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A draft horse is generally a large, heavy horse suitable for farm labor, like this Shire horse.

A draft horse (US) or draught horse (UK), also known as dray horse, carthorse, work horse or heavy horse, is a large horse bred to be a working animal hauling freight and doing heavy agricultural tasks such as plowing. There are a number of breeds, with varying characteristics, but all share common traits of strength, patience, and a docile temperament.

While indispensable to generations of pre-industrial farmers, draft horses are used today for a multitude of purposes, including farming, draft horse showing, logging, recreation, and other uses. Draft breeds have been crossbred with light riding breeds such as the Thoroughbred to create sport horses or warmbloods. While most draft horses are used for driving, they can be ridden and some of the lighter draft breeds are capable performers under saddle.


Comparison of a typical-sized carriage horse (top) to a heavy draft horse (bottom)

Draft horses are recognizable by their extremely muscular build. They tend to have broad, short backs with powerful hindquarters. In general, they are taller and tend to have heavier bone and a more upright shoulder than riding horses, producing conformation that is well suited for pulling. Many draft breeds have heavier hair, called feathering on their lower legs. Draft breeds range from approximately 163 to 193 cm (16 to 19 hands) high and from 640 to 910 kg (1,400 to 2,000 lb).


Humans domesticated horses and used them to perform a variety of duties. One type of horse-powered work was the hauling of heavy loads, plowing fields, and other tasks that required pulling ability. A heavy, calm, patient, and well-muscled animal was desired for this work. Conversely, a light, more energetic horse was needed for riding and rapid transport. Thus, to the extent possible, a certain amount of selective breeding was used to develop different types of horse for different types of work.

It is a common misunderstanding that the Destrier that carried the armoured knight of the Middle Ages had the size and conformation of a modern draft horse, and some of these Medieval war horses may have provided some bloodlines for some of the modern draft breeds. The reality was that the high-spirited, quick-moving Destrier was closer to the size, build, and temperament of a modern Andalusian or Friesian. There also were horses of more phlegmatic temperaments used for pulling military wagons or performing ordinary farm work which provided bloodlines of the modern draft horse. Records indicate that even medieval drafts were not as large as those today. Of the modern draft breeds, the Percheron probably has the closest ties to the medieval war horse.[1]

By the 19th century horses weighing more than 730 kilograms (1,600 lb) that also moved at a quick pace were in demand. Tall stature, muscular backs, and powerful hindquarters made the draft horse a source of horsepower for farming, hauling freight and moving passengers. The advent of railroads increased demand for working horses, as a growing economy still needed transport over the 'last mile' between the goods yard or station and the final customer.[2] Even in the 20th century, until motor vehicles became an affordable and reliable substitute, draft horses were used for practical work.

Over half a million draft horses were used during World War I. The British were importing American draft horses to supplement their dwindling stock even before America joined the war, preferring Percheron crosses which they said had "great endurance, fine physique, soundness, activity, willingness to work, and almost unfailing good temper". British buyers were buying 10,000 to 25,000 American horses and mules a month, eventually making up about two-thirds of British Army war horses.[3]: 118 

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, thousands of draft horses were imported from Western Europe into the United States. Percherons came from France, Belgians from Brabant, Shires from England, Clydesdales from Scotland. Many American draft breed registries were founded in the late 19th century. The Percheron, with 40,000 broodmares registered as of 1915, was America's most numerous draft breed at the turn of the 20th century.[1] A breed developed exclusively in the U.S. was the American Cream Draft, which had a stud book established by the 1930s.

Beginning in the late 19th century, and with increasing mechanization in the 20th century, especially following World War I in the US and after World War II in Europe, the popularity of the internal combustion engine, and particularly the tractor, reduced the need for the draft horse. Many were sold to slaughter for horse meat and a number of breeds went into significant decline.

Modern uses

Two horses hitched to a plow.

Today, draft horses can be seen in horse shows, pulling competitions, heavy horse trials, parades pulling large wagons, and pulling tourist carriages. However, they are still seen on some smaller farms in the US and Europe. They are particularly popular with agrarian groups such as the Amish and Mennonites. Draft horses are still used for logging, a forestry management practice to remove logs from dense woodland where there is insufficient space for mechanized vehicles or for other conservation considerations.

Draft horse breeds have played a significant role in the development of many warmblood breeds, popular today in advanced level equine sports.

Small areas still exist where draft horses are widely used as transportation due to legislation preventing automotive traffic, such as on Mackinac Island in the United States.


Management of a large draft horse can be costly, including feed, shoeing, and veterinary care. Although many draft horses can work without a need for shoes, if they are required, farriers may charge twice the price to shoe a draft horse as a light riding horse because of the extra labor and specialized equipment required.[4] Historically, draft horses were shod with horseshoes that were significantly wider and heavier than those for other types of horses, custom-made, often with caulkins.[5]

The draft horse's metabolism is a bit slower than lighter horse breeds, more akin to that of ponies, requiring less feed per pound of body weight. This is possibly due to their calmer nature. Nonetheless, because of their sheer size, most require a significant amount of feed per day. Generally a supplement to balance nutrients is preferred over a large quantity of grain. They consume hay or other forage from 1.5% to 3% of their body weight per day, depending on work level. They also can drink up to 95 litres; 21 imperial gallons (25 US gal) of water a day. Overfeeding can lead to obesity, and risk of laminitis can be a concern.[6]

World records

Brooklyn Supreme (1928-1948) a Belgian draft horse, 198 cm (19.2 hands) high and weighed 1,451 kg (3,200 lb)

The largest horse in recorded history was probably a Shire named Sampson (later Mammoth), who was born in 1846. He stood 218 cm (21.2 hands) high, and his peak weight was estimated at 1,524 kilograms (3,360 lb).[7]

At over 193 cm (19 hands), a Shire gelding named Goliath was the Guinness Book of World Records record holder for the world's tallest horse until his death in 2001.[8]

Draft breeds

See also: List of horse breeds

The examples and perspective in this section may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. You may improve this section, discuss the issue on the talk page, or create a new section, as appropriate. (March 2024) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

A number of horse breeds are used as draft horses, with the popularity of a given breed often closely linked to geographic location. In North America there were five draft horse breeds on the classic list: Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire, and Suffolk.

In the United States, Draft Cross Breeders and Owners Association recognizes the following breeds as draft horses:[9]

Other breeds may be classified as draft horses by various organizations.

See also


  1. ^ a b Mischka, Joseph (1991). The Percheron Horse in America. Mischka Press/Heart Prairie. ISBN 9780962266355.
  2. ^ Bradley, Simon (2016). The Railways: Nation, network & people. London: Profile Books. pp. 348–349. ISBN 9781846682131.
  3. ^ Purdy, C.S. (2016). The Equine Legacy : How horses, mules, and donkeys shaped America. Mozaic Press. ISBN 9780997515909.
  4. ^ "Do Drafts Need Shoes? - Farming". Farming. September 9, 2015. Retrieved May 14, 2017.
  5. ^ Wallace's Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to Domesticated Animal Nature. B. Singerly. 1885. p. 496.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Whitaker, Julie; Whitelaw, Ian (2007). The Horse: A Miscellany of Equine Knowledge. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 60. ISBN 978-0-312-37108-1.
  8. ^ Jurga, Fran (November 1, 2001). "Living Large: The Death of a Giant". The Horse. Retrieved October 8, 2009.
  9. ^ "List of breeds". Archived from the original on August 23, 2015. Retrieved October 15, 2015.