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One of my favorite things about going to the annual Old Farmers Day festival near our home is watching the work horse competitions. It’s interesting to see the different breeds participate in traditional farming contests, like pulling logs and plows. One thing that captured my grandson’s curiosity was what characteristics make up a ‘workhorse.’
In general, a work horse is any horse that works with humans- whether it’s pulling carts or plows or just carrying things around. Before trucks and tractors, these animals were vital to transport goods, plow fields or pull carts. Some common breeds are Clydesdale, Suffolk, Shires, Percheron, Haflingers, and Belgians.
There are many types of work horses, but the ones that come to mind most often are large draft breeds, like Clydesdales and Belgians. In this article, I cover different breeds of work horses and their characteristics. I also provide a brief overview of what makes them such incredible animals and how you can use them for many different activities.
Characteristics of Work Horses
Humankind has always relied upon powerful horses to get work done on farms, ranches, and industries. Apart from being large, strong, and powerful, some workhorse breeds are also beautiful.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines workhorses (or workhorses) as horses other than those used for racing, pleasure riding, or driving. They are strictly reserved for laborious tasks and have the characteristics needed for hard work.
You can easily recognize a work horse breed by its size: they are very tall and muscular and have strong shoulders that enable them to pull heavy loads.
Workhorses also have strong legs, broader upper bodies, and short backs. Many breeds have characteristic feathering on the lower part of their legs. The feathering channels the water away from their pastern and heels when working under wet conditions.
Another notable characteristic feature of work horse breeds is their convex or Roman profile – concerning the nose and muzzle. Most breeders of non-working types of horses prefer a flat or concave shape.
However, in workhorses, the Roman profile is the desired trait. The convex muzzle warms up the air as it is inhaled, enabling the horse to work more comfortably in cold conditions. Moreover, this type of profile also improves aerobic capacity.
Height and weight
Typically workhorse breeds weigh between 1400 and 2000 lb., and their height is between 16 and 19 hh. (64 to 76 inches).
Fun Fact: The largest horse was a Shire gelding named Samson, bred by Thomas Cleaver in Bedfordshire, U.K. He measured 21.2 ½ hh and weighed a whopping 3359 lb. He was appropriately re-christened Mammoth after breaking the world record!
A horse’s temperament can be measured on a scale from 1 to 10. The lower the number, the more serene and calm they are with no signs of anger or stress in their behavior patterns; whereas higher numbers mean that there will always seem like something wrong is going on behind those big eyes.
Most work horses are on the low end of the equine temperament scale, which makes sense. These large animals were part of the family and had to be easy to tacked up for work. If they were high strung it would be difficult if not impossible to work with.
The work horse is on the low-end of the equine temperament scale. This makes sense, as this type of horse was bred to be used for farm chores and had to be around with and around people.
I’m sure if these were high-strung animals they might pose some difficulties for their handlers. Work horses should be calm and gentle, which makes them suitable around children or other animals. Yet have a willingness to work, you don’t want a big lazy horse.
Don’t forget to check out my article on Rare Horse Breeds – 10 Endangered Horse Breeds in the World.
Large Draft Horse Breeds
By the 19th Century, large draft horses were in great demand in the North American Continent. Typically, they weighed over 1600 lb. and moved at a quick pace.
By the early 20th Century, America started bringing in workhorse breeds from different parts of Europe: Clydesdales from Scotland, Shires and Suffolk Punch from the U.K., Percherons from France, Belgian Draft horses from Belgium, and so on. These set the foundations for various draft horse breeds in the continent.
Below are some of the larger draft workhorse breeds prevalent in the country today, along with their characteristics:
Shires originated in the U.K. and are well-known for their docile temperament and pulling abilities.
· Shire is a massive breed with heavy feathering on their legs
· They have long necks, incredible bone structure, and white leg markings
· Height and weight – Shire stallions weigh as much as 2000 lb. and measure over 17 hh.
· Coat and colors – They have silky, fine, and straight coats with colors such as Roan, Chestnut, Bay (reddish-brown with black point coloration or brown body), Black, Chestnut, Sorrel (reddish), and Brown.
· Being a large horse, Shires ideally should be docile; otherwise, they could be hard to handle and frighten some people. Well-bred Shires like humans and are generally mild-mannered and have good temperaments. They are patient and easy to train.
· Shires need socialization and desensitization so that they don’t spook easily.
The Suffolk Punch is another working horse breed from the U.K.
· It is slightly smaller than the Shire breed
· Height and weight – Suffolk Punch weighs between 1600 and 2000 lb. and stands about 15.2 to 16.2 hh.
· They have short legs with less feathering and white markings on their lower legs.
· Shires are noted for their health and longevity – they live over 35 years – and have tremendous power and stamina.
· The Suffolk Punch is docile, kind, and easy to train.
· They are known for their intelligence which can keep them and their handler safe.
Belgian Draft (Brabant in Europe)
Belgian enthusiasts in the U.S. call this breed America’s most popular draft horse.
· Belgians are massive horses noted for their strength and durability. Belgians have thick muscles, heavy bodies, and short legs.
· Height and weight – They stand between 16 and 18 hh and weigh 1800 and 2400 lb.
· Coat color – Belgians in the U.S. typically have chestnut, red-brown, sorrel, or blonde coats.
· Belgians are known for their bold and active and willing, and docile temperament.
· The Percheron is useful for heavy agricultural work thanks to its compact, muscular body.
· Height and weight – These draft horses weigh between 1500 and 2000 lb. and have a height of 16 to 18 hands.
· Coat color – Percherons are primarily black, gray, sorrel, with white markings on the face.
· Percherons are active, mild-tempered, good-natured, and energetic. Unlike many other large draft horses, the Percheron loves to train and learn new things. The horse pictured above is a retired crowd control horse that now jumps.
Clydesdale draft horse is the third most registered draft horse breed in the United States.
· The Clyde has a straight, angular body with a long well-muscled neck, straight profile, and strong large hooves.
· Height and weight – They stand between 16.2 and 18.2 hh, weighing between 1700 and 2200 lb.
· Coat color – Bay, brown, roan, or black with stockings and white blaze.
· Clyde has an active, gentle, and responsive temperament.
Small Workhorse Breeds
Haflinger breed originated in Austria, and the Arabian may have been its foundation breed.
· Haflingers have noble Arab heads, slightly dished noses, large attentive eyes, and well-proportioned necks. Their bodies are broad and strong, with muscular quarters. They are known for their longevity, and some even live beyond 40 years of age.
· Height and weight – Haflinger measures between 13.5 and 15 hh at withers, and their overall weight is between 800 and 1300 lb.
· Coat colors – Haflinger is known for its distinctive coat colors – a rich, deep chestnut, liver, or red with white mane and tail.
· Haflingers are sociable animals. They enjoy the company of humans.
· They are intelligent, docile, and trustworthy.
· Noted for their excellent endurance, sure-footed gaits, and good disposition, the Norwegian Fjord is still used for farm-work, driving, and packing. These hardy horses can withstand very low temperatures.
· Height and weight – Between 13.2 and 14.2 hh and their weight is between 900 and 1200 lb.
· Coat colors – 90% of all Fjords are brown duns while the remaining 10% are gray, red, pale gold, or yellow dun.
· Calm, willing, and gentle.
· Fjords are also well-known for their endurance and excellent gaits.
The Gypsy Vanner was first introduced to the North American public in 1998.
· Height and weight – These compact horses are 14 to 15.2 hh. They range in weight from 1100 to 1700 lb.
· Gypsy Vanners have rounded withers that make them suitable for a harness and bareback riding. Their broad chests and heavy hips are supported by a heavy bone structure, flat knees, and big hooves.
· Coat and colors – Gypsies have an abundant mane, tail, and feathers. Standard colors are piebald (black and white pinto) and skewbald (any pinto other than piebald).
· Gypsy Vanners are strong, intelligent, and athletic. They are well known for their endurance.
· The Gypsy society preferred docile horses and banished ones having ill-temper.
· That is the reason why the Vanners in North America are easy keepers with sound temperament.
Workhorse breeds have unique characteristics that enable them to work hard on farms and ranches. They are muscular, strong, and have great endurance. Some of the larger workhorse breeds popular in America are Clydesdales, Shires, Belgian Draft, and Percherons.
A few of the smaller workhorse breeds prevalent in the U.S. are Haflinger, Gypsy Vanners, and Norwegian Fjords. If you’re interested in horse breeds, check out the articles on our website.
FAQs – Work Horse Breeds
What are the largest and smallest workhorse breeds?
The Shires are the largest workhorse or draft breeds, while the Haflinger is the smallest. However, some people consider miniature horses the smallest working horse.
Which is the friendliest draft or workhorse breed?
Many larger draft horses are referred to as gentle giants. Some of the friendliest and gentlest draft horses include the Clydesdales, Belgians, and Shires.
What is the best workhorse?
Horse owners have their favorite workhorse breeds, and remember, horses are individuals. Still, generally Belgian Drafts are considered by most to be the best large workhorse, and Halflinger’s are likely the best small draft breed.