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.