8 Biggest Horses and Horse Breeds in the World

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.

4. Percheron

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.

3. Clydesdale

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.

2. Shire

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.

Shire Horse

  • HEIGHT: 16.2–19 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: England
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Tallest of the draft breeds and heaviest after the Brabant; heavy feathering on the legs
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Farmwork, logging, pulling carriages or wagons

The Shire originated in the central regions, known as the Midlands, of England, particularly in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Staffordshire. Some think the breed can trace its history all the way back to the days of the Roman conquest. Certainly by the year 1068, people in the area were using heavy cobs as pack animals. If these early cobs cannot definitively be credited as the ancestors of the breed, most Shire historians accept that today’s Shires descend in some part from the roughly 15.2-hand, heavy cob type used by the armies of King Henry II in the twelfth century. This was the era of knights in armor, and as a fully armored knight often weighed three to four hundred pounds, he required a horse of great strength and exceptionally calm temperament.

Between 1199 and 1216, records show that “a hundred stallions of large stature” were imported to England from the lowlands of Flanders, Holland, and the banks of the Elbe. The blending of these horses with the local cob mares, sometimes known as the English breed, clearly gave rise to the big, heavy draft horses produced in England in later centuries.

A MARK OF ROYAL FAVOR

Shires descend in some part from the heavy cob type used by the armies of King Henry II (1154–1189). He and succeeding kings made laws to increase the population of Great Horses. Edward III (1327–1377) made it illegal to sell a draft horse to a Scottish person or export one to Scotland, in order to maintain the supremacy of England’s horses and to have the advantage in war. Henry VII (1485–1509) made it illegal to export a Great Horse anywhere.

Henry VIII (1509–1547) first applied the name Shire to the animal, and, to maintain adequate numbers of big strong horses for the military, prohibited in 1535 the breeding of horses under 15 hands. He also required landowners to maintain specific numbers of broodmares.

Another likely ancestor of the Shire is the English War Horse, or Great Horse, used for jousting and cavalry, though these large horses had few characteristics of the modern Shire. Knights probably selected any horse that was big and quiet enough to be used for their purposes, and the term English War Horse may describe what the horses did rather than a true breed.

In the sixteenth century, the dawning of the age of gunpowder quickly ended the days of knights in armor. The cavalry needed much smaller, faster horses, so the Great Horses began to work on farms and as cart horses. The total number of horses declined at this time, but farmers who realized the working worth of the horses continued to breed for size. Many historians think this is actually where the Shire as we know it began, developed from various crosses of large Flemish horses, smaller black Friesians, and the Almaine, a German draft horse useful for cart work.

The very early Shires, also known as English Cart Horses, were thick and powerful, with tufts of hair on their knees and on their upper lip. The heavy hair on the Shire’s legs (feathering) and feet (spats) acquired importance and began to be selected for in the first half of the seventeenth century, when Dutch contractors were brought to England to drain the Fens, a large marshy, swamp. The Dutch brought draft horses with them but also used many of the local Shires. The Dutch horses all had heavy leg feathering, which was essential for working in the heavy muck. The hair served to drain water off the legs, away from the skin and the pasterns, where it otherwise could have collected and harbored fungal infections. Work in the mud also required horses with huge, well-formed, wide hooves, open at the heels, traits that remain in the Shire.

The Shire is the tallest of the draft breeds, and this foal could grow to be as tall as 19 hands.

Improvement in quality began in earnest with Robert Bakewell (1726–1795), the most famous livestock breeder in England at the time. He used inbreeding and linebreeding to establish the characteristics of the breed. The earliest recorded Shire stallion, known as the Packington Blind Horse, was born in 1755. Lincolnshire Lad, foaled 1865, was the greatest sire of his time, surpassed only by his son Lincolnshire Lad II, foaled 1872, who sired the great show winner Harold in 1881.

During the 1800s in England, the Shire became a working national treasure. Big Shire geldings moved countless heavy loads of goods from the docks along badly paved, uneven city streets. There was a great demand, decade after decade, for massive, tractable horses of great strength. The English Cart Horse Society was formed in 1878, and in 1880 the English Cart Horse studbook was established. In 1884 the organization became known as the Shire Horse Society.

The heavy feathering characteristic of this breed was developed to protect the legs from the wet, mucky conditions of its native English countryside.

Coming to America

Shires were imported to the United States from the mid-1800s. The American Shire Horse Association (ASHA) was formed in 1885, and the Canadian Shire Association (CSHA) was formed in 1888. Between 1900 and 1918, almost four thousand Shires were imported to the United States. As mechanization came to farms, numbers of Shires and other draft horses quickly declined. However, over the past several decades, draft horses have enjoyed a comeback, and the Shire has been rediscovered. In the United States today, the Shire, while not numerous, is often considered the Rolls Royce of draft horses. They are used for farmwork, logging, pulling wedding carriages, and showing. Because of their size, beauty, and excellent movement, they are often crossed on Thoroughbreds or other light horse breeds to produce hunters and jumpers. In Canada, Shires have an active following of fanciers. Shires are seen at all the largest shows and fairs.

Shires are still used in North America and in Great Britain for farmwork, logging, and as impressive carriage horses.

Breed Characteristics

Shires, the tallest of the modern draft breeds, are known for their enormous strength. In England in 1924, a single Shire named Vulcan, in a weight class of 1,708 to 2,100 pounds, registered a pull equal to 29 tons measured on a dynamometer. A pair of Shires, hooked one in front of the other, easily pulled a starting load equal to 50 tons, which was as much as the dynamometer could measure. According to witnesses, the front horse of this pair started the load by himself, and the second horse hit the collar and began to pull only after the load was moving.

Conformation

Shires range from 16.2 to 19 hands, averaging about 17.1, and weigh 1,500 to 2,200 pounds. The head is long and lean, with a broad forehead and a slightly Roman nose. The eyes are large, prominent, and docile, the ears sharp and sensitive. The long neck is slightly arched, muscular, and upright, and its deep sloping shoulders give the horse a commanding appearance. The chest is broad and muscular. The girth is deep and in proportion to the rest of the body. The back is short, strong, and muscular, with a sloping croup.

Strong front legs with broad joints are set well beneath the body. The long and sweeping quarters are wide, muscular, and well let down. The hocks are clean, broad, deep, and wide, set at the correct angle for leverage. The cannons are relatively short. The legs are well feathered with fine silky hair below the knees and the hocks. The feet are large and soundly made, moderately deep and wide at the heels.

Color

Accepted colors are black, brown, bay, gray, and chestnut. Although many horses have blazes and socks or stockings, excessive white markings and roaning are undesirable.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Shire Horse Association (formed in 1885):

• The Canadian Shire Association (CSHA) was formed in 1888. It ceased operation in 1941 when numbers fell to near zero, but re-formed in 1989 as the breed began to reappear in Canada.

• There are about 3,000 Shires in England, 1,000 in the United States, and 140 in Canada.

• The American association registers between 175 and 200 new horses a year; the Canadian association adds 20 to 30.

• Shires are found throughout North America, but heaviest concentrations are in the West and Midwest.

Percheron Horse

  • HEIGHT: 16–18 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: France
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Elegant, predominantly gray or black draft breed without feathering on the lower legs
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Harness and carriage

The old French province of Le Perche lies in the district of Normandy, located about fifty miles southwest of Paris. This gently rolling area is one of the oldest horse-breeding regions in the world. Its limestone and clay substrate produces quality pastures that encourage the growth of large, strong horses with good, dense bone. The exact origin of this breed has been lost over time, although theories abound. There is some evidence that- a

Percheron-type horse existed in the area during the last ice age. Possibly this horse was crossed on various types of incoming stock through the ages to produce the original Percherons. We do know that native mares of Le Perche were bred to Arab stallions first during the eighth century and later during the Middle Ages. Also during the Middle Ages, imported Andalusian stallions were crossed on mares from Le Perche.

By the time of the Crusades, the Percheron was well known for its soundness, substance, style, and beauty and was often selected as a warhorse. By the seventeenth century, horses from Le Perche were in demand for a variety of uses. Although they were large horses by the standards of the day, they probably stood between 15 and 16 hands and were not nearly as massive as today’s heavy draft horses.

Though powerfully built, Percherons are elegant and showy, with very little feathering on the legs.

From Warhorse to Workhorse

In the eighteenth century, Arabians and the new English Thoroughbred stallions were imported into France and crossed on mares from Le Perche. At this time, Percherons were considerably lighter than today’s Percherons and often served as coach horses as well as military and farm horses. Early in the nineteenth century, the French government established a stud at Le Pin in order to breed army mounts. Two gray Arab stallions imported in 1820 and bred extensively with Le Perche mares probably introduced the breed’s predominant gray color.

By the middle of the 1800s, as the need for coach horses declined, breeders began to meet market demands by developing a large draft horse. Heavy mares from Brittany mixed with the remaining old Percheron stock produced the type of Percherons we recognize today. A horse named Jean Le Blanc, foaled in 1823, became the foundation sire for modern Percheron bloodlines.

Percherons were first imported into the United States in 1839, and thousands more followed in the last half of the nineteenth century. They quickly became the most popular breed of draft horse in the country. By 1930, there were three times as many registered Percherons as Belgians, Clydesdales, Shires, and Suffolks combined. But as mechanized agriculture arrived, all draft horse numbers plummeted. A few devoted breeders, including a number of Amish farmers who used and appreciated these horses, saved the Percheron from near extinction.

A native of France, the Percheron has long been popular in the United States, where nearly 300,000 are registered. These horses are in a unicorn hitch (one in front and two behind), which is extremely hard to drive well.

The 1960s saw a small renaissance in the draft horse business in this continent. Percherons are now used on small farms and for logging, as well as for hayrides, sleigh rides, parades, and shows. They pull carriages on city streets and are often present at special events and weddings.

Breed Characteristics

The Percheron is an elegant, heavy horse, active and showy, with free and comparatively low movement. Like most draft breeds, it is noted for its even temperament, intelligence, ease of handling, and willingness to work. The lack of feathering on the lower legs distinguishes the Percheron from other draft breeds. With its thin skin and fine coat, this breed may not be as hardy in extreme weather conditions as some other draft breeds.

Conformation

Tall horses with smooth strides are much in demand as hitch horses, and the modern Percheron often reaches 17 to 18 hands, and some individuals are even taller. Mature Percherons range in weight from about 1,600 to 2,400 pounds. Many quality horses do not reach the top height or weight but do provide the breed with a wide base for genetic variation.

The head is medium-sized, quite broad between the eyes, lean, and clean-cut. Stallions should have a bold, masculine head, while mares should have a more refined, feminine head. The chest is wide and deep, combined with a nicely curved neck and a neat throatlatch. The back is straight, broad, and strong, with a long, level croup and well-muscled quarters.

The horse should stand squarely on its front legs and have flat, well-defined knees and a good length of flat bone between the knees and the pasterns. It is important that the points of the hocks turn in slightly. At rest, the hocks should be fairly close together, and quite close together when the horse is walking or trotting. The feet are large and round, moderately deep and wide at the heel with a good frog.

Color

Blacks and grays are preferred and are most common, but bays, sorrels, and browns appear and may be registered. White markings are minimal.

This dapple gray beauty brings to mind the horses used by bareback riders in the circus, many of which were and still are Percherons.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Percheron Horse Association (founded in 1876):

• The total number of horses registered is 289,000.

• Approximately 2,500 foals are registered each year.

• There are more Percherons in the United States than anywhere else, with most found in the Corn Belt states.

North American Spotted Draft Horse

  • HEIGHT: 15–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Although the type has long been seen in Europe, this specific breed was developed in the Midwestern United States, particularly in Iowa
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Splashy coloring on draft horse frame
  • BEST SUITED FOR: An all-around draft and carriage horse

Spotted draft horses have been documented in art and mentioned in diaries and literature for hundreds of years. Draft-type spotted horses existed in medieval times—a brown-and-white draft horse served in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, for example, probably as a drum horse. While they have always attracted attention, until recently these horses were individuals that happened to be born as pintos, rather than being a true breed of their own.

In the United States, interest in Spotted Draft Horses was probably sparked when an Iowa breeder collected more than twenty of them in the mid-1960s. Other owners have gathered and occasionally bred them as novelties, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the North American Spotted Draft Horse Association (NASDHA) was formed to preserve and promote draft horses with pinto coloring and to increase public awareness of these rare and beautiful horses. Since then, interest in the horses has risen. At the same time, NASDHA has made concerted efforts to record, collect, and preserve the pedigrees of Spotted Draft Horses and to improve the quality of the horses. The organization is carefully laying the foundation for the development of a truly new breed.

Breed Characteristics

Spotted Draft conformation reflects the breed types of origin: for example, there is a clear Percheron/Belgian type. For the time being, horses accepted into NASDHA may be of any draft breed mixture, including Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdales, Shires, Suffolk Punch, and American Cream Draft. Of these breeds, crosses with Percherons are the most popular because the likelihood is great that the foals will be flashy black-and-white pintos.

There are four classes in the registry: Premium, Regular, Breeding Stock, and Indexed. Premium horses must be ⅞ draft blood and meet the color and height requirements. No gaited blood is allowed in pedigrees of horses in the Premium class, nor is blood from Appaloosas, ponies, donkeys, Saddlebreds, Gypsy Vanners, or Irish Tinkers.

In the Regular class, horses must be ½ to ¾ draft blood and meet the color and height requirements.

The Breeding Stock class is open to any non-colored or insufficiently colored mares or stallions produced by the combinations of horses allowed in the Premium and Regular classes, providing one of the parents was recognized by its breed as having pinto coloration and pattern.

The Indexed class allows the registration of horses of unknown pedigree. A horse must be 15 hands or taller. The owner must submit colored photographs. If the horse is accepted, it receives a permanent Index number on its registration papers. This animal may then be used in various crossbreeding plans to produce Spotted Draft Horses.

The North American Spotted Draft Horse is still being developed as a breed, with more than 1,700 individuals registered since 1995.
This photograph shows three spotted offspring of the same mare (second from left), all of different ages.

Conformation

The average height is 15 to over 17 hands; weight is 1,250 to 2,000 pounds. These horses must have a draft horse frame supported by clean, dense bone. They have short, muscled forearms and thighs, with legs placed well under them. Individuals should have an intelligent head with active ears and an arching neck with a clear-cut throatlatch. The shoulders should be upright, suitable for power rather than for action.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the North American Spotted Draft Horse Association (founded in 1995):

  • More than 1,700 horses are registered.
  • About 150 new horses are registered each year.
  • As with all draft breeds, they are most common in the Midwest, but numbers are also increasing in Florida and California.

Depth and thickness from the withers to the legs are essential. The horses should be as deep in the flank as over the heart. The back is short and strong, with the ribs sprung high from the backbone. The hindquarters are wide apart, long, and smooth to the root of the tail. The croup is usually level.

Color

Pinto coloring is required and may include the tobiano, overo, or tovero patterns. (See Pinto chapter, for detailed descriptions.) The pigmented parts of the coat may be any solid color, but black and white, sorrel and white, and bay and white are most common in the Spotted Draft breed. Blue eyes are allowed, as are white or multicolored hooves.

Clydesdale Horse

HEIGHT: 16.2–18 hands

PLACE OF ORIGIN: Scotland

SPECIAL QUALITIES: Long silky feathering on the lower legs that highlights exceptionally fluid and powerful movement

BEST SUITED FOR: Multi-horse hitches, draft work

These grand horses from the land of the river Clyde are the pride of Scotland. The breed dates back to the middle of the eighteenth century, when local mares were crossed on imported Flemish stallions to increase the weight and substance of the offspring. At the time, one of the main uses for the horses was to pack coal over poor or nonexistent roads.

The sixth duke of Hamilton (1724–1758) imported a dark brown stallion, which he allowed his tenants to breed to their mares free of charge. At about the same time, a wealthy farmer brought in a black Flemish stallion from England with a white face and some white on his legs. This stallion proved to be very popular, and as his colts and fillies were noted for their improvement in quality over local horses, they were highly sought.

A third stallion to leave his mark on the breed was Blaze, who won first prize at the important Edinburgh show in 1782. He was used to breed mares in the area for many years. Nothing was known of the pedigree of this horse, but his shape, style, and action indicated that he had coaching blood.

In the early 1800s, breeders began to keep written pedigrees. In 1808 there was a dispersal sale at the farm of a descendant of the farmer who had imported the first black Flemish stallion to the area. A two-year-old filly purchased at this sale had a pedigree that traced directly back to this stallion. According to the Clydesdale Horse Society in Scotland, practically every Clydesdale today has lineage back to this mare. She produced Thompson’s Black Horse, or Glancer, a terrifically influential stallion described at the time as having “a strong neat body set on short thick legs, the clean sharp bones of which were fringed with nice, flowing silken hair.”

At its peak, the number of horses in Scotland reached around 140,000 on farms, plus an unknown but substantial number in cities and towns. A large proportion of these horses were Clydesdales. Between 1850 and 1880, many of the best stallions and a few good mares were exported, primarily to Australia and New Zealand. In terms of numbers, however, the top export year was 1911, when 1,617 stallions exited the country. During World War I, thousands of these horses were conscripted to the army, and shortly after the war, the breed began to decline in quantity as mechanization was increasingly adopted on farms.

This trend continued after World War II. In 1946 there were more than two hundred licensed breeding Clydesdale stallions in England; by 1949 there were only eighty; and by 1975 the Clydesdale was considered to be a “vulnerable” breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in Great Britain. Since then, there has been renewed interest in these horses. The breed is now categorized as “at risk,” which is a slight improvement. The breed’s popularity rose in the 1990s, though there are still only about seven hundred registered broodmares and about one hundred registered stallions in the United Kingdom. People are again using them for farmwork, logging, driving, showing, and even riding, but today most of these big, gentle horses are kept more to provide pleasure than to earn their keep through hard work.

White markings on the face and legs are very common in the Clydesdale, and spots of white on the body are often seen, as on this foal.

The American Clydesdale Association was founded in 1879, only two years after the Clydesdale Horse Society in Scotland. In the United States, the Clydesdale has gone through considerable change in type, style, and height. In the 1920s and ’30s, the demand was for a more compact horse. According to The History and Romance of the Horse (1941), “The Clydesdale is smaller than most draft horses (smaller than the Percheron, Belgian or Shire).” This is certainly not the case today. The emphasis since the end of the 1930s has been for a taller, “hitchier” horse, meaning one that is bigger and more impressive-looking for parade and show hitches.

The Famous Budweiser Teams

The look and fame of the Clydesdale in the United States has been greatly influenced by the Busch family, and the Budweiser Brewery of St. Louis. During the years of Prohibition (1919–1933), when alcohol sales were banned, the Budweiser brewery managed to stay in business by producing a soft drink. When Prohibition was lifted and beer could again be legally sold, the brewery knew it was on the brink of a boom, and the Busch family celebrated. Part of the celebration was the surprise gift, given by August Busch Jr. to his father, of a magnificent eight-horse hitch of matched bay Clydesdales pulling a Budweiser beer wagon to carry the first beer produced after the end of Prohibition.

Since that time, the Budweiser Clydesdales have become the world-famous symbol of and ambassadors for both the brewery and the breed. Budweiser maintains three traveling eight-horse teams, which are seen by countless crowds at some three hundred parades, shows, and fairs across the country each year, as well as in widely viewed television commercials.

Budweiser has well-defined and strict requirements for its horses. They must be tall, impressive, well-built, sound horses with great movement and an absolutely unflappable disposition. The Budweiser horses are always bay with a wide blaze, stockings to the knee and the hock, and tremendous silky feathering on the legs. To this end, the Busch family and Budweiser have their own excellent breeding program. Because the Budweiser horses are so well known, and because they produce so many horses in a breed with otherwise small numbers, the Budweiser look has significantly influenced the look of the breed in this country.

Breed Characteristics

The Clydesdale Horse Society in Scotland states that Clydesdales should look handsome, weighty, and powerful but have a gaiety of carriage and outlook, giving the impression of quality and weight rather than grossness and bulk. Movement is very important. There must be marked but not exaggerated action as seen from all angles. When viewed from behind, every foot lifts clear of the ground, showing the sole of the foot. The extensive feathering on the legs highlights the active movement. The hair should be long and silky from knee or hock to fetlock.

Conformation

Massive yet elegant, Clydesdales are quite tall, standing 16 to 18 hands, with some males reaching even greater height. They can weigh from 1,800 to as much as 2,000 pounds. A Clydesdale has a broad forehead with a flat profile, big ears, and a wide muzzle. The neck is well arched and long, springing out of oblique shoulders with high withers. The back is short and strong, and the body deep with well-sprung ribs. The quarters are long and well muscled.

In spite of their bulk, Clydesdales move gracefully, with high-stepping action. This is a tandem hitch (meaning that one horse is in front of the other). This type of hitch is difficult to drive well.

Because of the Budweiser teams, many people may believe that all Clydesdales look like this, but other colors do occur in the breed.

Great emphasis is placed on the shape and quality of the feet. The hooves should be “open and round like a mason’s mallet,” says one description, and wide and springy, with no hardness. The pasterns must be long and set at a 45-degree angle from fetlock joints to hooves. The front legs must be placed well under the shoulders and straight from shoulders to fetlocks. The hind legs must be planted close together, with the points of the hocks turned inward. The thighs must come well down to the hocks, and the hind cannons must be straight from hocks to fetlocks.

Color

The usual colors are bay and brown, but roans are common and blacks do occur, as do grays and even chestnuts. White markings are characteristic of the breed, and it is unusual to see a Clydesdale without a white face and considerable white on the feet and legs. White body spots, usually on the lower part of the belly, sometimes occur.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

The Clydesdale Horse Society was formed in Great Britain in 1877. The American Clydesdale Association (formed in 1879) and then renamed the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A. According to this organization:

  • In 2005, there are about 3500 Clydesdales in the U.S.
  • About 650 new registrations are added each year, including foals and imports.

According to the Canadian Clydesdale Association (formed in 1886):

  • Records are now kept by the Canadian Livestock Records Corporation, which reports slightly more than 400 horses.

Brabant Horse

HEIGHT: 15.2–17 hands

PLACE OF ORIGIN: Belgium

SPECIAL QUALITIES: Massively built; can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds

BEST SUITED FOR: Farmwork

Brabant Horse

The word “Brabant” signifies an area in what is now Belgium, once the duchy of Brabant. It also identifies a particular draft horse that originated in this region. In Europe, “Belgian” is a generic term applied to several slightly different breeds of heavy horse. To confuse Americans further, the Brabant itself goes by various names, depending on the area or country of origin. In southern Belgium it is called the Cheval de Trait Belge.

In northern Belgium it is called the Belgisch Trekpaard. In France it is the Cheval Trait du Nord, and in Holland it is the Nederland Trekpaard.

Brabants have been imported into the United States since the mid-1800s. They were crossed with local stock to develop the American Belgian, which continued to look very much like the stocky European version until the interruption of horse imports from Europe during the First and Second World Wars. Without imports, the Americans continued breeding horses from stock already in the country. During these periods, the American Belgian became taller, lighter-bodied, and more clean-legged than its European relatives. It also developed into a breed that was most frequently some shade of blond, chestnut, or sorrel.

At about the same time, in Europe, Brabants were being bred to be thicker-bodied and “draftier,” with heavy feathering on treelike legs. They come in a variety of colors, the most common being red bay or bay roan. American Belgians and European Brabants have continued to diverge and are now quite different. In recent years, some fanciers of the older, heavier type are again importing horses from Belgium and Europe. Thus the American Brabant today is truly the Belgians’ Belgian. The heaviest of all the types of Belgian, it most closely resembles the original horses.

These young horses already show signs of the bulk and muscle that they will develop as adults.

The powerful Brabant can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds, making it the heaviest of all the draft breeds.

Breed Characteristics

Although they are massive, Brabants are easy keepers with a quiet, willing disposition. They are said to be ideal for the small-scale farmer who is interested in sustainable agriculture.

Conformation

The height of Brabants ranges between 15.2 and 17 hands, and they can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds. The Brabant has a large, neat head; a short, heavily muscled neck; and a powerful, deep body supported by very substantial legs.

Color

The most common colors are red bay and bay roan, but blue and strawberry roans are often seen. Solid dark bay is also relatively common. Black and gray occur rarely.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Brabant Association (formed in 1998):

• As a type of Belgian Horse, Brabants are registered by the American Belgian Draft Horse Corporation.

• Because the Belgian registry does not distinguish Brabants from Belgians at this time, estimates of Brabant numbers are not available. There are no more than 100 pure Brabants in the United States and Canada and approximately 500 Brabant x American Belgian crosses.

• There are fewer than 50 new registrations each year.

• There are Brabants in nearly every state in the United States, though the breed is most common in New England and the rest of the Northeast because the first major importer of Brabants, in the 1970s, was from Vermont.

Belgian Horse

  • HEIGHT: 16–18 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Belgium
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Sorrel with flaxen mane and tail; high-stepping action
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Both hitch and pulling competition

The little country of Belgium (about one fifth the size of Iowa) lies on the coast of the North Sea between the northeast border of France and the southwest border of Holland. The area all along this part of the coast is extremely fertile lowland. The excellent soil and heavy rainfall in the area provide abundant hay and grain with the nutrients necessary for the development of big, powerful horses.

The ancestors of the modern Belgian were large black horses known as Great Flemish Horses, which existed in the region even before the time of Caesar (100–44 BCE). The Great Flemish Horse was the foundation of all draft breeds we know today. If you trace back when horses were first domesticated, these heavy horses descended from an animal known as the “giant forest horse,” which, although not giant by our standards, represented an entirely different equine branch than the light horse breeds.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, European breeders refined the heavy Belgian breed considerably, although those horses were still quite different from the Belgians we know in North America today. Belgians in Europe were outcrossed to other breeds to add refinement and to reduce the feathering on the legs. The black color of the original Flemish horse gave way to bay, chestnut, and roan.

Though other colors are accepted, the preferred color for Belgians in North America is sorrel.

The official studbook for the breed was established in Belgium in 1886. Breeders in that country linebred and sometimes inbred to fix the type and create prepotency (dominance of a particular gene or group of genes). The government paid awards for the best stallions and mares as determined by a system of district shows and a large, prestigious national show. Horses that did not win were usually dropped from breeding programs.

Belgian Horses first came to the United States in 1866. In 1885 and 1886, the Wabash Importing Company in Indiana sold several shipments of Belgian stallions to horsemen in Indiana and neighboring states. In 1887, owners formed a breed association in Wabash, where the headquarters remains today. The association grew steadily until 1893, at which point importations virtually stopped because of an economic depression.

In 1899, the economy improved somewhat and both horse breeding and horse importation began to pick up. Still, until the early twentieth century, Belgians were less popular than Percherons, Clydesdales, and Shires in North America. The turning point in popularity came when Belgium sent an impressive array of horses to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, sparking considerable interest in the breed. Both the easy keeping qualities and the working abilities of the horses have maintained their popularity ever since.

Developing an American Type

All importation of horses from Europe halted during World War I, but Belgian numbers in the United States continued to increase. By 1925, annual Belgian registrations had surpassed one thousand each year, reaching a record high of more than three thousand in 1937. Belgians had gained favor with American horsemen, who often said that they had the quietest disposition and were the easiest keepers and best shippers of any of the draft breeds.

Belgians are still seen in many places pulling carriages and other types of transport.

Compare the lighter, leggier, show type Belgian on the left with the more traditional draft type (right).

During the times when European importations were halted, Americans began to develop their own type of Belgian Horse, which has continued to diverge from the much heavier European type. Over time, American breeders have developed a taller, more stylish horse with a focus on shades of chestnut and sorrel, to the extent that most North Americans are unaware that these horses come in other colors. Within the breed in this country, however, particular shades of chestnut and sorrel seem to come into and fade out of fashion.

Breed Characteristics

Modern Belgians are expected to move well at both the walk and the trot. For draft horses, this means lifting the knees smartly in long, free, powerful strides.

In the show ring, today’s Belgians are considerably longer-legged than either their European kin or the older American working Belgian type.

Conformation

Show and hitch horses often mature to over 17 hands and routinely weigh as much as 2,200 pounds. The American Belgian has a lighter, more expressive head and a longer, leaner neck than the European Belgian. The profile is straight or slightly concave. The ears are small. The back is broad and short, and the croup muscular, rounded, and massive. The body is deep and short. The legs are strong, lean, and sound, with some feathering at the fetlock. The feet are large and well shaped.

Color

In North America, the most prized look is a chestnut or sorrel horse with a white mane and tail, four white stockings, and a blaze. Within these colors, horses with considerable roaning and highly dappled horses are fairly common. Very selective owners of well-matched parade hitches sometimes avoid both dappling and roaning, preferring the purer color. Bays, blacks, and grays appear infrequently but may be registered.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America (founded in 1887 as the American Association of Importers and Breeders of Belgian Draft Horses):

  • The association does not track total number of registrations.
  • In 2003–2004, 3,132 new registrations were processed (both foals and adults).

American Cream Draft

  • HEIGHT: Mature mares, 15–16 hands; mature males, 16–16.3 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Iowa
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Unusual cream color, with amber or hazel eyes and full white mane and tail
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Commercial carriage driving, parade hitches, farm work, riding, and pleasure driving

The strikingly colored American Cream Draft is the only recognized breed of draft horse still surviving that originated in the United States. The breed descended from a cream-colored draft-type mare of unknown ancestry purchased in central Iowa in 1911. Old Granny, as she was called, belonged to a well-known stock dealer. Her foals attracted attention because of their unusual color, and they sold for well above average prices.

Granny herself was eventually sold to the Nelson Brothers Farm, where she remained for the rest of her very productive life. By 1946, she was credited as the foundation dam of 98 percent of the horses registered in the recently formed breed association.

In 1920, Eric Christian, a veterinarian, was so impressed with a colt of Granny’s that he implored the Nelson brothers not to geld the animal, intending to create a new breed. This colt, known as Nelson’s Buck No. 2, is considered the progenitor of the breed, though he remained a stallion only one year and sired only one registered cream-colored colt, Yancy No. 3, out of a black Percheron mare.

One of the most influential stallions in the history of the breed was Silver Lace No. 9, a great-great-grandson of Nelson’s Buck that was foaled in 1931. His mature weight of 2,230 pounds, considerably heavier than most Creams to that point, was credited to his light sorrel Belgian dam. His owner, G. A. Lenning, promoted him around the state, and he quickly became the most popular stallion in the area. At the time, however, Iowa law required all stallions standing for public stud service to have a certificate of soundness and a permit issued by the state department of agriculture. The permit was issued only to stallions of recognized breeds. Because Silver Lace did not belong to a recognized breed, the only way around the law was to create a breeding syndicate. Only people who owned shares in the Silver Lace Horse Company could breed their mares to Silver Lace.

A DISTINCT BREED

In 1990, genetic testing based on gene marker data established that the American Cream comprises a distinct group within draft horses. They are not any more similar to Belgians than they are to Percherons, Suffolks, or Haflingers. Prior to this scientific evidence, many thought Creams to be merely a collection of similarly colored individuals.

Silver Lace’s breeding career unfortunately coincided with the Great Depression, a very difficult time for farmers. At one point, Lenning saved Silver Lace from the auction block by hiding him in a neighbor’s barn. Despite the economic hardships, several breeders made serious efforts during those years to improve both color and type of Cream Drafts by linebreeding and inbreeding. Outcrosses between quality Cream horses and top individuals of other draft breeds brought greater quality and size to the emerging breed.

The American Cream Draft is one of only a few draft breeds that were developed entirely in the United States. Many of these horses are used for pleasure driving and riding, and at least one shows in dressage.

Beginning in about 1935, the horseman C. T. Rierson bought all the good Cream mares sired by Silver Lace that he could find. He used these mares to finally develop the new breed of draft horses that Dr. Christian had envisioned. In 1944, twenty owners and breeders formed a new breed association. In 1948, the National Stallion Enrollment Board recommended that the organization be recognized, and in 1950 the Iowa Department of Agriculture gave the American Cream Draft privileges equal to all other recognized draft horse breeds.

Breed Characteristics

Its striking cream color distinguishes the American Cream from all other draft breeds. Among draft breeds, the movement of American Creams is particularly smooth and easy; they pick their feet up and set them squarely back on the ground. Today the American Cream Draft is used to pull newlyweds at weddings and for parade hitches.

American Cream Draft Horses can be used for pleasure riding, even dressage, as this photograph proves.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Cream Draft Horse Association (established in 1944):

  • There were 350 American Cream Draft Horses registered in 2004, up from 222 in 2000.
  • The association also lists 40 “tracking horses,” which may be either horses with Cream characteristics that are by pedigree Cream Draft crossed on another draft breed or purebred Cream Drafts that don’t meet the color requirements. Within guidelines, tracking horses may be used as breeding stock to produce purebred Cream Draft foals.
  • About 30 new purebred foals are added to the registry each year.
  • Although quite rare, these horses may be found in many parts of the United States.

Conformation

The American Cream Draft is a medium draft horse. Mature mares, five years and older, stand 15 to 16 hands and weigh between 1,500 and 1,600 pounds. Mature males measure 16 to 16.3 hands and weigh 1,800 pounds and up.

The head is refined and well proportioned to the body, with large, wide-set eyes; small expressive ears; and a flat profile. Interestingly, foals’ eyes are almost white during their first year and acquire color as the individuals mature. These horses are short-coupled, with round, muscular hindquarters, a wide chest, and good sloping shoulders. They are deep through the heart girth, with well-sprung ribs; solid, strong legs set wide apart; and strong, sure feet.

Color

The coat must be light, medium, or dark cream. All horses have a white mane and tail and amber or hazel eyes. Pink skin is required for registration. The mane and tail are long and full. Though docking the tail of draft horses is an ancient tradition, in this breed the tail is not docked. A blaze and socks or stockings are desirable.

On the advice of Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, PhD, of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, foals with Cream breeding that are too dark to be accepted for registry can be appendixed to the registry. These animals may be crossed on cream-colored individuals, which should strengthen rather than dilute the Cream genes and enable breed numbers to increase more rapidly. Until such time as the books are closed to outside breeding, a Cream mare with dark skin and light mane and tail will be accepted as foundation stock. All stallions, however, must have pink skin and a white mane and tail to be accepted for registration.

Shetland Pony

  • HEIGHT: Maximum in the United States, 11.5 hands; in Canada, 11 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Shetland Islands, Great Britain, with probable ancestral roots in Scandinavia
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: A small, sound, versatile breed of great hardiness
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Driving; traditional child’s mount

The Shetland Islands lie about one hundred miles off the north coast of Scotland. The landmass of the entire island group is approximately 550 square miles, about one tenth the size of Los Angeles County, California. The climate is cold, wet, and endlessly windy. The tough native grass provides relatively low nutrition. In spite of these conditions, archaeological evidence indicates that small ponies, quite like the modern British Shetlands, lived on the islands at least two thousand years ago. These ancient ponies probably had origins similar to those of the small ponies found in Iceland, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Wales. Historians believe that the very first ponies may have arrived on the Shetland Islands from Scandinavia before water divided the lands, around 8000 BCE, and later crossed to Scotland with the early Celts. Whatever the true origin of these ponies, they are one of the oldest distinct breeds and have long been domesticated. A ninth-century carving from the island of Bressay in the Shetlands depicts a hooded priest riding a very small pony.

The climate and conditions on the islands shaped these tough little animals. To conserve body heat in the bitter cold, the ponies developed short limbs, a short back, a thick neck, very small ears, a dense coat, and an extremely heavy mane and tail. Big animals were likely to starve and delicate animals to succumb to accident or illness. Only the small, smart, quick, tough ponies survived. The hills were rocky, steep, and very uneven, so they developed sure-footedness and a long, striding gait to cover many miles each day in their search for food.

Even today, nearly all of the people of the islands work as either fishermen or small-scale farmers known as crofters. For hundreds of years, the crofters on each island have maintained communal grazing ground for their ponies and sheep in order to keep the animals off valuable farming acreage, known as “in-by” land. This common grazing ground is called the scattald, which is rough, heather-covered moorland. Remarkably, both the ponies and the sheep have developed good nutritional conversion rates for this poor-quality food and provide fairly high milk yields for their young. Many scattalds have access to beaches, and the animals eat seaweed at low tide, which supplements the scant pasturage and boosts mineral intake.

Historically, crofters did not ride their ponies. They left them on the scattalds until they were needed to carry peat, which was used for fuel. There were few roads, and the ponies worked in all sorts of weather carrying woven saddlebags called kishies hung from wooden klibbers, or pack frames, on their backs. The ponies often carried half their body weight in peat over several miles of difficult terrain. Until better roads made wheeled vehicles feasible, Shetlands were almost exclusively pack ponies. Today, most crofters leave their ponies on in-by land during the winter and put them out on the scattald in May, after foaling, to run with a stallion.

For many people, the Shetland Pony embodies the ideal child’s pony.

The Era of the Pit Pony

Until 1847, Shetland Ponies were hardly known or used outside of the islands, but when the Mines Act barred children from doing heavy underground work throughout Britain, they were replaced by these small, hardy ponies. Other breeds also worked in the mines, but only the Shetlands could travel into the narrowest shafts. Hundreds of Shetland geldings were sold to the mines, along with most of the best stallions.

The herds on the islands were greatly depleted, and the quality of the remaining island ponies suffered. In the late nineteenth century, Lord Londonderry and various mine owners and island breeders recognized the need for improvement and took action. In 1891, they published the first studbook, with 457 ponies that had been inspected by the committee for correctness of type and conformation. The upper height limit was fixed at 42 inches, and all colors other than spotted were allowed. (“Spotted” in this case means Appaloosa-like coloring. Pinto coloring, which the British call piebald [black and white] and skewbald [brown and white], is permitted.)

Ponies worked the mines until World War II and were still being used in small numbers up until the 1970s. When the ponies became known outside the islands, they became the playthings of the wealthy. The royal family was very fond of Shetlands, and the late queen mother became the breed’s patron. Many children throughout Britain and later Europe and North America learned to ride on Shetland Ponies. But in the Depression years of the 1920s and ’30s, the market crashed.

In time, Welsh Ponies replaced Shetlands for entertainment, and gasoline-powered engines replaced them for transport. Island mares and fillies were hard to sell, because it cost more to ship them off the islands than they were worth. Even after the boom’s collapse, however, a sustained level of interest in Shetlands continued. In Britain, the Shetland Pony Society developed a system of awards for ridden and driven ponies, and they can still be seen competing at shows throughout the country. There is also a Shetland Grand National in December.

Not your typical Grand National competitors, these Shetlands and their riders nonetheless take their jobs seriously.

The Shetland in North America

Shetlands began to make an appearance in the United States around 1850. The first animals were not registered with any breed association. The American Shetland Pony Club (ASPC) was founded in 1888, three years before the British association, to protect and preserve the breed in this country. A number of the first ponies to arrive were superb harness animals and were immediately selected to be tiny, fashionable driving teams. Excellence in harness has continued to be an emphasis of the breed in this country.

In the 1970s, interest in traditional purebred Shetlands as children’s mounts fell, and prices dropped to the point that breeders could not afford to stay in business. The American Shetland Pony Club then opened a division that emphasized fine harness and show ponies, more than children’s mounts. The short-legged, stocky, British Shetland was crossed with Hackneys and Welsh Ponies to add height, length of leg, and neck refinement. This variety came to be known as the Modern American Shetland, sometimes casually known as show Shetlands. Today, Modern American Shetlands compete as high-stepping driving ponies. At the same time, the ASPC designated the more traditional variety as the Classic Shetland. The ASPC continues to maintain show divisions and breed standards for these ponies as well.

Breed Characteristics

Classic American Shetlands are excellent mounts for children and fine family pets. They are good movers, nice jumpers, and make first-rate, fun driving ponies for the whole family. Modern American Shetlands are more animated and refined in type than the Classics. They are particularly well suited to fine harness and show classes but also make nice pleasure driving ponies.

Over the years, the original Shetland type (center) has been developed into other types, as seen in the Modern American Shetland on the left and the Classic American Shetland on the right.

Conformation

Over the years, the height limit for the breed in the United States has increased to 46 inches and in Canada to 44 inches though it remains 42 inches in Great Britain. The United States has a separate breed standard for each variety. According to the ASPC rulebook, the Classic American Shetland possesses style and substance. The short head is clean-cut with a fine muzzle, large nostrils, brilliant eyes, wide forehead, and sharp, small ears. The length of the neck is in proportion to the body, and the shoulders are sloping. The Classic is more refined than the original imported Shetland, with a well-balanced, strong, sturdy body and substance in the chest and hindquarters. The legs are set properly under the body, the forearms well muscled, knees and cannon bones broad and well defined with ideally shaped pasterns with proper size and angle of pasterns and feet. Strong, short cannons support the knees and hocks. The tail is set high on the croup. The mane, foretop, and tail are full. The coat is fine and silky. Extremes in length of neck, body, legs, and action are undesirable.

The Modern American Shetland should be a strong, attractive pony blending the original Shetland type with refinement and quality. The head is carried high on a well-arched neck. The pony’s structure should be strong but show refinement, with high withers, sloping shoulders, springy pasterns, and sturdy feet.

Color

Shetlands may be of any color, either solid or mixed, except Appaloosa. No particular color is preferred. Recognized colors are albino, bay, black, brown, buckskin, chestnut, cremello, dun, gray, grulla, palomino, perlino, pinto, roan, silver dapple, sorrel, and white. No discrimination is made because of the color of the eyes.

No matter what type, Shetlands are lively, intelligent, and often playful companions.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Shetland Pony Club (founded in 1888):

  • There are about 95,000 registered Shetland Ponies.
  • The association does not track the number of new foals added each year.

Shackleford Banker Pony

  • HEIGHT: 13–14.3 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Shackleford Island, Outer Banks of North Carolina; originally of Spanish stock
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: The oldest documented horse population in North America and a historic treasure for both the state of North Carolina and the genetic history of America’s horses
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Pleasure riding and driving; are good children’s mounts

A series of narrow sand-dune islands runs for nearly 175 miles along the coast of North Carolina, separated from one another by inlets and from the mainland by larger bodies of water called sounds. Although the entire chain of islands is known as the Outer Banks, each individual island has a name, and one of these is Shackleford Island. Until the 1980s, which saw a tremendous building boom, the Outer Banks were very sparsely populated by people, but for as long as anyone can remember there have been wild horses on the islands. Their history is an impressively long one, dating back to the days of the Spanish explorers.

Exactly when and how horses first came to the islands is not documented. In 1521, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, who had been granted the right to explore and colonize the area by the king of Spain, sent an expedition carrying horses and other livestock that probably landed at Cape Fear. In 1526, Ayllon himself arrived with six ships; five hundred men, women, and slaves; three Franciscan friars; and eighty-nine horses. The Spanish unwisely stole some Indian children to sell as slaves in the Caribbean, which caused an immediate Indian uprising, and the Spanish were forced to flee the area without their livestock or belongings.

For centuries, wild horses have lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Shackleford Banker Ponies are managed by the Foundation for Shackleford Horses and the National Park Service.

Between 1584 and 1590, Richard Grenville and Sir Walter Raleigh brought more livestock to the area, purchasing animals in Hispaniola and taking them to the coast of what is now Virginia. In 1585, Grenville’s ship Tiger foundered on what was probably Portsmouth Island. Although the ship was ultimately saved, it appears that all the livestock were pushed overboard to lighten the load; some may well have made it to shore and survived. For the next hundred years or so, there were many Spanish and English shipwrecks that might have set horses free in the area. No one knows for sure which of these first horses survived to become the ancestors of today’s Shackleford Horses.

LINKS TO SPAIN

Speculation abounds regarding the origins of the Banker Ponies — whether they swam to the islands from the wrecked ships of Spanish explorers or were intentionally brought there. Dr. Gus Cothran, of the Gluck Equine Center at the University of Kentucky, performed genetic testing of the herd in 1997 and established a link with Spanish horses through several genetic variants. One in particular is a very old genetic marker that is easily lost through genetic drift (random changes in gene frequency, especially in small populations). Cothran reports that he has seen this variant in only two other equine populations: the Puerto Rican Paso Finos and the Pryor Mountain Mustangs of Montana. Because the marker is still present in the population of horses from Shackleford, it indicates there has been very little admixture of other breeds.

Challenges and Protection

As the human population increased on the Outer Banks in the twentieth century, the horses’ presence became controversial. Some said that the horses were ruining the natural environment. Others noted that the horses had been on the islands since the late 1500s and the islands had remained in good condition until other species were introduced, proving that the horses were not the root of the environmental problems. After much debate, a federal law was passed in 1998 protecting the Shackleford Banks wild horses.

The history of these horses is quite similar to that of the better-known Assateague and Chincoteague horses of Virginia, but the Shacklefords have remained a more isolated population. On Chincoteague, outside stallions, including Mustangs and Arabians, have been brought in over the years in an effort to limit inbreeding of the island horses. On Shackleford, no outside horses were ever crossed in.

Islanders on both Shackleford and Chincoteague have had a long-standing tradition of rounding up their herds each year to count them and brand the foals. When the herd becomes too large, about every two to four years, horses are rounded up and seventeen to twenty of them are removed. There was a roundup in 2005; another is not expected until 2009. Horses are selected for removal based on the number of particular genetic lines that exist on the island, all genetic information having been verified by the University of Kentucky.

The roundups are managed jointly by the Foundation for Shackleford Horses and the National Park Service. All removed mares over the age of four are taken to Cedar Island to join other horses there. Other horses are taken to the mainland.

These ponies are very pure representatives of the Spanish horses that first came to North America in the 1600s.

Once they arrive, they are the property of the Foundation for Shackleford Horses, which pays for all vaccinations and tests and makes sure that before they are adopted, the horses adjust to eating commercial feed, and that young horses are socialized to the point that they lead well. Older horses are sent for training with a professional trainer before adoptions are allowed. The costs incurred by the foundation are often greater than the income from adoption fees, but the foundation feels strongly that the horses should be given every possible advantage for a good life in a good adoptive home.

Breed Characteristics

Banker Ponies are extremely hardy and well suited to the islands. In the winters they are rough and shaggy, but in the summers they are always fat and sleek and in excellent health. They know just where to dig in the sand to find fresh water, which seeps into holes they have pawed open. The primary food source for all Banker Ponies is a nutritionally poor salt grass. The quality and quantity of this grass limits the size of the animals and the size of the herds.

Conformation

These are small horses, averaging between 13 and 14.3 hands. Banker Ponies display many of the conformation characteristics of the Spanish horses, including a comparatively long, narrow head with a flat or slightly convex profile, a body that is narrow when seen from the front but fairly deep when seen from the side, and a croup that is almost always characterized by a low tail set.

Color

The colors found in the herds vary somewhat. Shackleford Bankers may be buckskin, dun, bay, chestnut, and brown. There is a black stallion in the herd, several chestnut horses with flaxen manes and tails, and some pintos. No gray horse has ever been recorded in this herd.

The ponies are rounded up every year so that new foals can be branded.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

  • The herd is maintained at 110–130 individuals.
  • About a dozen foals are born every year.
  • Every few years the ponies are rounded up, and selected animals are sold to good homes.