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Draft Horse Breeds – Smallest, Biggest, Gentlest!

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My grandson came home from school mad; his teacher told him not all draft horses are big, and he was sure she was wrong. When I hear “draft horse,” I picture large Belgian, Shire, and Clydesdales. However, his teacher is correct draft horses come in all sizes.

The Haflinger is the smallest draft horse breed, Shires are the biggest, and despite their size, all draft breeds have a gentle temperament. Draft horse ranges from 13-17 hands high, with some individual horses reaching as tall as 19.

Before trucks and tractors arrived on the scene, draft horses performed all the heavy chores like plowing fields and hauling stuff. Of course, the invention of the internal combustion engine did not completely put a stop to the use of draft horses. Even today, these “gentle giants” are used extensively to haul, lug, carry, and pull, and so on.

Draft horses pulling a wagon

This article is part of my series focused on horse breeds-I started by writing an introductory piece: Horse Breeds: The Ultimate Guide. It’s a comprehensive overview of the different horse types and breeds.

In this guide, I answer some of the most common questions about draft horses including:

  • What is a draft horse?
  • What is the smallest draft horse breed?
  • What are the big draft horse breeds? Which draft horse is the largest?
  • What is the best draft horse for riding?
  • Are draft horses gentle?

What is a Draft Horse?

Draft horses (also called draught horses) are workhorses used for plowing fields, assisting with farm chores, and other heavy-duty tasks requiring strength, stamina, and energy.

Today’s draft horses may not work as hard as they once did, but they still possess the inherent characteristics and qualities that these breeds are known for. In general, all draft horse breeds have the following characteristics:

  • Massive substance and bone
  • Immense muscular strength
  • Height ranging from 13 hh (hands high) to 19 hh, with the average height being 17 hh.

In the USA, there are several draft horse breeds. The main ones include the Belgians and Percherons, which comprise nearly 90% of all draft horse breeds. Clydesdales are the third-ranking breed which accounts for almost 4% of the total.

The remaining draft horse breeds include the Suffolk, American Cream Draft, American Spotted Draft, and Shires which account for about 6% of the total American draft horse breed population. Many pony breeds are also included in draft breeds.

During the spring planting season, my son-in-law put together some old farm equipment and hooked his quarter horse to it. He wanted to experiment and see how difficult it was to work a garden without a tractor.

I was surprised to see the horse in action because quarter horses are not draft horses, and I had never seen him hooked up before. The animal took to pulling plows instantly and they were able to finish our garden relatively quickly.

So is he a qualified draft horse? Maybe but he still isn’t a member of a draft horse breed.

Picture of a Haflinger horse standing in a pasture.

Which is the Smallest Draft Horse Breed?

Ever wonder which horse is the smallest draft horse? Draft horses are known for being strong and are often characterized by their height, width, and girth. But what about those little guys who also work hard?

The smallest draft horse breed is Haflinger; they are only 13 to 15 hands tall but are powerful enough to pull heavy loads. Other small draft breeds include the Norwegian Fjord horse, Black Forest Horse, and Gypsy Vanner.

I wrote an article about the Haflinger breed that provides a ton of interesting information. You should check out the article if you’re want to learn more about this small draft breed.

There are many smaller draft horse breeds out there, including ponies! Yes, even though they’re often thought of as the ultimate children’s pets, you might be surprised to learn that these equines were used in coal mines because their small size made them indispensable when navigating through tight spaces.

Even though ponies are small and often used as draft horses, they’re not actually horses. Ponies have some significant differences from real horses that make them distinct, so I didn’t consider them when choosing the smallest draft horse. The same can be said for miniature horses.

My friend raises miniature horses and trains them to pull small carriages. He rents the horses for children’s parties, and I often see them pulling kids in a mini-carriage around my sons’ neighborhood. These little guys perform an impressive feat, but they’re just not a true draft horse breed!

Check out the table below showing the height of common draft horse breeds.

BreedAverage height in HH
Miniature horse7 to 9.2
  
Shetland Pony10 to 11.5
  
Haflinger13 to 15
  
American Walking Pony13.2 to 14.2
  
Norwegian Fjord horse13.2 to 15
  
Gypsy Vanner14 to 15.2
 Black Forest Horse 14.2 and 15.3
Suffolk14.2 to 15.2
 Jutland horse 15 and 16.1
American Cream15 to 16
  
American Spotted Draft16 to 17
  
Belgian16.2 to 17
  
Percheron16.2 to 18
  
Clydesdale17 to 18
  
Shire16 to 19
  

You’ll notice that the Miniature horse breed is the smallest draft breed in the equine family from the above table. But as far as actual draft horse breeds, the Haflinger with a height of 13 to 15 hands is the smallest draft horse breed.

One of the most popular and most colorful of the small draft horse breeds is the Gypsy Vanner.

Gypsy Vanner

Origins

The Romany Gypsies created this horse breed using Clydesdale, Shires, and Dales Pony. The term vanner is short for caravan (since these horses were mainly bred to pull Gypsy caravans).

Main Physical Features

  • The Vanner is 13.2 to 15.2 hh
  • Colors: Pie-bald, skewbald (red and white, brown and white, or tri-color), blagdon (solid color with white splashed up from underneath.

Temperament

Gypsies have little patience for any animal that could endanger their lives. Therefore, they immediately banished any temperamental horse. The culling of mean-spirited horses led to Gypsy Vanners having the gentlest and most docile temperament.

Gypsy vanners are easy to train, docile, and very peaceful. They are also athletic, distinctive, and willing with excellent endurance.

Uses

  • English and western pleasure riding
  • Freestyle riding
  • Driving
  • Carriage
  • Dressage
  • Jumping
  • Bareback riding.
Picture of draft horses pulling through snow.

Big draft breeds, and the biggest draft horse of them all.

Shires: The biggest horse breed

Origins

Shires were first bred in the UK. Some Shires can reach about 19 hh and weigh up to 2200 lb.! Once the breed came to America, there was a clear differentiation between American and English Shires. Breeders used this differentiation to show which horses were registered in the UK and USA. The American Shire has existed for more than 100 years.

Main Physical Features

  • On average, The Shire is the biggest draft horse breed with a height range of 16 to 19 hh.
  • Colors include gray, black, or bay

Uses

  • In their early days, Shires were used to carry heavily armored knights into battles. Later, people used them for pulling carts of ale.
  • Today, Shires are used primarily for work, pleasure, and to help establish other breeds.

Clydesdale

Origins

The Clydesdale breed originated in the Valley of Clyde River near Glasgow, Scotland. American breeders still seek the original Scottish Clydesdale, and many make visits to Scotland to import the original breed back to the US.

Main Physical Features

  • Height up to 18 hh.
  • The Clydesdale breed is the next in line of bigger draft horse breeds. It is one of the largest and strongest draft breeds and often confused with the Shire.
  • Colors available in the Clydesdale breed include roan, black, and the ‘Budweiser Bay.’

Uses

One Clydesdale can easily pull loads of 7000 lb. The Clydesdale is also the Budweiser horse – we love those commercials, don’t we! This beautiful breed is still used for marketing purposes and is considered one of the most successful marketing mascots.

Belgians

Origins

The Belgian Draft breed was originally bred in Europe from the Brabant region of Belgium, and are one of the strongest breeds in existence today. They are a direct descendant of the “Great Horse” that was popular throughout medieval Europe for its ability to carry knights into battle.

Main Physical Features

  • Height up to 16.2 to 17 hh, A Belgian named Big Jake is the world’s tallest horse standing over 20 hh
  • Belgians are broad strong horses and hold most of the world pulling records,
  • Most Belgians are chestnut colored with a light flaxen mane and tail.

Uses

Belgians are used in pulling competitions, pleasure riding, and as show horses. In some regions, Belgian horses are raised and sold for human consumption.

Percheron

Origins

These mighty horses were first bred in the Le Perche region in France. They were known for their excellence on the battlefield. Once they were imported into the USA, they were known as the Norman breed, but later, the original name Percheron came back into use.

Main Physical Features

  • Height up to 17.3 hh.
  • Colors in the breed are gray and black.

Uses

Percherons are very popular in the United States today. They are used as draft hitches and are popular driving animals.

What is the gentlest draft horse breed?

Despite their massive sizes, most draft horse breeds are gentle giants. They are docile, calm, patient, loving, easy to train, and friendly. Imagine if these strong and tall horses were difficult to handle! It would be dangerous for people to be around them, and riding them could be risky. No one would want them, would they!

In general, all large draft breeds are gentle. Shire’s, Belgian’s, Percheron’s, and Clydesdale’s are known for their calm and gentle temperament. I was recently at a training facility and watched a child riding a Percheron over obstacles.

The fact that draft horses are much in demand proves that they are indeed easy to work with. Some draft breeds are so easy and obedient that even a small boy can harness and ride them.

Picture of a Percheron ridden by a young girl training.

What is the Best Draft Horse for Riding?

I was recently at an equine training facility and noticed the Percheron in the photo above. He was once a crowd control horse for the New Orleans Police Department. Now, he is used training beginners on how to ride horses properly.

You would think that this Percheron is an exceptional horse, which it is, but many draft horses are great for beginner riders, so long as you have help mounting one. There is no single horse breed that is perfect for first-time or veteran riders. 

However, some draft horses definitely have all the characteristics that make them easier to train, calm, and docile. These are the traits one should look for in order to ensure a smoother ride.

Naturally, if you are in the market for the best draft horse for riding, you’d still want to consider the horse’s training and temperament and not just its pedigree or bloodline. And the best way to learn about a horse’s temperament is by spending time with it.

If you want a smaller horse for easier mounting, then the Gypsy Vanner is a great choice. You can also opt for a Clydesdale known for its quiet demeanor and calm and steady temperaments. However, these are large horses, so mounting could be difficult for beginners.

You can also opt for draft crossbreeds (such as the cross between Percheron and thoroughbreds). These are known to be docile, easy to train, and smaller in stature, making them easy to mount and ride.

Key Takeaways

North America has a rich diversity of draft horse breeds, each with distinct physical characteristics, colorful origins, and myriad uses.
Draft horses are gentle despite their large sizes and valuable for ranch and farm work, commercial carriage pulling, shows, sports, and pleasure riding.

They are tough, durable, and hardy breeds. If you want a smaller horse, you can go in for draft ponies or the Gypsy Vanner. For a larger horse, choose from the Shires, Belgians, Clydesdales, or Percherons. You can’t go wrong with your choice!

FAQs

Which horses are bigger than Clydesdale?

Shires and many Belgians are slightly bigger than Clydesdale with an average height of 16 to 19 hh.

Which are the three largest draft horse breeds?

Three of the largest horse breeds are the Shires, Clydesdale, and Belgians.

What makes a horse a draft horse?

Draft horses are known as workhorses because they can pull heavy loads over long distances. They typically have broad shoulders, a large chest, and big muscles that make them suited for pulling and carrying.

Can you ride draft horses?

You can ride a draft horse and these gentle giants are comfortable. But their large size is made for carrying loads and pulling so they need to be trained and have the right equipment before taking them out on a ride.

Are draft horses good for beginners?

Draft horse breeds are excellent for beginners because they’re calm, willing workers who always stay patient. They don’t require much maintenance either which is perfect for first-time owners!