The Clydesdale is an iconic breed of draft horse from Scotland. Made famous by the Budweiser Clydesdales that pull the company’s beer wagon at special events, the breed is renowned for its distinctive looks and powerful pulling ability.

These horses originated in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where breeders developed Clydesdales for draft work on the local farms. Clydesdales are primarily used as carriage horses today, but they also make enjoyable pleasure mounts for riders who prefer larger horses.

However, the large size of Clydesdales also results in an increased risk of certain health problems. These gentle giants often have a shorter lifespan than horses of lighter breeds. This makes good management and nutrition especially important for draft horse health.

This article will review the origin, history, characteristics, common health problems, and nutritional needs of the Clydesdale breed. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding Clydesdale horses.

Clydesdale Horse History

The Clydesdale horse is a native Scottish breed with a rich history that intertwines with the country’s rural heritage. But with the population of Clydesdales declining worldwide, this historic breed is at risk of going extinct.

Origin

Clydesdales originate from the region of Scotland around the River Clyde, now known as Lanarkshire County.

In the mid-18th century, the Sixth Duke of Hamilton and John Paterson of Lochlyloch imported Flemish stallions to the region to cross with native draft mares. The stallions added size and substance to the smaller Clyde Valley horses.

Nearly every Clydesdale can trace their ancestry to Lampits mare, a filly born in 1806 when written pedigrees began tracking the bloodlines of local horses. The mare produced several stallions that gained popularity as breeding horses in the region.

The first recorded use of the Clydesdale name occurred in 1826 at an exhibition in Glasgow. The breed quickly spread throughout Scotland as the Clydesdales gained recognition as the ultimate draft horse. [1]

Historic Use

Clyde Valley farmers in the 18th century relied on draft horses for agriculture work and hauling coal. The original Clydesdales surged in popularity during this time due to the need for powerful horses that could handle challenging farm jobs.

Scotland exported the horses throughout Europe and across the Atlantic as demand for draft horses increased worldwide. The Clydesdale Horse Society was formed in 1877, and similar societies emerged in North America soon after. [2]

The Clydesdale population peaked by World War I when thousands of horses were conscripted for the war effort. However, numbers quickly declined with the mechanization of Agriculture. By 1975, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust labelled the breed as vulnerable to extinction.

In the 1990s, the population of Clydesdales grew again as the breed gained popularity as an impressive parade and carriage horse. The Budweiser Clydesdales of Super Bowl fame became an international symbol of the breed and helped increase interest in the US.

At home in the United Kingdom, famous Clydesdales have served as drum horses in the Household Cavalry. These horses need calm temperaments and superior strength to carry drums during royal parades.

Breed Registry

The Clydesdale Breeders of the USA is the official breed registry of the Clydesdale in North America. Incorporated in 1879, this member organization maintains all registrations, ownership records, and pedigrees of purebred Clydesdales in the United States.

Clydesdales are only eligible for registration with the CBUSA if their sire and dam are recorded in the Clydesdale Stud Book.

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Breed Characteristics

Clydesdale characteristics changed throughout the breed’s history depending on their use. Once compact working draft horses, these gentle giants are now bred for impressive statures that stand out in parades and shows.

Conformation

Clydesdales typically stand between 16 and 18 hands tall, but some male horses can reach heights over 18 hands. While more elegant than their working ancestors, modern Clydesdales still have powerful builds and can weigh upwards of 2000 lb (900 kg).

The ideal Clydesdale has a straight or slightly convex profile, wide muzzle, broad forehead, big ears, and long, arched neck. Well-defined withers, sloping shoulder, short back, muscular hindquarters, and strong thighs support pulling power.

Legs should have full feathering with silky hairs. The breed naturally has a full mane and tail, but some Clydesdale owners dock the tail. Traditionally, docking in draft horses prevented the tail from getting stuck in harness equipment, but tail docking has adverse welfare implications.

The AVMA and AAEP advocate against horse tail modifications. Research suggests docking is not necessary for draft horses and is purely cosmetic. In addition to the pain caused by the procedure, shorter tails limit the horse’s defenses against biting insects. [3]

Colours

The Clydesdale’s distinctive colouring makes the breed one of the most easily recognizable draft horse today. Most Clydesdales are bay, brown, or black with white faces and legs. White can also run into the body colouring to make the horses appear roan.

Chestnut and other coat colours are rare in Clydesdales. Extensive white markings and body spotting in Clydesdales resemble sabino colouring in other breeds. However, known genes responsible for this colouring are not always found in Clydesdales. [4]

Temperament

Clydesdales have an enduring reputation as gentle giants. The breed generally has a calm temperament that makes them easy to handle despite their large size. In addition, their docile disposition helps the breed remain focused in hectic environments.

These horses also have excellent work ethics. While their forbearing personalities make them a favourite for riders of many different abilities, their size may not be manageable for complete beginners.

Disciplines

Clydesdales were bred to pull. Some Clydesdales still work in agriculture alongside Amish farmers, but most of these horses work as recreational carriage horses today.

Their colouring, height, and active gaits make Clydesdales one of the most elegant breeds of draft horses. Combined with their agreeable nature and strong work ethic, it’s no surprise that Clydesdales excel as parade horses and police mounts.

Although best suited for pulling a hitch, Clydesdales can also serve as reliable pleasure mounts for riders that need larger horses. CBUSA also offers incentives for registered Clydesdales participating in dressage and other sport horse disciplines.

Health Profile

Clydesdales are susceptible to many health problems that commonly affect other draft breeds. In addition, this breed has a lower life expectancy than lighter horses.

Some Clydesdales experience health issues typically associated with senior horses starting in their early teens.

Genetic Diseases

Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is the most common genetic disorder affecting draft horse breeds. This inherited metabolic condition is characterized by abnormal glycogen storage in muscle.

A GYS1 gene mutation causes PSSM1. Genetic studies in North American and European draft breeds have shown roughly 62% of draft horses have the GYS1 mutation. [5]

Clydesdales with PSSM may experience muscle tremors, gait abnormalities, and tying up after exercise. Nutritional changes can help manage symptoms. [17]

Health Problems

Some draft breeds have a higher incidence of fertility problems. Equine reproductive studies have found lower sperm concentrations in semen from draft breeds. [6] While some studies suggest an increased risk of dystocia (difficult labor) in draft breed mares, others find no breed effect. [15][16]

Rapid growth in draft breed youngsters increases the risk of developmental orthopedic disorders, such as osteochondritis dissecans.

In older Clydesdales, excess wear and tear on their joints from their heavy weight can contribute to an early onset of degenerative joint disease. [7]

Clydesdales are one of several draft breeds with a significant risk for chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL). This systemic lymphatic disease causes lower limb swelling and lesions that worsen over time. There is no cure for CPL, and research is ongoing into the cause. [8]

Care and Management

Clydesdales and other draft breeds need the same quality basic horse care as light breeds to prevent and identify common health problems.

Work with an equine veterinarian to establish a wellness program, including regular vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

There are many benefits to housing horses outdoors, so long as they are provided with adequate shelter and feed. When housing Clydesdale indoors, keep in mind that draft breeds need larger stalls than light breeds to accommodate their size. [10]

If your horse lives inside, provide regular turnout time to support physiological and behavioral needs. Free movement in turnout helps limit the risk of OCD in youngsters and manage joint discomfort in seniors.

Clydesdales also benefit from light exercise because it helps improve their circulation, which can reduce the risk of stocking up and chronic progressive lymphedema.

However, draft horses with larger muscle mass are more likely to overheat when temperatures are high. As a result, heavy exercise programs may not be suitable for Clydesdale horses in hot climates.

Special Needs

Carrying a heavier body weight puts more stress on the internal structures of the hoof, making proper farrier care essential for Clydesdales. Bearing more weight also contributes to a poorer prognosis in draft horses with laminitis. [11]

Leg feathering predisposes Clydesdales to skin conditions on their lower limbs. Regular grooming can help keep your horse’s skin healthy and help you catch infections or other issues early. If your Clydesdale has pink skin on his face, he may need UV protection to prevent sunburn.

Some routine veterinary care requires sedation. These horses also have a higher risk of recovery problems after general anesthesia, partly because of their height and larger muscle mass. [9]

Nutrition Program

Good nutrition is vital for keeping your Clydesdale as healthy as possible for as long as possible. But formulating a balanced diet for Clydesdales can be challenging due to their heavy body weight and predisposition to metabolic disorders.

Weight Maintenance

Clydesdales are considered easy keepers. Like most drafts, these horses have an efficient metabolism and can quickly become overweight or obese.

Obesity is a significant concern for Clydesdales because carrying excess body fat can increase the risk of joint problems and put excess strain on the laminae of the hoof. [11]

Owners should carefully monitor their Clydesdale’s body condition and adjust their horse’s diet to maintain a healthy weight. Learn more about weight management for easy keepers in this guide.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 900 kg / 2,000 lb Clydesdale with normal body condition at maintenance.

Feed Maintenance Diet
(Amount / Day)
Mature Grass Hay (7% crude protein) Free choice
Salt 45 g (3 tbsp)
Omneity Pellets 400 g (4 scoops)
w-3 oil 60 ml (2 oz)
Diet Analysis*
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 109%
Protein (% of Req) 111%
NSC (% Diet) 6.9%

 

*This diet analysis is estimated based on NRC requirements and average forage values. For a more precise assessment, analyze your forage and submit your horse’s diet for evaluation.

In this sample feeding program, Mad Barn’s w-3 oil provides omega-3 fatty acids to make up for the deficit in hay compared to pasture.

Mad Barn’s Omneity is added to provide amino acids, vitamins, and minerals commonly deficient in hay. Feeding Omneity provides all of the essential nutrients required to support hoof health, coat quality, metabolic function and more.

Omneity is a low-NSC supplement formulated to balance forage-based diets without the extra calories of commercial ration balancers. This makes it an ideal vitamin and mineral supplement for easy keeper breeds, such as Clydesdales.

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Clydesdales also need more water than average-sized horses. Proper hydration is critical for supporting overall health, preventing heat stress, supporting gut motility and reducing the risk of tying up.

Ensure your Clydesdale has constant access to clean, fresh water and provide plain loose salt to encourage water intake.

Forage

All horses need a forage-based diet to support digestive health and prevent behavioral issues. Nutritionists calculate the amount of forage your horse requires based on their body weight.

Clydesdales and draft horses weigh significantly more than the average horse, so they need more hay to meet their nutrition requirements and promote well-being.

The average 2000 lb (900 kg) Clydesdale needs about 40 lb (18 kg) of hay per day on a dry matter basis. These horses generally do best on average-quality, low-starch and sugar hay. [12] If the horse has elevated insulin from Cushing’s Disease/PPID, the total dietary sugar (ESC) + starch should be below 10%.

Clydesdales may become obese or laminitic with unrestricted access to pasture. When turning your horse out on lush grass, use a grazing muzzle to limit grass intake and prevent overconsumption of calories.

If your horse is overweight or has a history of PPID with elevated insulin, consider turning them out on a dry lot and providing hay in a slow feeder. This will allow you to maintain free-choice forage while slowing down hay intake. [14]

Protein & Energy

Unless Clydesdales are used for heavy pulling work, a forage-only diet should meet most horses’ energy and protein requirements.

If your horse does require additional calories, avoid feeding grains or high-energy concentrates. Excess starch from commercial feeds can elevate insulin levels in Clydesdales with PPID and precipitate tying up in horses with PSSM.

Replace starch with beet pulp and bran or fat supplements and oils as a safer energy source. Research suggests PSSM horses can safely get up to 20% of their digestible energy from fat sources. [13]

Fat supplements with omega-3 fatty acids have added benefits for regulating inflammation in Clydesdales with joint pain. [13]

Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is an omega-3 fatty acid supplement that provides DHA and natural Vitamin E to support a shiny coat, joint health, immune function, and reproductive health.

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  • Promotes joint comfort
  • Helps to fight inflammation
  • Skin & coat condition
  • Palatable source of Omega-3's

Nutritional Supplements

Depending on your Clydesdale’s health status and typical activities, other nutritional supplements may be added to their diet to support their well-being.

Electrolyte supplementation is recommended for Clydesdale horses after working and during hot weather. Horses lose electrolytes when they sweat, and these minerals need to be replenished to maintain electrolyte balance and encourage hydration. Electrolytes also help horses recover from exercise and support muscle function, particularly in Clydesdales with muscle disorders. Note: Electrolytes should be fed in addition to the horse’s typical salt provisions, not instead of it.

Mad Barn’s Performance XL: Electrolytes is a palatable formula scientifically designed to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat.

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Joint health is particularly important for Clydesdales due to their heavy body weight and susceptibility to degenerative joint conditions. You can support your horse’s joint health by feeding MSM, a natural form of sulfur involved in collagen production, which helps to support the integrity of connective tissues, hooves, and skin.

Clydesdales may also benefit from Jiaogulan, a Chinese herb that has been used to support blood flow to the hooves and lower limbs. This supplement may benefit Clydesdales at risk of laminitis or lymphedema.

An equine nutritionist can help you formulate an ideal diet for your Clydesdale horse based on their unique needs. Submit your horse’s diet for analysis online and schedule a free consultation today.

Is Your Horse's Diet Missing Anything?

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References

  1. Zawadski, J. The Clydesdale. The Working Horse Manual. 2011.
  2. Moore-Colyer, R. Aspects of the Trade in British Pedigree Draught Horses with the United States and Canada, C. 1850–1920. The Ag Hist Rev. 2000.
  3. Lefebvre, D. et al. Tail docking in horses: a review of the issues. Animal. 2007. View Summary
  4. Brooks, S. et al. Exon skipping in the KIT gene causes a Sabino spotting pattern in horses. Mammal Genome. 2005. View Summary
  5. Baird, J. et al. Presence of the glycogen synthase 1 (GYS1) mutation causing type 1 polysaccharide storage myopathy in continental European draught horse breeds. Vet Rec. 2010.View Summary
  6. Bazzano, M. et al. Exploring the metabolome of seminal plasma in two different horse types: Light versus draft stallions. Reprod Domest Anim. 2022.View Summary
  7. Riley, C. et al. Osteochondritis dissecans and subchondral cystic lesions in draft horses: a retrospective study. Can Vet J. 1998. View Summary
  8. Affolter, V. et al. Chronic Progressive Lymphedema in Draft Horses. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2013.
  9. O’Donovan, K. et al. Risk of anesthesia-related complications in draft horses: a retrospective, single-center analysis. Vet Anaesthesia and Analgesia. 2023.
  10. Malone, E. Managing chronic arthritis. Vet Clin Equine Pract. 2002.
  11. Senderska, M. et al. The Differences in Histoarchitecture of Hoof Lamellae between Obese and Lean Draft Horses. Animals. 2022. View Summary
  12. Waldridge, B. Draft horses, mules, and donkeys. Nutritional Management of Equine Diseases and Special Cases. 2017.
  13. Ribeiro, W. et al. The Effect of Varying Dietary Starch and Fat Content on Serum Creatine Kinase Activity and Substrate Availability in Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. J Vet Intern Med. 2008. View Summary
  14. Geor, R. Pasture-Associated Laminitis. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009.View Summary
  15. Sabbagh, M. et al. Genetic and environmental analysis of dystocia and stillbirths in draft horses. Animal. 2014.View Summary
  16. McCue, P.M. and Ferris, R.A. Parturition, dystocia and foal survival: A retrospective study of 1047 births. Equine Vet J. 2012. View Summary
  17. Valentine, B.A. et al. Role of dietary carbohydrate and fat in horses with equine polysaccharide storage myopathy. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001. View Summary