Top 5 Work Horse Breeds
Authored by Katie Navarra
Authored by Katie Navarra
Before motorized engines, work horses supplied power for farm work, moved people and goods, and carried soldiers into battle. The term work horse is often used to describe the stout, heavy-muscled horses classified as draft horse breeds.
Known for their large size, draft horses typically stand more than 16 hands tall. Work horses are easily identifiable by their massive size, big hooves, and incredible strength.
“Mass moves mass, so big horses are capable of moving large loads,” said Erika Marczak, a founding director of the Draft Animal-Power Network (DAPNet). DAPNet is an international organization uniting farmers, foresters, loggers, teamsters, homesteaders, and supporters to further the humane use of draft animal power.
“These days, draft horses are still bred to perform heavy work in farm fields and in forests that range from plowing to cultivating, logging, baling hay, and hauling wagon loads of people,” she added.
They may be big but are often called “Gentle Giants” because of their mild-mannered disposition. There are many draft horse and pony breeds around the world.
Belgians are most numerous and may be the easiest to find in certain areas, said Marczak. On average, they reach 16.2 to 17 hands tall and are a popular breed of working horse because of their laid-back, agreeable demeanor.
The breed originated in Belgium and was used for various farm work, logging, and pulling carriages and sleighs. The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America says, “Belgians are the most direct lineal descendants of the “Great Horse” of medieval times that were likely bred to carry knights into battle.”
While bred to work, there are Belgian horse shows featuring hitch and halter classes today. In addition, there is an increasing interest in riding Belgian horses in various disciplines. Dude ranches often use them for public trail rides because of their sturdiness and calm temperament.
Percherons, like Belgians, were imported to the United States from Europe. Their name resembles their place of origin—Le Perche, a province about 50 miles outside of Paris, France. According to the Percheron Horse Association of America, this work horse breed was developed to pull heavy stagecoaches.
Most Percherons have a black or gray coat. Similar to Belgians, those who own Percherons have the opportunity to compete in a variety of hitch and carriage driving competitions.
“It is the only common draft breed in North America with Arab influence so they can be a little more forward than other breeds,” said Marczak.
Suffolks are a smaller draft breed standing 15.2 to 16.2 hands and, on average, weigh between 1,600 to 2,000 pounds. Their compact height, thick, short necks, and legs make them look massive. Unlike other breeds, the Suffolk Punch is only chestnut in color.
Originating in England, specifically Norfolk and Suffolk counties near the North Sea, farmers developed the breed for work rather than to serve as warhorses often seen with other breeds, according to the North American Suffolk Horse Association.
“Like the American Brabant (see below), Suffolks are bred strictly for work. There is currently no hitch or show type in these breeds,” Marczak.
The American Brabant must have European Brabant blood and can be crossed with a Belgian, Percheron, Suffolk, or other approved working draft with clean legs with less feathering (long hair on the legs).
Feather-legged breeds are not as preferred for actual work because of added upkeep and a predisposition to leg problems like scratches and chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL), according to Marczak. So, the American Barbant (unlike the European Barbant) is purposely crossed with cleaner-legged breeds to breed out these issues.
“They were all the same at one point, bred for different reasons, Belgians for show and pulling, European Brabant for meat,” Marczak said. “The American Brabant is aiming to breed work horses that resemble pre-world war type horses, not as big boned as the European Brabant, but also not as leggy as the modern Belgian.”
Perhaps the work horse with the highest number in use are draft crosses, but without a well-used breed registry, it is difficult to tally their total numbers, Marczak noted. Draft crosses are often versatile and can do a lot of work depending on the individual horse's characteristics.
“Crossbreds and draft crosses come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and temperaments, making them versatile, sound choices for some folks,” Marczak said.
The Budweiser hitch has made the Clydesdales one of the most visible draft horse breeds, thanks to its Super Bowl ads. The breed is known for its eye-appeal and heavy feathering on the lower legs making them a popular choice for parades, wagon, or carriage rides. However, they are not well-suited to farm or logging work due to heavy feathering on the legs.
Marczak said that if you are new to working horses, the best work horse for you is the one you want to see out your window in the pasture. However, if your goal is to work with the horses, the best team is one you have tried out and got along with well.
The first thing to know about work horse breeds: They are big, eat a lot, and subsequently produce more manure than light horse breeds.
Marczak suggested, “before you buy a draft horse, take lessons/courses in the work that you want to do with them, get familiar with the equipment, and find a local mentor who can help guide you through selecting, buying, and beginning to work your horse(s).”