Whether you’re into the more traditional draft breeds, such as the Irish Draft, or heavier drafts such as the Shire Horse there’s no denying that draft horses are becoming more and more popular as riding horses these days. And this popularity isn’t just amongst heavier riders looking for a stronger mount, from eventing Percherons to barrel racing Clydesdales draft horses are just as versatile as any other horse and will certainly get people’s attention but which breeds are the best for riding?
There are a number of different horse types that fall into the ‘draft’ category and when you consider that the term draft is used to describe any horse (or breed) that has traditionally been used to pull a load, whether for agricultural purposes or for recreation, it’s easy to see why pony breeds such as the Fell and Fjord are classed as drafts. This is why I decided to separate the breeds in this list into smaller groups, small drafts, light drafts, and heavy drafts.
Small draft breeds
Many people are surprised that some pony breeds (as well as some smaller horse breeds) are classed as drafts but when you take the strength and toughness of many ponies it’s a surprise that there aren’t more. While breeds such as the Shetland Pony have a greater strength to size ratio than any heavy horse breed their history has involved them mainly carrying rather than pulling loads so can’t technically be called a draft. I know there are plenty more breeds I could have chosen and that somebody will ask why haven’t I included their favorite in the list below but the ones I have mentioned below are there, either due to their popularity or because they’re unusual.
Height: Horses can be anything from 13.2hh (54 inches) to 15hh (60 inches) although most Haflingers will stand at around 14.2hh (58 inches).
Color: All horses have a chestnut (ranging from light gold to deep liver) colored coat with a flaxen mane and tail.
Character: Haflingers are very gentle horses and are said to be the most easy-going. They’re willing to learn and are patient with new riders while also being responsive to those that are experienced.
Country of Origin: Austria
A native of Austrian, the Haflinger can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages when horses were used to carry riders and heavy loads along the narrow trails of the Tyrolean Mountains that run between Austria and Italy. This required an agile horse that was strong and surefooted which is exactly what the now extinct Alpine Heavy Horse was. In an attempt to refine the breed, Arabian horses were crossed with the Alpine Heavy Horse which gave rise to the Haflinger.
Today the Haflinger, which takes its name from the main breeding center in the village of Hafling, is a popular riding horse that’s loved for its comfortable stride and its versatility. They’re capable of quite literally anything from dressage to endurance and from jumping to barrel racing.
Interesting facts about the Haflinger
- Many people confuse the Haflinger with its close cousin, the Avelignese, but while they do share a lot of similarities (and similar origins) they are two distinct breeds.
- All Haflingers can trace back to just one horse, 249 Folie a part-bred Arabian stallion who was born in 1874 in the South Tyrolean Alps.
- The Haflinger hasn’t lost its draft roots and is still used by the German and Austrian armies to work mountainous terrain that is inaccessible to many vehicles.
Keen to know more? Check out the American Haflinger Registry
Height: They can range from 12.2hh (49 inches) to 16hh (64 inches) but most horses stand at approximately 14.2hh (57 inches).
Color: Pinto coloring, although because the Gypsy Vanner is a British breed their coloring is known as either piebald (a black coat with white patches), skewbald (any base color, except black, with white patches), or blagdon (also known as splash, it’s classed as any solid color with a white belly).
Character: Loved for their loyal nature, the Gypsy Vanner is a gentle horse that has plenty of courage. They have gentle personalities and can be handled by children of every age.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom & Ireland
Native to the British Isles, the Gypsy Vanner has been bred for centuries by travelers who originally wanted a tough, strong, and hardy horse that was capable of pulling their traditional caravans known as vardos. At the time colored horses had fallen out of favor with people so were far cheaper than solid-colored horses which made them a popular choice with the travelers which is where their color originates from.
The Gypsy Vanner can trace its heritage back to the mid-1800s although it wasn’t until 1996, when the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association was formed, that the breed was officially recognized.
Interesting facts about the Gypsy Vanner
- From a very early age, horses are trained to not stop when traveling uphill, this is a throwback to the days when they were used to pull the vardos. The caravans were very heavy which meant that if the horses stopped halfway up a slope they may not be able to get going again.
- At one point they were referred to as Gypsy ‘caravan horses’ because they were always seen pulling mobile homes, this was eventually shortened to Gypsy ‘vanner horses’ which has now stuck. They are sometimes referred to as Gypsy Cobs, Gypsy Horses, and Tinker Horses.
- The Gypsy Vanner is incredibly intelligent and can easily be trained to do anything, they make great riding ponies for children but can just as easily carry an adult or even pull a carriage.
Interested in finding out more? Check out the Traditional Gypsy Cob Association
Height: Anything between 13.2hh (54 inches) to 15hh (60 inches) is allowed but most horses range from 14hh (56 inches) to 14.2hh (58 inches).
Color: Around 90% of all Norwegian Fjords are brown (or bay) dun while the rest can be either red dun, yellow dun, white dun, gray or cremello.
Character: Said to be the kindest and friendliest breed around, the Norwegian Fjord is extremely affectionate as well as being intelligent and willing to learn.
Country of Origin: Norway
Pronounced fee-awd, the Norwegian Fjord is thought to be one of the oldest and purest breeds in Europe (if not the world) and descends from the ancient horses that lived in Northern Europe before the last Ice Age. Having been domesticated around 4000 years ago these hardy horses have always been valued for their sure-footedness, strength, and versatility which is one of the reasons why they’ve made it onto this list. They’re still used, in some remote areas of Norway, for agricultural work but are becoming increasingly popular as riding horses and excel in a wide range of disciplines.
Their kind and gentle nature makes them perfect for children while their strength means they can easily carry most adults too, their draft heritage means that they’re also a regular at many driving competitions.
Interesting facts about the Norwegian Fjord
- Not much is known about the Norwegian Fjord’s exact origins, although it is thought to be a close relative of the ancient Przewalski Horse.
- Most horses display primitive markings that include a dark dorsal stripe running from their poll to their dock, zebra stripes on their lower legs, and often a lighter-colored belly and muzzle.
- The coat of a Norwegian Fjord consists of three layers that help to keep them warm and dry during the extreme Scandinavian winters.
Want to know more? Check out the Fjord Horse International website.
Height: There is no lower limit although they will rarely be smaller than 12.2hh (50 inches), most ponies stand at around 13.2hh (54 inches) but the upper limit is 14hh (56 inches).
Color: Black, brown, bay, and gray are preferable, no white markings except for a small star or around the feet are allowed.
Character: Fell Ponies have a cheeky nature but are loved for their kind temperaments, they’re curious and have a great deal of strength in relation to their size.
Country of Origin: England
Native to the North of England, and in particular the Cumbrian fells region, the Fell Pony has lived in that area since prehistoric times. These ponies were extremely hardy and very tough although when the Romans arrived in England they thought the ponies were a little bit too small so increased their height by crossing them with their horses.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, they were widely used to carry heavy loads over vast distances. They would regularly transport goods such as fleeces, wools, food (such as cheese, meat, and fish) as well as metal ores all the way to Belgium, a distance of over 500 miles (over 850 km).
Interesting facts about the Fell Pony
- Hundreds of years ago, when wolves still roamed freely in the British Isles, Fell Ponies were used for shepherding the sheep on the fells. As part of this, they were also used to hunt wolves.
- In their native Cumberland, they’re known as galloways and were used in trotting races.
- Today there are still herds of ponies living wild in the Cumbrian fells, this is done, in part, to help maintain their hardiness but also to manage the fells.
Interested in finding out more? Head over to the Fell Pony Society website.
Light draft breeds
Light draft breeds tend to be thought of as general riding horses and while they do make very good choices for riding they’re much more than ‘just riding horses’. They’re extremely versatile and a lot of them, such as the Irish Draft and Dole, have played a role in creating and improving many other breeds. Most warmblood horses have a certain amount of light draft blood in their history which is one of the reasons why you should never underestimate light draft horses.
Height: Most horses will stand at 15.2hh (62 inches) but the maximum height is 16.3hh (67 inches).
Color: Dun, chestnut, bay, brown, and gray are the most common but any solid color is allowed.
Character: Irish Draughts are famous for their delightful personalities, they are easy-going and willing to learn which is one of the reasons why they’re such a pleasure to work with.
Country of Origin: Ireland
The Irish Draught is an extremely hardy horse that originated in Ireland during the 18th century at a time when farmers were only able to keep one horse on a small patch of land. This meant that the horses needed to be strong enough to pull a plow, athletic enough for fox hunting (a popular pastime in Ireland) yet calm enough to be handled by children.
Despite the breed’s popularity, it’s considered a rare breed with their numbers being comparatively low due, mainly, to the Irish Potato Famine of 1847 which saw many bloodlines diluted with many more horses being sold for slaughter because people could no longer afford to keep them.
Interesting facts about the Irish Draught
- The Irish Draught has very tough hooves which means that they can land on hard ground without impacting the horse in any way at all.
- They’re known for their hardworking personalities and their laid-back natures which is one of the reasons why all police horses in the United Kingdom are Irish Draughts.
- While the studbook is only just over a hundred years old (having been established in 1917) the Irish Draught can trace its history back to the 12th century when Anglo-Norman horses were crossed with the now extinct Irish Hobby.
Keen to find out more about the Irish Draught? Check out the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America website.
Black Forest Horse
Height: Stallions can reach heights of 16hh (64 inches) with mares being a little smaller at 15.2hh (61 inches) but there never smaller than 14.2hh (57 inches).
Color: The body can be any shade of chestnut (from a pale shade of chestnut to an almost black shade) while the mane and tail are always flaxen in color, although the flaxen can range from a pale cream to almost silver.
Character: The Black Forest Horse is extremely friendly and reliable, they’re eager to please and are known for being easy keepers.
Country of Origin: Germany
Originating from the Black Forest in Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region, the breed can trace its history back to the 1500s when monasteries in the area began breeding horses that were capable of working in the uneven terrain of the forest. As well as forestry work, the Black Forest Horse was also used by many local farmers.
Sadly though, like so many other draft breeds, the advent of mechanization had a devastating effect on the breed which was almost extinct in the 1970s. Even today they’re still classed as endangered with less than 100 breeding stallions and 1100 mares left, world wide.
Interesting facts about the Black Forest Horse
- Their distinctive coloring is known, in German, as dunkelfuchs which translates to mean dark fox.
- The Black Forest Horse was originally used in monasteries for forestry and agricultural work. One of those monasteries was called St. Märgen which is why the breed was first known as St. Märgener Fuchs (or St. Märgeners’ Fox).
- The majority of horses are bred at the famous Marbach stud in southern Germany, the stud is not only the largest in Germany but it’s also the oldest with horses having been bred there since 1477.
Want to know more? Check out the Black Forest Horse’s website.
Height: Most horses stand somewhere between 14.1hh (57 inches) and 15.3hh (63 inches) but can reach 16hh (64 inches).
Color: Any solid color is allowed and while bay, brown and black are the most common, colors such as chestnut, palomino, and gray are rare.
Character: The Dole is a very fast learner that is valued for its docile and friendly nature as well as for its intelligence.
Country of Origin: Norway
Originally from the Gudbrandsdal Valley in the western Norwegian county of Oppland, the Dole can be traced back to around the fifth century when there was a lot of trade between various countries (such as Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands) in the region. During the 9th to 11th centuries, horses were regularly moved between Norway and England which is believed to be one of the reasons why the Dole, Friesian, and Fell Pony are similar in terms of appearance.
Originally bred as a packhorse it wasn’t long before the Dole was being used for a range of agricultural jobs, thanks in part to the breed’s agility phenomenal pulling power, especially in relation to its size.
Interesting facts about the Dole
- The Dole is known by many other names such as the Dølahest and the Dole Gudbrandsdal, with the Dole Trotter, which is also known as the Norwegian Trotter, being a subtype of the Dole.
- Having been originally bred for agricultural and pack work, the Dole it’s one of the world’s smallest coldblooded breeds.
- Like so many draft and agricultural breeds, popularity in the Dole dwindled after the Second World War which is why the National Dølehorse Association was established to protect and promote the breed. Today there are around 5000 registered horses.
Keen to know more? Check out the National Association for the Dole.
Sugarbush Harlequin Draft
Height: Most horses stand between 15.2hh (62 inches) and 17hh (68 inches) but if a horse is of the right type but not the correct height it can still be registered.
Color: Any base color is allowed and while a spotted pattern is preferred it’s not required.
Character: The Sugarbush Harlequin Draft has a very gentle nature and is said to be sweet enough for the whole family. They’re affectionate horses that are versatile and willing to learn.
Country of Origin: USA
The Sugarbush Harlequin Draft was the dream of one man, Everett Smith, a carriage company owner who wanted hardworking horses with a good disposition and a trustworthy nature for front his business. He set about creating a Percheron breeding program to realize this dream but, after a chance meeting with Mike Muir, a breeder of heavy warmblood Appaloosa-type horses Everett changed his goals and decided that his horses had to be eye-catching and stand out from the competition too. He crossed one of his best Percheron mares (Sugarbush Felina del Noche) with Muir’s spotted Percheron Appaloosa cross, Stonewall Rascel. The resulting foal, Sugarbush Harley Quinne (known as Harley) was a top-quality draft horse with a bold leopard coat. Everett’s business boomed and soon people began asking for the Harley by name and so the breed was born.
Interesting facts about the Sugarbush Harlequin Draft
- The Sugarbush Harlequin Draft is an extremely versatile horse that’s capable of anything, from riding to driving and is even used for equine-assisted therapy.
- While the breed’s development began in the 1980s, the registry wasn’t established until 2013 when two breeders came together to save the breed and preserve its standards.
- Sugarbush Harlequin Draft’s a very sound and are free from genetic defects due, largely to the pro-active stance of the breed’s registry.
Interested in finding out more? Check out the American Sugarbush Harlequin Draft Association.
Height: The Freiberger can stand anywhere between 14.3hh (59 inches) and 15.2hh (62 inches).
Color: Most solid colors are permissible but chestnut, bay, and black are by far the most common.
Character: The Freiberger is a kind horse that’s keen to please, they’re highly intelligent and are very easy to train.
Country of Origin: Switzerland
Often described as a heavy warmblood or a light cold blood, the Freiberger can trace its heritage back to the horses that were originally bred in the Swiss region of Jura in the early 1600s. It wasn’t until the early 18th century though that the Freiberger was recognized as a breed in its own right. Jura is famous for its mountainous terrain, a terrain that has played a significant role in helping the Freiberger to develop into a tough, surefooted horse that is extremely hardy.
The Freiberger (or Freiberg) was originally developed for agricultural work and is still used on many farms throughout the region. Their strength also meant that they were employed by the Swiss army as artillery draft horses. Their versatility means that they’re just as good in any discipline, from driving to riding, they’re also a regular sight at plowing and logging competitions.
Interesting facts about the Freiberger
- Today all Freibergers are bred at the Swiss National Stud Farm which was founded in 1899. The stud is owned by the National Equestrian Centre and is dedicated to the preservation of the Freiberger breed. If you’re interested the stud, which is in Avenches, is often open to the public.
- The Swiss army still use the Freiberger as a packhorse to carry soldiers and equipment around.
- The Freiberger is sometimes referred to as Franches-Montagnes after the district in Jura where they were first bred in 1817.
Want to know more about the breed? Head on over to the Association for the preservation of the Original Freiberg.
Heavy draft breeds
When you mention heavy draft breeds to most people they automatically picture horses (such as the Budweiser horses) pulling heavy drays and while this is certainly their traditional role they’re also becoming immensely popular as pure riding horses. Their large size means that they’ll probably never become top-class jumpers but aside from that heavy draft horses make great riding horses, their large stride and round build mean that they’re also extremely comfortable.
Height: Most Percherons won’t exceed 19hh (76 inches) although stallions must be at least 16.2hh (66 inches) by the age of two and mares have to be at least 16.1hh (65 inches) but the same age.
Color: Gray and black are the only two colors allowed, most horses are born gray though with many of them turning gray by the time they reach four.
Character: The Percheron is a very willing horse that’s loved for its intelligence as well as for its power and endurance.
Country of Origin: France
Not much is known about the origins of the Percheron although it’s believed that the breed was the result of Oriental horses (the Barb in particular) being bred with larger Flemish draft horses around three hundred years ago. These horses, which are still bred at the famous Le Pin National Stud in Le Perche in the Normandy region of northern France, were later crossed with Arabian horses in an attempt to add refinement, stamina, and athleticism. During the 1800s the French government developed the breed even further so that they could be used as cavalry horses.
The Percheron has a great deal of stamina, especially when it’s size is taken into account, during their heyday they would regularly cover over 40 miles a day. They would do this, not only at a trot but also while pulling heavy stagecoaches.
Interesting facts about the Percheron
- The legs of the Percheron, while being more muscular than other breeds, don’t have the thick feathers that most other heavy horse breeds do.
- The Percheron is a very popular breed in many countries although none more so than the US where they’ve been bred since the late 1800s.
- In the early days of the breed, gray was the preferred color because they were used to pull stagecoaches and gray was the most visible color at night, it was only when they were introduced into the US that black was also allowed.
Interested in finding out more? Check out the Percheron Horse Association.
Height: While some horses can be taller most will stand between 16.2hh (65 inches) and 18hh (72 inches).
Color: Any solid color is allowed but bay is the most common, normally with white facial markings and white legs. Some horses will also have a white belly.
Character: Despite their huge size, the Clydesdale is in fact an extremely gentle horse that can be handled easily by children. They’re intelligent horses that are eager to please.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Around two hundred and fifty years ago a number of European horses were introduced to Scotland in an attempt to create a heavy horse that was suitable for draft and agricultural work. These horses, along with the Shire Horse, were bred with Scotland’s native horses resulting in a strong horse with a gentle nature and plenty of pulling power. Regularly used to pull loads through the cobbled streets of Glasgow, the Clydesdale’s popularity quickly spread over the border in England, even making their way to London where they were a common sight on the streets of the capital.
The Clydesdale name comes from the region of Scotland where they were first bred, now known as Lanarkshire, the region was originally called Clydesdale after the River Clyde that runs through it – dale is an old English word for valley.
Interesting facts about the Clydesdale
- You might think that the Clydesdale, which is one of the biggest and heaviest breeds in the world, is a slow horse but they’re a lot faster than their size would indicate. This speed is regularly on display at the World Clydesdale Championships where they have barrel racing classes.
- If you think the Clydesdale looks familiar then you’ll probably recognize them as the famous horses that pull the Budweiser beer wagon, a role they’ve carried out ever since 1933.
- The Clydesdale is one of the heaviest horses in the world, they can exceed 18hh, are more than 6 feet from head to tail, and often weigh around a ton.
Keen to know more about the Clydesdale? Head on over to the Clydesdale Breeders of the USA
American Cream Draft
Height: Mares tend to stand between 15hh (60 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) while stallions range from 16hh (64 inches) to 16.3hh (67 inches).
Color: Light, medium, or dark cream with amber or hazel eyes, although medium cream with pink skin and amber eyes is preferred.
Character: The American Cream Draft, like so many other heavy horses, is a gentle horse with a kind and willing temperament. They’re easy to handle, even by children, and have a calm nature.
Country of Origin: USA
A relatively new breed, the American Cream Draft descended from a horse called Old Granny, who was foaled between 1900 and 1905 in Story County, Iowa. She was bought by a local stock dealer, Harry Lakin who began breeding her with Percheron and Belgian stallions with many of her foals having the same cream color as her.
In the early 1980s owners began to blood-type their horses which helped, along with early records, to prove that the breed only has draft horse heritage and doesn’t have bloodlines from any other type.
Interesting facts about the American Cream Draft
- The cream-colored coat is actually produced by the presence of the champagne gene and a chestnut basic color.
- Today the breed is exceptionally rare with less than 200 being registered every year, many of which were bred in Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum that uses them to pull wagons and carriages.
- The breed was originally known as the American Cream, it wasn’t until 1991 that the Draft was added because it thought it reflected the breed better.
Interested to find out more about the breed? Check out the American Cream Draft Association.
Height: The average height for the Shire is 17hh (68 inches) although it’s not uncommon for them to exceed 19hh (76 inches).
Color: Mares (and geldings) can be black, bay, brown, gray, or roan while stallions can only be black, bay, brown, or gray with minimal white markings. In the US, chestnut is also allowed for stallions.
Character: The Shire is famous for it’s laid back nature and mellow character. They’re calm horses that are extremely hard working.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Sadly like so many other breeds the exact origins of the Shire have been lost in the midst of time, although it is known that the breed takes its name from the ‘Shires’ (and ancient English term for land) of England. Some people argue that they’re descended from the horses that William The Conqueror brought to England while others say that they originate from the ‘Great Horses’ of the Middle Ages. Whatever their heritage, one thing that’s known for sure is that they were used as war horses to carry knights (and their heavy armor) into battle.
While many horses are now used for pleasure riding (both in English and Western disciplines) some are still used for agricultural work in areas where it’s difficult for machinery to operate. They’re also a popular site at many agriculture shows where they regularly compete in logging and plowing competitions.
Interesting facts about the Shire
- The tallest (and heaviest) horse ever recorded was a Shire known as Sampson, he was foaled in Bedfordshire, England in 1846 and stood at a massive 21hh (84 inches) and weight over 1 1/2 tonnes. By the time he was four years old, his owners decided to rename him Mammoth.
- The Shire Horse Society (which was originally called the English Cart Horse Society) established the first studbook in 1878, although their records go back as far as 1701.
- In the 1970s the breed found itself on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s endangered list, today the future is brighter although they’re still classed as at risk with less than 1500 horses remaining worldwide.
Want to know more about the Shire? Check out the Shire Horse Society.
Height: Most horses stand between 14.1hh (57 inches) and 15.3hh (63 inches), but anything up to 16.1hh (65 inches) is allowed.
Color: Silver bay is the most common, but silver black, black, bay, and chestnut are also allowed.
Character: The Comtois is known for its endurance and plentiful energy, they’re spirited horses but do have a gentle nature.
Country of Origin: France
Having been originally bred in the Franche-Comté region of the Jura Mountains the Comtois is lighter than a lot of other draft breeds but despite that, they’re still very strong and powerful and were used as cavalry and artillery horses for hundreds of years. Both King Louis XIV and Napoleon chose the Comtois over all other breeds.
The Comtois is an extremely old breed that is thought to have descended from the horses that were brought to France by the Burgundians, an ancient German tribe that migrated to France during the 5th century. Since then other breeds such as the Percheron and Boulonnais have been used to improve the breed and add more power and strength to it.
Interesting facts about the Comtois
- The Comtois is an extremely hardy breed that is prized for its endurance as well as its sure-footedness.
- While the Comtois is becoming more and more popular as a riding horse it is still used as a workhorse in remote pine forests and hilly vineyards. They’re also a common sight on many ski resorts in the region.
- After the Percheron, the Comtois is the most popular and numerous draft breed in France, today there are nearly a thousand stallions and over 13,000 breeding mares.
Keen to find out more about the Comtois? Why not check out the official website.
Height: Typically horses stand between 15.1hh (61 inches) to 16.3hh (67 inches), but anything from 14.3hh (59 inches) and 17hh (68 inches) is permitted.
Color: Often called the ‘White Marble Horse’, the Boulonnais is generally gray although chestnut and black can also be found.
Character: The Boulonnais is a gentle horse that can easily be handled by adults and children, they’re energetic but also have a calm disposition.
Country of Origin: France
While nobody knows for sure it’s believed that the Boulonnais is descended from the horses that were bred in modern-day Tunisia and Algeria around 55BC. Its believed that these horses found their way to France during the First Crusade (1096 to 1099) when breeders Eustache Comte de Boulogne and Robert Comte d’Artois wanted to create a horse that was fast, agile, and strong enough to carry heavily armored knights into battle. They did this by crossing these horses with German Mecklenbergs and other French stallions.
During the 17th century, much of the region (along with parts of Belgium and The Netherlands) was occupied by the Spanish who used Barbs, Arabians, and Andalusians to improve the breed and add refinement to it.
Interesting facts about the Boulonnais
- Its believed that William The Conqueror (King William I of Great Britain) rode a Boulonnais horse into battle during the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings.
- Pronounced boo-lon-ay, the breed takes its name from the Boulogne region of northern France where it was originally bred.
- The Boulonnais is sometimes referred to as a Mareyeur which translates to mean ‘seller of fish’, this is cause they were once used to deliver fresh fish to many parts of France.
Want to know more about the breed? Head over to the American Boulonnais Horse Association
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