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The World’s Largest Breeds: 5 Massive Draft Horses

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Mardi Gras parades have horses of all shapes and sizes. The largest is the colorful Clydesdales that pull Budweiser wagon. Seeing these horses made me wonder if they’re the largest horse breed in the world; if not, then what are the world’s largest horse breeds?

The world’s largest horse breeds are:

  • The Shire Horse
  • Belgians
  • Clydesdales
  • Percherons
  • Suffolk Punch

These five breeds are the largest of approximately 200 horse breeds across the globe. They have a lot in common but also some characteristics that set them apart from each other.

PIcture of a large draft horse pulling.

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.

What are some common traits of the largest horse breeds?

Horses are individuals, but members of a specific breed have common characteristics. Horse breeds that comprise our list of most massive horses have some traits that are found across all of them.

The largest horse breeds are powerful, patient, and have a docile temperament. These horses are often referred to as “gentle giants,” and this is an apt description.

Most draft breeds are from cold weather regions in Europe and have furry feet, called feathers. Feathers keep the lower legs of draft horses warm but also lead to skin irritation if not properly maintained.

Largest horse breeds are draft horses.

draft horse is an animal bred for work, such as plowing, logging, or pulling heavy loads on sleds or carriages. While most draft horses are used for pulling equipment or wagons, some make good riding horses.

People first domesticated horses more than 5,000 years ago in western Kazakhstan. From then until now, horses have been an integral part of our lives.

They’ve taken us to battles and helped shape the world, they’ve worked vast acres of farmland so we could have a stable source of food, and they transported people across continents to expand nations.

Draft horses were essential to humans until the advent of the industrial revolution and development of the internal combustible engine. This new machine was more efficient and eventually replaced draft horses in most industries.

Draft horses are used at shows, pulling competition and or as exhibition animals pulling wagons. Some smaller farms in the United States and Europe still use draft horses such as Amish and Mennonite farmers.

Draft horses were crossbred with lighter horse breeds to develop many popular warmblood breeds. Draft breeds aren’t just desired for their enormous strength, but also their excellent temperament.

Large horses typically have a gentle demeanor.

It is accepted that behavior and personality are affected by genes. Research has shown evidence of genetic influence on behavior that supports the hypothesis that breeds differ in character. This is common knowledge for horse people, but scientists now understand why this phenomenon occurs.

Members of a breed have standard behavior, and horse breeds vary in their temperaments or personality. For example, draft horses are less sensitive to touch and move around less in their stalls than lighter horse breeds, Arabian horses are particularly reactive to sudden movements.

Although “draft” is not a breed, the kinds that make up the classification of draft horses have common personalities and temperaments. Draft horses have a gentle and forgiving nature; they are also proud, alert, and have common sense.

Keep in mind all horses are individuals, but generally, I’ve found most draft breeds to be happy, easy-going, eager when asked to work, and typically have a desire to please.

Though these large horses are all generally calm and cheerful, there are small differences in their temperaments. For example, Percherons have more energy, and Clydesdales are considered hotter than Belgians, but still calm in comparison to other smaller breeds.

To read a well-research study on the differences in horse breeds check out the study published in Sciencedirect entitled: Horse personality: Variation between breeds

The Top 5 Largest Horse Breeds:

1. The Shire Horse breed

The Shire horse breed currently holds the record for the world’s largest horse. Shires are descended from England’s “great horse,” which was ridden into battle and graced the tournament fields carrying knights in shining armor.

Picture of a Shire horse.

The steed of the English knight was bred to mares from Holland in the late 1800s and produced the Shire breed. This new English horse breed was big and strong. It was used as a draft and farm animal.

The average-sized Shire weighs close to 2,000 pounds and stands over 17 hands tall. They have thick coats, which are typically bay, brown, black, gray, or chestnut. Like the Clydesdale, they have feathering on their lower legs.

Picture of two Belgian horses.

2. The Belgian Horse breed

The Belgian horse breed descended from the Flemish “great horse,” which was the medieval battle horse native to the Flanders area. It is an ancient breed and has influenced the development of other draft breeds, such as the Clydesdale and the Shire.

They are well known for their docile nature and Herculean strength. Their average height is 16 to 17 hands tall, and they weigh between 1,800 to 2,200 pounds. Belgians are typically bay, chestnut, sorrel, or roan in color. The most desired color of an American Belgian is chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail.

Belgian’s regularly compete in pulling contests, where they dominate the competition. Big Jake, a Belgian, was named the tallest horse in the world by Guinness World Records in 2010. To learn more about Belgium’s you can click on this link.

Belgian have a genetic predisposition to develop equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) which results can result in lameness, muscle weakness and lack of propulsion.

3. The Clydesdale Horse breed

The Clydesdale originated in the county of Clydesdale, Scotland, and was used as a farm horse to work fields and pull carts. The modern, Clydesdales’ are still used on small farms, pulling competitions, and during parades.

Clydesdale’s have a lighter build than the other heavy breeds and are noted for high-stepping gait. A mature Clydesdale typically weighs between 1,800 to 2,200 pounds, and they stand up to 18 hands tall at their withers.

Picture of Clydesdales pulling a wagon during a parade.

Clydesdales have thick coats that are commonly bay, black, grey, and chestnut with or without roaning. The most common color scheme of a Clydesdale horse is bay with white markings on their face, feet, and legs. Some horses also have white on their bodies, usually under the belly.

Clydesdales have feathering on their lower legs that is typically white. These long hairs on the lower legs require daily grooming. If the area is neglected, skin irritation is common.

Picture of Percheron horses.

4. The Percheron Horse breed

The Percheron is a French horse and is the most popular of the large draft breed. A Percheron once held the title of world’s tallest horse. Their sizes range considerably, from as small as 15.1 hands to as tall as 19 hands.

The Percheron breed was significantly influenced by lighter oriental horse breeds such as Arabian. This crossbreeding with lighter horses didn’t diminish the Percheron’s size or strength but did contribute to the horse’s elegant appearance.

Modern Percherons are frequently used in horse shows, parades, and driving. They also make good riding horses in a variety of equine activities and are crossbred with lighter horse breeds, especially Thoroughbreds.

Percherons are typically gray or black. Their size varies significantly with the country of their breeding. For example, in France, a typical Percheron weighs between 1,100-2,600 lbs compared to 1,900-2,600 lbs in the US, and 1,800-2,200 lbs in Great Britain.

The same disparity can be found in their height; in France, the typical Percheron is between 15.1-18.1 hands; in the United States, they range from 16.2-17.3 hands, and in Great Britain, they average 16.1 hands tall.

Percherons are best known for their willingness to work, hardiness, and ability to adapt to harsh climates. They are good-natured horses that are easy keepers.

5. The Suffolk Punch breed

The Suffolk originated in Suffolk and Norfolk in eastern England, where draft horses have been present since the 1500s. The Suffolk Punch is considered the oldest native horse breed of Great Britain.

Picture of a Suffolk Punch horse.

All registered Suffolk Punch horses can trace their pedigree to the foundation stallion Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, foaled in 1768. The Suffolk horse has changed little over the past three hundred years.

The Suffolk is unique among draft breeds in that it was selectively bred solely for agricultural work. The number of Suffolk Punch horses greatly diminished in the late 1940s and came close extinction in the 1950s.

Today there are so few Suffolk horses that they are listed as “Critical” on the American Livestock Breeds Conservatory. Suffolk horses have distinct coat color characteristics; all are shades of chestnut with no white markings. They typically stand between 16.1 and 17.2 hands tall and weigh from 1,900 to 2,200 pounds.

Interesting fact: The horse breed got its name, “Suffolk Punch” because of their rounded appearance.


What is the most dangerous horse breed in the world?

Generally the most dangerous horses are ones with an aggressive or “hot-blooded” temperament, such as, Arabians, Thoroughbreds, and Akhal-Tekes. However, horses are individuals and some of the calmest and most level-headed individuals may be members of these breeds.

What is the rarest draft horse breed in the world?

The American Cream Draft is the rarest draft horse breed in the world, there are only be 400 registered. These large cream colored horses originated in the United States in the 1900’s and descend from a common mare. Because of their limited breeding they’ve always been a rare breed.

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Related Information

  • Large draft horses display a higher than average rate of progressive swelling, hyperkeratosis, and fibrosis in their limbs. The condition begins at an early age and worsens as the horse ages.
  • Chronic progressive lymphedema is the constant buildup of lymph fluid in a horse’s lower limbs. This condition affects large horse breeds and can be fatal. Click here to read more about this disease.