Irish Draught

  • HEIGHT: 15.2–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Ireland
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Consistency of type, excellent gaits, gentle disposition, jumping talent
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Jumping, hunting, driving, dressage, and eventing

By today’s North American standards and current usage, the Irish Draught (pronounced draft) Horse isn’t technically a draft horse. It originally developed as a type rather than as a true breed and was the common and utilitarian horse of the countryside: an all-purpose farm, riding, driving, and hunt horse. It was lighter in bone and moved more freely than the heavier English draft breeds we recognize today, such as the Shire and the Clydesdale. The Irish Draught has its roots in the Connemara Pony, which descended from ponies brought to Ireland by the ancient Celts around 500 BCE. The early ancestors of the Irish Draught stood between 12 and 14.2 hands, and the type didn’t begin to grow larger until the Normans arrived with their bigger, heavier warhorses in 1172.

During the Middle Ages, the Irish rode smooth-gaited little Irish Hobbies, which also traced their ancestry back to the ancient smooth-gaited Celtic Ponies. Irish Hobbies were exported all over the world. There were several periods when laws were passed that banned their exportation because they were in danger of becoming too rare in Ireland. When decent roads were developed in Ireland, people began to ride in carriages and coaches rather than on horseback, and the demand for the comfortable Hobbies declined in favor of good trotting breeds. By the time the Hobbies finally did vanish, larger Norman horses had long been present in Ireland, and trade had opened with Spain, bringing in Andalusians and Spanish Barbs. Later, Thoroughbreds arrived from England. All these imports provided a variety of larger horses to cross with the little Irish horses.

The first written record of the Irish Draught dates from the late 1700s. In addition to carriage horses, Irish farmers needed larger, stronger horses to use as packhorses and for plowing, riding, and hunting. Big draft horses were brought over from England, but the heavy feathering on their legs proved a liability. The feathers did protect the horses’ legs from wetness, but stickers and burrs, absent in England but common in Ireland, clung to the feathers, creating more problems than the feathers solved. The burr problem was serious enough that the English breeds were almost useless on Irish farms. Furthermore, the Irish wanted horses that could be driven smartly to town and also be taken hunting when the occasion arose. The heavy horses were just too big and slow.

A True Irish Breed

Ultimately, the horse-wise Irish farmers developed their own horse. Without the aid of a breed association or government help, they began by selecting from the heavier types available. Somehow breeders managed to incorporate an excellent trot and good movement for driving, as well as exceptional jumping ability, a characteristic also common in the Connemara. It was actually English horse dealers and purchasing agents for the English army who began calling these functional farm horses draughters, even though that term in England meant a much heavier horse. Some say the name came from the fact that horses were commonly drafted for military use.

The purebred Irish Draught consistently passes on its solid conformation, good disposition, and exceptional jumping talent.

The Irish Draught was recognized as an official breed in Ireland in 1901, and a studbook was started. The Irish Department of Agriculture approved thirteen stallions in 1904 and 264 mares in 1911, but because the stallions were often too far from the mares, this first organized breeding plan failed.

World War I was something of a boom period for Irish Draught breeders. Because the horses were strong and clean-legged, had a good trot, did well on meager rations, and were placid, they were ideal for military use. Breed numbers continued to rise from World War I through the 1940s and ’50s.

Mechanization and tractors ultimately caused a decline in numbers, but as demand for farm horses dropped, the Irish Draught was discovered to have another significant talent that brought it great fame. When crossed on Thoroughbreds, they produced terrific jumpers. The product of this cross is the world renowned Irish Hunter, which has been exported to every country in which people like to ride and jump or fox-hunt.

Because Irish Draught crosses, especially with Thoroughbreds, are so popular, purebred Irish Draughts are hard to find.

Ireland has become a major exporter of superb competition horses. Irish Draught–Thoroughbred crosses have appeared on various Olympic teams and in many world-class shows. There have been so many exports of the part-breds, there is concern that the purebred Irish Draught could disappear. Although full-bred horses are rare, because they are used primarily to produce half-bred foals rather than to produce more purebreds, breeders and the breed association in Ireland are working hard to make sure the quality remains high and that the breed continues in its purebred form.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America (established in 1993):

• The registry lists about 30 purebred stallions and 170 purebred mares.

• About 250 part-breds are registered.

• One hundred new foals are registered each year, both pure-breds and part-breds.

• A foal registered with the IDHSNA is not automatically registered with the society in Ireland, but many owners have independently acquired Irish registration for their horses.

• In North America, numbers are increasing slightly. In Ireland numbers are decreasing, as the best horses are often exported.

• The IDHSNA has members in Canada, Germany, Australia, and Ireland.

Breed Characteristics

The Irish Draught is a proud, powerful horse of substance and quality, known for its gentle nature and strong constitution. It is also noted for consistently breeding to type.

Conformation

The Irish Draught is tall, usually standing between 15.2 and 17 hands and weighing 1,150 to 1,600 pounds. The well-shaped head has a flat profile, wide forehead, and long ears. The neck is of average length, set high and proudly carried. The withers are well defined, and the heart girth is deep. Irish Draughts have a strong back and loins, with powerful hindquarters and a long, gently sloping croup. The forearms are long and powerfully muscled, with short cannons. The legs are clean and hard, with a bit of silky hair at the back of the fetlocks. The pasterns are strong and sloped, and the hooves are hard and round.

Color

Although any solid color is allowed, gray and chestnut are common and dun is seen very rarely. White markings on the face and lower legs are allowed. Excessive white, pinto coloring, and obvious “Clyde” markings, meaning very wide blazes or bald faces and white legs above the knees and hocks, are not permitted.