Humans love horses, and we love what they can do for us. Our horses have come a long way from the small, pony-sized wild animals from the steppes, and as we learned to use them for more and more things, the more variety in sizes we got.
One such use is pulling heavy weights for us. The need to pull ploughs, carts, heavy machinery and even artillery pieces, created the need for very strong horses — and, later, some very large ones too. These horses were a staple at farms around Europe, but it was only around the 19th century that due to selective breeding draft horses began to reach the massive sizes we know them for today. While not all draft horses are impressive in height, there are still some impressively tall ones out there, even today. Let’s check out some of the biggest horse breeds and individuals in the world.
8. Australian Draught Horse
The Australian Draught Horse is practically a combination of all other horses in this list — created from breeding Clydesdales, Percherons, Shires and Suffolk Punches, the Australian Draught Horse Stud Book only became a reality in 1976. Bred for the Australian environment, these hardy horses combine all the strengths of its ancestor breeds and some more.
Popular in ploughing and harness competitions all across their native country, the Australian Draught Horse quickly became the dominant draft breed. Although many are not registered, they still adhere to the breed standards. They come in all solid colours and stand on average between 16.2 and 17.2 hh and weigh between 600 and 900 kg (1,300 to 1,900 lbs), though the registry does accept bigger horses.
There are many draft horse breeds in the world, and while not all of them rank as big as the ones listed here, many are just as strong — even in smaller sizes. Regardless of their size, however, it’s their strength and gentle disposition that makes them great work and show horses for people everywhere.
7. Dutch Draft
The Dutch Draft is a quite recent breed, appearing after World War I from cross-breedings between Ardennes and Belgian Draft horses. Heavyset like its parent breeds, it was popular around Zeeland and Groningen for farm work and other heavy pulling jobs. However, World War II caused a sharp decline in numbers, making this a relatively rare breed.
Still, these horses are still found in driving and farm shows, especially strength competitions pulling logs. Like its ancestor breeds, this breed is very solid. However, it’s shorter than its counterparts, ranging from 15 hh for mares and 17 hh for stallions and geldings. While that makes it shorter than some other draft breeds, the Dutch Draft is by no means a small horse.
6. Suffolk Punch
This highly endangered breed is one of the oldest and tallest horse breeds in Great Britain. With mentions dating back as far as 1586, the Suffolk Punch has changed little since then. It has close ties to pony breeds such as the Fell, the Dales and the Haflinger, but in spite of this, it’s certainly no pony.
Unfortunately, its old origins are also part of why the breed is so rare. There are very few Suffolk Punches remaining in Britain, in part due to the genetic bottlenecks and losses during the World Wars. While it fared better in the Americas, the British registry will not allow breeding with their American counterparts. This is because the American registry allowed for crossbreeding with Belgian Drafts, something not allowed in the UK.
Today, these incredibly rare horses are popular for forestry, farm work and advertising, largely due to their striking figure. They are always chestnut (referred to as ‘chesnut’ in the registry) and stand between 16.1 and 17.2 hh (65 to 70 in, 1.65 to 1.78 m), weighing around 1,980 to 2,200 lbs (900 to 1,000 kg).
5. Belgian Draft
Originally interchangeable with the Brabant, the breed became its own thing only in the 20th century, after World War II, when the breeds separated. The Belgian Draft is taller and lighter in body than the Brabant, but it’s also a very heavy horse breed. Weighing around 2,000 lbs (900 kgs) and standing between 16.1 and 17 hh (66 and 68 in, 1.68 and 1.73 m), the Belgian Draft has considerable strength, once pulling in excess of 7,700 kg (17,000 pounds) in a team of two Belgians. This makes them popular in heavy farm work and forestry, but they’re also used under saddle and for pleasure riding. Unlike other draft horses, this breed is not at risk of extinction — fortunately.
Though generally shorter than breeds like the Percheron and the Shire, the Belgian Draft breed produced and still produces some of the biggest horses in the world. Another popular Belgian Draft horse was Brooklyn Supreme. This one was possibly the biggest horse in the world overall, although there is some dispute on that claim. Weighing 3,200 lbs (1,451 kg), this horse may have been shorter than others in this list, but certainly made out with sheer bulk and breadth.
The Percheron is a French draft breed from the region of Huisne river valley, once known as Perche, from where the breed gets its name. This breed has a quite broad range in size, from 15.1 hh (61 in or 1.55 m) to 19 hh (76 in or 1.93 m), depending on the country. Its origins are mostly unknown, but they may be as old as 496 AD. Unlike most other draft breeds, the Percheron has a heavy influence from Arabian and oriental horses, going back as long as the 8th century, an influence that remained up until the 19th century. This influence shows in the horse’s sometimes lighter neck, although the breed is still as heavy and strong as other draft breeds around the world.
They were a popular coach horse in the 19th century, and today appear mostly in horse shows, parades and driving, although they also still perform in other areas such as forestry and farm work. They are also good under saddle, and crossbred Percherons also perform well in dressage and show jumping.
Hailing from Scotland, the Clydesdale is one of the most well-known draft breeds in the world today, in many ways thanks to the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. While generally smaller than horses such as the Shire, the breed has changed much in the 20th century, including in height. Energetic, flashy and gentle, these horses are still used for agriculture, forestry and other uses requiring their strength, but due to their beautiful appearance and white, feathered feet, they’re also sought to be parade, carriage and show horses. In spite of its popularity, as many draft breeds, the Clydesdale is still unfortunately at risk of extinction in some countries.
As with many older breeds, in special drafts, there is no real record of when the Clydesdale horses began, although we can trace a general trend to the mid-18th century, due to the import of Flemish stallions into Scotland. A definite ancestor is the Lampits mare, bred in 1806, and Thomson’s black stallion, known as Glancer.
The breed standard requires horses to be 16 to 18 hh (64 to 72 in, 1.63 to 1.83 m) and weigh 1,800 to 2,000 pounds (820 to 910 kg). However, they can be and often are larger. To qualify, a Budweiser Clydesdale has to be 18 hh (72 in or 1.83 m) and weigh between 1,800 and 2,300 pounds (820 to 1,040 kg). King LeGear, a Clydesdale, was one of the biggest horses yet, standing a whopping 20.5 hh (2.08 m or 82 in) and weighing 2,950 pounds (1338 kg), one hand shy from Sampson’s impressive height.
The Shire horse breed is often considered the largest horse breed in the world, and not without reason. These beautiful, massive animals are as gentle as they are big. Large draft horses existed in England as early 1145, but it wasn’t until 1884 that the official Shire Horse Society began. The name had been in use since the mid-sixteenth century, although with no real records it’s hard to know whether those horses resembled today’s Shire horses.
With a minimum of 17 hh (1.73 m or 68.1 in) for stallions and 16 hh (1.68 m or 66.1 in) for mares, these horses are impressive by default. Shire horses towed barges down the canal systems, pulled carts and brewer’s drays, and dealt with heavy ploughs and other farm work. In special, they were used to deliver ale from breweries, something still practised today, as well as forestry work and leisure riding.
Today, the Shire Horse is a breed at risk. With World War II, their numbers have decreased to near extinction, though fortunately the breed is recovering slowly in numbers and making a decided comeback.
1. Big Jake
The current Guinness Record holder, Big Jake, is the largest living horse — taking Goliath’s title in 2010. Standing at 20 hh (80 in or 2.03 m), Big Jake currently lives at Smokey Hollow Farm in Wisconsin. Though his impressive size might make him look scary, Big Jake is a sweet, gentle horse, with a big heart and a penchant for chewing on people’s hair.
Keeping a horse that size isn’t easy, and Big Jake came to his current owner at three years old as an already quite large colt. As an adult, he eats twice the amount of a normal-sized horse, and his owners take good care so he doesn’t become too heavy, as that would put even more stress on his joints, which is always a risk with such big horses.
Tallest horses from history
The largest known horse in history was a Shire called Sampson (later known as Mammoth). Born in 1846 at Bedfordshire, Sampson stood an impressive 21.25 hh (2.20 m or 86.5 in) at only four years old, with a peak weight of 3,360 lb (1,524 kg). Gelded at one year old, he still holds the record of tallest horse ever, though some have come close to his impressive size since then.
The 2005 Guinness record holder Goliath was 19.1 hh and weighed 2,500 lbs, the tallest living horse at the time. This record has since been broken by Big Jake. However, Dr. LeGear (from the same farm as King LeGear) was even bigger, a Percheron gelding standing 21 hh and weighing 2,995 lbs.