Draft horses are heavy breeds originally developed as working animals. Selective breeding for size and strength produced equines that are significantly larger than most modern riding breeds.

Some historians believe draft breeds descend from Medieval Europe’s famous “Great Horse.” But most drafts throughout history worked in agriculture, hauling heavy loads and pulling farm equipment.

While some communities still rely on draft horses as working animals, these gentle giants can also make excellent recreational horses. However, due to their size draft horses have unique health and management needs.

This guide will discuss the history, characteristics, health problems, and nutritional needs of draft horse breeds. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for draft horses.

Draft Horse History

Draft horses, although less common today, played a pivotal role in nearly every industry just over a century ago. The ancestors of many popular modern draft horse breeds significantly contributed to the economies of their native countries throughout history.

Origin

Historical records suggest heavy-type horses existed over 2000 years ago in the Ardennes region of modern-day Belgium. The fertile soil in this region allowed local Belgian farmers to develop stronger horses as draft animals.

Research suggests the European “Great Horses” praised as war mounts in Medieval texts may have originated in this region. [1]

As heavy horses spread throughout Europe, regional breeding programs shaped local draft horses into distinct breeds to fit their needs. Studies confirm diverse maternal lineages contributed to the development of modern draft breeds. [2]

Historic Use

Heavy horses reached their peak popularity as war horses during the Middle Ages, alongside the demand for stronger mounts capable of carrying heavily armored knights. However, bone studies suggest that most medieval warhorses stood under 15 hands tall. [1]

A taller and larger type of draft horse emerged through selective breeding for working horses with the size and strength needed to pull heavy loads and perform challenging farm work. As farm equipment became heavier and more efficient, farmers required more horsepower to operate it. [3]

Draft horse breeding surged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with agriculture, railway building, excavation, mining, logging, and road construction reliant on these large equines. [4]

Unfortunately, breed numbers have since been on the decline as tractors and machinery gradually replaced their roles in the economy. Also, many draft horses died on the battlefield or were slaughtered for food during the World Wars. Today, these breeds persist thanks to dedicated breeders and draft horse owners.

Draft Horse Breeds

Popular draft horse breeds include:

Other examples of modern draft horses include the Auxios, Ardennes, Breton Horse, American Cream Draft, and Suffolk Punch.

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Draft Horse Characteristics

Draft horse breeds are easily recognizable by their distinct type. They have several unique characteristics that make them the ideal working equines.

Conformation

Most draft horse breeds stand between 16 and 19 hands tall. The world record for the tallest living horse belongs to a Belgian draft measuring over 20.2 hands.

These horses have heavy conformations, with thick bones and muscular builds. Their shoulders are more upright than riding horses, which is more suitable for pulling. Their hindquarters are powerful and well-muscled.

Most drafts have large heads with straight or convex profiles. Their necks are muscular, and their backs are short and broad. Draft breeds also have large, round hooves.

Colours

Coat colours and patterns vary significantly depending on the breed. Most drafts have solid coat colours, such as bay or chestnut. Excessive white markings are undesirable in some breeds but standard in others.

Some breeds have feathering on their legs. Several draft breeds have traditionally docked tails, but the AMVA and AAEP advocate against tail docking due to welfare concerns. [5]

Temperament

Draft horses are known as gentle giants for their calm temperaments and kind dispositions. They have a willing work ethic and are typically friendly towards people. However, their size can be intimidating for beginner handlers.

Disciplines

Most recreational draft horses are used for driving. The Budweiser Clydesdales are famous draft horses used to pull the Anheuser-Busch beer wagon. Some owners enter their draft horses in pulling competitions that showcase their strength.

Draft horses are still used for work where machinery isn’t practical. For example, logging draft horses transport logs out of forests while minimizing damage to sensitive environments.

Some communities still rely on draft horses for agricultural work. Research suggests draft animals are still a sustainable solution for farming in rural regions with limited resources as long as they receive appropriate care and management. [3]

Draft Horse Health

Draft horse breeds are susceptible to unique health problems related to their size. Some genetic disorders are also more common in draft horses. While many of these disorders don’t have a cure, good care can help manage clinical signs.

Genetic Diseases

Polysaccharide storage myopathy is a common muscular disorder in draft breeds. This disease results in abnormal glycogen accumulation in muscles and can cause tying up in drafts. [6]

There are two types of PSSM. One study found 87% of draft horses with PSSM had PSSM Type 1, associated with the GYS1 mutation. This mutation is an autosomal dominant trait, so drafts only need one copy to inherit the disease. [6]

Belgian draft horses and related breeds can inherit junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB). This progressive hereditary skin disorder causes skin lesions to develop at pressure points. Affected foals have severe blistering that progressively worsens and develops into secondary infections. [7]

Most foals with JEB are euthanized since there is no available treatment. DNA testing for the associated JEB1 gene in Belgian drafts can help avoid carrier matings and decrease the risk of producing an affected foal. [7]

Health Problems

Several health problems are more common in draft horses as a result of their large body mass.

Chronic Progressive Lymphedema

Chronic progressive lymphedema (CPL) is an incurable skin condition primarily found in heavy-type horses. This disease is characterized by lymph buildup in the lower legs, which leads to swelling, skin folds, lesions, and secondary infections. [8]

In horses with chronic progressive lymphedema, clinical signs worsen over time and often result in lameness. The cause of CPL is unknown, but management that supports healthy circulation can help slow the progression of the disease. [8]

Shivers

An estimated 16% of Belgian Draft horses are affected by shivers, a common neurological disorder associated with an abnormal gait and hindlimb hyperflexion.

There is no treatment for shivers, but research suggests vitamin E is critical for draft horses at risk for the disease. [9]

Eye Problems

Cataracts and other eye problems are more common in draft horses than in the general horse population. However, one study found most abnormalities did not significantly impact vision. [10]

Respiratory Diseases

Research suggests draft horses also have a high incidence of complex upper respiratory disorders. One study of 50 competition draft horses found abnormalities in 46 horses. 31 of those horses had several abnormalities uncommon in other horse types.  [11]

Surgical Complications

Draft horses have an increased risk of complications associated with general anesthesia due to their body mass. One study reported a 2.24% mortality rate in draft horses under general anesthesia, compared to a mortality rate of 1% for the general horse population. [12]

Care and Management

While their unique health problems and large size sometimes require special considerations, draft horse management starts with the same quality basic care all horses need. These horses should get routine preventative veterinary care, vaccinations, deworming, and dental exams.

Long intervals between farrier care can lead to poor hoof balance in draft horses. Regular trimming helps prevent excess loading forces from your horse’s large body weight on the lower limb structures.

Draft horses often need more space than average-sized horses and are more likely to get cast in standard-size stalls. Ensure your draft’s housing and fencing are secure enough to contain a powerful horse safely.

Prolonged stall confinement can lead to stocking up on the lower legs of draft horses. Maximizing turnout time promotes healthy circulation in drafts with CPL and helps manage clinical signs in drafts with shivers.

Draft breeds with thick feathering on their fetlocks are predisposed to developing pastern dermatitis from trapped moisture and debris. Thorough grooming routines can help support healthy skin and hair in these horses.

Draft Horse Nutrition

Nutrition requirements are determined based on your horse’s mature body weight. Heavier breeds, such as draft horses, have unique needs and require larger quantities of forage and commercial feeds compared to lighter horse breeds.

A correctly balanced diet is also critical for managing some of the common health problems found in these horses. Working with an equine nutritionist can help you formulate a balanced feeding program tailored to your draft horse’s individual requirements.

Weight Maintenance

Most draft breeds are considered “easy keepers,” which means they can maintain their weight quite easily on a balanced diet. This characteristic is a result of selective breeding, where draft horses were bred to maintain large muscle mass with minimal feed consumption.

However, this efficient metabolism can predispose these horses to obesity if not managed properly. Obese draft horses have an increased risk of mechanical laminitis, and have a higher risk of a poor prognosis due to their heavy body weight. [13]

It can be difficult to distinguish obesity from the naturally heavy types of draft breeds. Body condition scoring can help you determine if your draft is a healthy weight and make adjustments to their feeding plan as-needed.

Sample Diet

The following sample diet is intended for a mature 2000 lb (907 kg) draft horse at maintenance (not exercising).

Feed Amount per day
Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein) Free-choice
Salt 30 g (2 tbsps)
Omneity Pellets 400 g (4 scoops)
Diet Analysis
Digestible Energy (% of Req) 103%
Protein (% of Req) 138%
HC (ESC + starch; % Diet) 8.7%

 

Draft horses generally do not require grain in their diet. Forage-based diets can adequately fulfill their energy and protein needs, especially when they are engaged in light work.

However, your horse’s diet must be fortified with vitamins and minerals to ensure they meet all of their nutritional requirements. A balanced vitamin and mineral supplement can address nutrient deficiencies without adding unnecessary starch or calories to your draft horse’s diet. [14]

Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral premix that provides essential nutrients required to balance a draft horse’s diet. Adding Omneity to your horse’s diet will protect their hoof health, skin and coat quality, immune function and overall well-being.

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Forage

Horses need a constant supply of plant roughage in their diet to maintain healthy digestive function. The amount of forage required depends on your horse’s body weight, with heavy draft horses needing more hay than lighter breeds.

A typical 2,000 lb (907 kg) draft horse is predicted to eat approximately 40 pounds (18 kg) of hay dry matter daily. Average-quality, low-starch grass hay is the best option for providing adequate amounts of forage without introducing excessive dietary starch.

If your draft horse has PSSM or other metabolic health concerns, it is particularly important to choose low-starch forages to prevent complications. Fresh pasture may not be appropriate for these hoses due to high levels of starch. Consider using a grazing muzzle to restrict grass intake or turnout on a dry lot with hay instead. [15]

If your draft horse needs to lose weight, consider using a slow feeder or small-hole hay net to extend foraging. This will enable you to maintain free-choice access to forage while reducing hay intake.

Feeding Recommendations

Commercial concentrates and grains have high starch levels that can contribute to metabolic and digestive issues in draft horses. To reduce risks, eliminate or reduce grains from your draft horse’s diet, and split large rations into small meals.

If your draft horse needs extra energy to support his workload, choose forage-based alternatives, such as alfalfa hay, soaked hay pellets or beet pulp. You can also add fat supplement to your horse’s diet diet.

Fat is also a safer source of calories for PSSM horses compared to high-starch grain. Research shows draft horses with PSSM can get up to 20% of their dietary energy from fat. [15]

Draft horses typically drink more water than average-sized horses. Ensure your draft has constant access to fresh, clean water throughout the day to avoid dehydration.

Our nutritionists also recommend providing free-choice salt and adding plain loose salt to your horse’s daily ration to help them meet their sodium requirements.

Nutritional Supplements

Providing a balanced, forage-based diet that supplies adequate vitamins and minerals should be the priority when developing a new feeding program for your draft horse. Once the diet is balanced nutritional supplements can provide extra support for your draft horse’s individual needs.

  • W-3 Oil is a fat supplement for draft horses that need additional calories. This oil contains high levels of vitamin E and DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid not found in plant sources. DHA has benefits for brain health, respiratory function, the immune system, and joint health in horses.
  • Vitamin E is an important antioxidant nutrient that supports muscles and neurological function. Some draft horses, including those with heavy workloads, can benefit from additional supplementation.
  • Optimum Digestive Health is a comprehensive gut health supplement that helps maintain a healthy digestive system in draft horses. This supplement contains prebiotics, probiotics, enzymes, and nucleotides that support hindgut health and nutrient absorption.
  • Jiaogulan is a herbal supplement that may have benefits for lower limb circulation and hoof health in draft horses. This traditional Chinese herb also supports respiratory and muscle health.

Submit your draft horse’s diet online for a free evaluation, and consult with our experienced equine nutritionists for help formulating a balanced diet.

For a customized feeding plan designed specifically for your draft horse, take advantage of our free online diet evaluation. Our team of qualified equine nutritionists is here to help you balance your horse’s diet, ensuring their needs are effectively met.

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References

  1. Ameen, C. et al. In search of the ‘great horse’: A zooarchaeological assessment of horses from England (AD 300–1650). Int J Osteoarchaeol. 2021.
  2. Aberle, K. et al. Phylogenetic relationships of German heavy draught horse breeds inferred from mitochondrial DNA D-loop variation. J Anim Breed Genet. 2007.
  3. Mota-Rojas, D. et al. The Use of Draught Animals in Rural Labour. Animals. 2021.
  4. Kander, A. et al. Energy availability from livestock and agricultural productivity in Europe, 1815–1913: a new comparison. Econ Hist Rev. 2011.
  5. Lefebvre, D. et al. Tail docking in horses: a review of the issues. Animal. 2007.
  6. McCue, M. et al. Glycogen Synthase 1 (GYS1) Mutation in Diverse Breeds with Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy. J Vet Intern Med. 2008.
  7. Spirito, F. et al. Animal Models for Skin Blistering Conditions: Absence of Laminin 5 Causes Hereditary Junctional Mechanobullous Disease in the Belgian Horse. J Investig Dermatol. 2002.
  8. Bys, M. et al. Chronic Progressive Lymphedema in Belgian Draft Horses: Understanding and Managing a Challenging Disease. Vet Sci. 2023.
  9. Firschman, A. et al. Prevalences and clinical signs of polysaccharide storage myopathy and shivers in Belgian Draft Horses. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2005.
  10. Sheridan, C. et al. Survey of ocular abnormalities in draft horses. Vet Ophthalmol. 2022.
  11. Hackett, E. et al. Exercising upper respiratory videoendoscopic findings of 50 competition draught horses with abnormal respiratory noise and/or poor performance. Equine Vet J. 2018.
  12. O’Donovan, K. et al. Risk of anesthesia-related complications in draft horses: a retrospective, single-center analysis. Vet Anaesth Analg. 2023.
  13. Senderska-Plonowska, M. et al. The Differences in Histoarchitecture of Hoof Lamellae between Obese and Lean Draft Horses. Animals. 2022.
  14. National Research Council. Nutrient Requirements of Horses. National Academies. 2007.
  15. McKenzie, E. et al. Optimal Diet of Horses with Chronic Exertional Myopathies. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 2009.