest, it was not unusual to see giant combines pulled by teams of over forty draft horses.


With the use of new equipment and fertilizers,  wheat yields increased seven times between 1850 and 1900. Better rail and steamship transportation opened new marketing in America's growing cities and in Europe. America was coming of age as a world agricultural power. 

Large Farms Need Greater Horsepower

The Acreage One Family Could Cultivate Increased As Technology And Equipment Improved

The average American farm in 1790 was 100 acres. This figure more than doubled over the next 60 years. By 1910, 500 acre wheat farm were not uncommon. While oxen and light horses had been adequate for tilling the long-worked fields of Europe and eastern United States, a stronger power source was needed to work the sticky, virgin soil due to the westward migration and casualties from the Civil War. This created a greater demand for the new farm equipment and draft horses to power them. By 1900, there were over 27,000 purebred Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons, Shires, and Suffolk Punches in the United States. Although the purebred draft stock was seldom used int he filed, the infusion of their blood resulted in an increase of the average horse size to between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds by 1900. 

The Heavy Horse Helps Open the American West

Millions of Americans moved westward during the 19th century lured first by the promise of inexpensive or free land, and later by gold, silver and mineral strikes. By 1830 there was 4,500,000 people living west of the Allegheny mountains and the National Road stretched from Baltimore to Vandalia, Illinois

The offspring of the heavy horse was imported for the farms of the Midwest soon found additional uses as the nation moved toward the pacific. The railroads employed thousands of draft crosses, working side by side the mules and oxen, to carry ties, rails and supplies to the rail heads, and to haul dirt and rock from the excavation of mountain tunnels. Many of the western stagecoach lines used up to six draft crosses to haul mail and passengers over dangerous, rough roads. By the century's end, large grain farms, comparable to those in the Midwest, had been established on the western prairies. These farms, like their predecessors, relied on draft horses to power their plows, threshers, and combines. 

Horsepower Essential For Remote Mining Camps

After the discovery of Sutter's Mill, California in 1849, gold fever swept through the eastern United States. As other valuable minerals were found throughout the West, mining was established as a major new industry. Surface or placer deposits of gold were seldom located on navigable streams, and rich lodes of silver ore were usually found on steep ridges where they had been uncovered by erosion. 

As a result, horses were needed to carry supplies to the camps and haul the ore to the railheads. At first, the many mining camps relied on local Indian ponies. In time, these were often replaced by larger or stronger draft horses.

As ore was extracted from the "hard rock" mines, smelters were needed to separate the rich minerals from the impurities. The vast quantities of charcoal required for the smelting process were procured from local forests. This required strong horses to haul logs from the forest to where they were processed into the needed fuel. Before a mine was played out, the mountains would be stripped bare of trees for miles in all directions. 



The Draft Horse in Urban America

Horse Powered Mass Transportation Opens The Suburbs


The Draft Horse played a significant role in the growth of urban America. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I, the United States transition from an agrarian  to an urban society. As cities grew, so did the need for mass transportation. The luxury of a private carriage or the regular use of cabs was beyond the means of the average city dweller. Therefore, prior to reasonably priced and effective horse powered mass transit systems, most people were forced to live within walking distance of their work. The severely restricted the ability of the cities to grow. 

The development of draft horse powered mass transit systems allowed the cities to expand into the new suburbs. In 1880, horse-car lines were operating in every city in America with a population of 50,000. By 1886, over 100,000 horses and mules were in use on more than 500 street railways in more than 300 American cities. 

As Cities Grew, So Did the Demand for Powerful Horses

Heavy horse conveyed the mountains of cargo unloaded at city terminals by railroads, steamships, and canal boats; and distributed the goods produced in the urban factories. The vans used for cartage were fifteen to twenty feet long and often carried loads of over ten tons. For the most part, strength and endurance were the prime considerations in selecting the horses used to haul the goods. Some businesses, on the other hand, used brightly painted delivery wagons pulled by handsomely matched teams, to advertise their products. Breweries, meat packers, and dairies were particularly fond of this practice, assembling elaborate wagons, powered by four to six harnessed draft horses which, by 1890, average 2,000 pounds apiece. These show hitches soon began to compete in the show ring, especially at the annual international Livestock Show held at the Chicago Stock Yards. 


Since the total destruction of Jamestown in 1608, one of the greatest dangers faced by Urban Americans has been fire. As cities grew, the magnitude of destruction from urban fires became even greater. With the introduction of heavier and more efficient steam pumpers and ladder trucks in the 1850's, horses became an integral part of urban fire departments. Then as now, speed was essential in the fire fighting. Intricate systems were developed to hasten the harnessing of the fire horse teams. When the alarm sounded, stall doors were automatically opened and the horses were moved below their suspended harness. The harness, complete with hinged collars, was then dropped onto their backs and quickly secured by the driver. With a good crew, the entire operation could be completed in around two or three minutes. Fire horses were most always draft crosses selected for speed and strength. In New York City, the first fire horse was purchased by 1832. By 1906, their number had grown to nearly 1500. 

The Decline of the Draft Horse

The Urban Horse Face New Competition with the Coming of the 20th Century

At the turn of the century, at least half of the 13,500,000 horses in the United States carried between 10% and 50% draft horse increased European immigration, American cities were experiencing unprecedented growth. New interest in public health, rising real estate values, and improvements in electric and gasoline powered alternatives to horse power combined to mark the rapid decline of the horse's significance in the city.

Within a decade, the horse was replaced by public transportation by motorized taxis, electric streetcars, and subways. Large new gasoline powered trucks had similar impact on transportation goods. The new trucks were three times faster (ten miles an hour) than the horse powered drays, took less room to store, and eliminated the problem of manure disposal. One of the last urban uses of the horse to succumb to mechanization was the horse-drawn hearse, which continued to be utilized into the 1930's. 

World War I

The Horse in Trench Warfare

World War I provided a tragic chapter in the history of the draft horse. In 1913, the year prior to the war, less than one thousand horses were exported to France and England from America. Over the next five years, total exportation rose to more than one million. As the conflict was essentially one of the trench warfare, light cavalry horses, which numbered over one million, were virtually useless. The primary demand was for heavier horses, which could pack supplies and ammunition, and haul artillery to the front. 

When the American Expeditionary Force entered the war in 1917, they took with them an additional 182,000 horses, of these, over 60,000 were killed, and many thousands were wounded. Only 200 returned to America after the war. From 1914 to 1918, British veterinary hospitals in France treated 2,564,549 horses and mules for war inflicted injuries. 

New Machines Replace The Work Horse

Farmers Look for Smaller, More Economical Horses

The market for heavy horses went into a steady decline after World War I. The reduction in the number of domestic draft horses, an increased demand for American grain exports, and the improvements in the gasoline powered tractors combined to hasten the replacement of the draft horse by machines. This was especially true of pure-bred draft stock. In 1920, there were 95,000 registered draft horses in America. By 1945, this figure dropped to under 2,000. 

Particularly hard hit were the Clydesdale and the Shire. Both breeds had been used primarily in the city, and were affected earlier than other draft breeds. The heavy feathering on the feet of the Shire and Clydesdale was considered a maintenance problem on the farm, therefore diminishing their popularity. What remained of the draft horse market was centered primarily on the farms of the Midwest. The American farmer looked for a smaller, more economical animal. By the early 1950's, registrations for all draft breeds dropped dramatically, with many breeders going out of business. The number of Shires and Suffolks dropped so low that in 1985 they were listed as "rare" by the American Minor Breeds Conservancy


Heavy Horses Compete in Show Ring

The modern draft horse is making a strong comeback as a pleasure animal. Registration figures have risen steadily for all draft breeds over the past two decades. Today, they are found in show rings throughout the country in halter, confirmation, and hitch classes. 1988 marked the inauguration of the North American Six-Horse Hitch competitions

Hundreds of horse pulls are held across the country each year. The best horses from local competitions meet each year in Michigan at the Hilldale County Fair, home of the world championship horse pull, competing in light and heavyweight categories. 


The draft horse has again found a limited place in American agriculture, especially since the oil shortages of the 1970's. While not competitive with a tractor in large scale farming, the draft horse can be a practical alternative in small scale and specialty operations. 


Grade draft horses can be purchased more reasonable than mechanized equipment, have the distinct advantages of reproducing themselves, and of providing a ready source of fertilizer.  

Draft horses continue to play a role in logging. In selective tree harvesting, horses are much more practical than tractors or other heavy equipment for removing downed trees. Ecologically, they do considerably less damage to forest floors, work quietly, and don't pollute the air. 

Above and beyond practical considerations, working with draft horses, either for pleasure or profit, offers men and women the intangible experience of working with a thinking, breathing animal who has served them faithfully for hundreds of years.


The Elegant Urban Work Horse

The Elegant Urban work horse was imported to America in 1853, substantial importation did not begin until after the 1880's. 

As the new century began, the Shire seemed poised to challenge the Percheron as the nation's most popular draft horse. From 1900 through 1911 around 6,700 Shires were registered, with approximately 80% being native bred.

World War I however the draft horse had virtually been replaced by the truck, subway, and electric streetcar in the city. At the same time, farmers were looking for a smaller, more economical horse to work the fields.

As the Belgian and Percheron came to dominate the midwest draft horse market, the center of the Shire breeding moved to the West. Still, their numbers continued to drop throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with only twenty-five horses registered from 1950 through 1959.

Today, the Shire, like most draft breeds, is making a comeback. By 1985 there were 121 Shires registered in America.


The First Important American Work Horse

The Percheron is thought to have descended from the "Black Horse of Flanders" with additional influence from the Andalusian and the Arabian after the Moorish invasion of France in 732 A.D. The Percheron derives from his name from the small French district of La Perche, southeast of Normandy. They were the first of the draft breeds to come to America, and remained the most numerous until surpassed by the Belgian in 1937. Edward Harris imported the first four Percheron's to America in 1839. In 1876, the breed's leading importers and breeders established the "National Association of Importers and Breeders of Norman Horses." Two years later the term "Percheron" replaced "Norman" in the Association's name. 

By 1910, the 5,338 American Percheron breeders had registered 31,900 horses over the previous decade. Although the internal combustion engine was rapidly replacing the horse on city streets, horses still remained the primary agricultural power source through the 1930s. 

After the second World War, the tractor virtually destroyed the American Market for draft horses. As a result, only 58 Percheron's were registered in 1954. With the renewed interest in draft horses int he 1960's, registrations rose to 1,253 by 1982. 


Flanders, which existed prior to the time Julius Caesar around 200 B.C. In 1866, the first Belgians were imported to the United States by Dr. A. G. Van Hoorebeke. Twenty-one years later, a group of prominent breeders and importers formed what would later become "The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America." The Belgian originated in the west European lowlands of Belgium. As with light horses, modern draft horses are used more and more as pleasure animals. In addition to their limited and hitch classes, and have also had great success in pulling competitions


Best Known Draft Breed in America

The Clydesdale originated in the Clyde River Valley of the Scottish county of Lanark when, around 1750, Flemish stallions were crossed with native mares. The most influential of these sires was Blaze, who was foaled in 1779. He is generally considered the founding sire of the breed. 

The Clydesdale was first brought to North America by Scottish immigrants to Canada around 1850. Although a few of the breed undoubtedly crossed the northern border into the United States, no major importation of Clydesdales to America occurred until after the Civil War. Alex Galbraith and Sons of Janestown, Wisconsin were among the first major traditional strongholds for Clydesdale breeding.

In 1879, the Clydesdale Breeder's Association of the United States was established in Illinois. The first volume of their studbook was published three years later. By the end of the 19th century, the Clydesdale was the third most numerous draft breed in America, and was well established in both rural and urban America. Following the European transition, many companies, especially breweries, put together colorful four and six horse hitches to help advertise their products. Sine the repeal of prohibition, the Budweiser Clydesdales have carried on this tradition, helping to make the Clydesdale one of the most recognizable breeds in America.

Reprinted with permission from the International Museum of the Horse Kentucky Horse Park

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