Draft Breeds and Definitions

The VDHMA considers "Draft Breed" as breeds conventionally considered to be animals that have traditionally been bred over the centuries to pull a load.

Therefore, "draft" animals are not necessarily two-ton behemoths, but are also smaller breeds such as Fell Ponies and Gypsy Horses. Traditional draft horse breeds are considered "cold blooded" as opposed to thoroughbreds and Arabians ("hot bloods") or large hunting breeds ("warm bloods") whose ancestors were a mix of draft and hotbloods resulting in size, speed and stamina.

Below we list those which VDHMA considers to be "traditional" equine draft breeds.

The American Cream is the only draft breed indiginous to the United States. It was originally developed at the turn of the 20th century, based on Belgian stock. It is considered a color breed as well - the American Cream should be a light, creamy color with blond or white mane and tail and amber eyes. They are also known for having good, solid feet. It is a medium sized draft breed, generally standing at 16HH and 1500lbs. This is considered a rare, heritage breed, with little more than 300 animals in the U.S.


Belgians are by far the most populous breed of draft horse in the United States today, with some figures putting their numbers above all the other draft breed populations combined. The reasons for their popularity are many: Belgians are big, strong, kind natured, often easy keepers, generally sound as a breed, and simply beautiful. The breed tends to be very tall and broad - averageing anywhere from 17-18HH, and 1800-2200lbs or more, although more manageable sized horses can also be found. They are popular as show hitches, pleasure horses, commericial carriage horses, farm horses, and pulling horses. Although at one time Belgians could be found in almost every color imaginable, today the most common colors are chestnut and sorrel, with the ideal Belgian hitch being a deep sorrel with snow white manes, tails, and points.

Black Forest Horse (Schwarzwälder Füchs)

BearSpiritRanch photo

Dating back 600 years, the Black Forest Horse is native to southern Germany and is considered an ancient cold-blooded breed. They were originally selected for working on farmland and in forestry regions. Today they are mainly used as coach horses and for riding. They are nimble and lively, have a gentle nature, and are very durable and strong. The Black Forest horse is known for its high fertility, is long-lived, and are very easy keepers. Their body color, as suggested by the name, is mostly dark chestnut (German: Kohlfuchs) with light (blonde/flaxen) mane and tail. Their coloring can vary slightly into a sorrel; however the most popular color is the dark chestnut. Black Forest Farmers refer to the Black Forest horses as the “Pearls of the Black Forest” because of their positive/easy nature, gentle disposition, and their sheer elegance and beauty. Link

Genetic studies have shown this breed to be distinct from other German breeds. I predict they may become the next slightly trendy ‘exotic’ horse, following in the footsteps of the Friesians and Irish Gypsy cobs.


The Boulonnais is said to descend from the Arab horses imported by Caesar's legions and which remained along the coasts of the Pas-de-Calais in France. There are two distinct types of Boulonnais: the "wholesale fish merchant" type, light and with great endurance and also a large, powerful horse, developed in the 19th century to work in the beet-fields. Energetic and lively, with a splendid gait, the Boulonnais excells both as a working draught horse and as a prestige animal. It is much admired for its elegant teams in harness.


The Brabant, commonly refered to as the "European Belgian" in this country, is the foundation horse for the American Belgian. Until about 1940, the Brabant and the American Belgian were essentially the same breed of horse. After World War II the American Belgian was bred to be taller, clean legged, and proportionally lighter in weight. By contrast, the European Brabant is thicker bodied and more drafty, with heavy feathering on the legs. Unlike their American cousins, which are generally found in varying degrees of sorrel, the Brabant can be seen in many different colors, including bay, red and blue roan, chestnut and sorrel, and, although rare, black and grey.


The Clydesdale is a breed of draft horse derived from the farm horses of Clydesdale, Scotland, and named after that region. Thought to be over 300 years old, the breed was extensively used for pulling heavy loads in rural, industrial and urban settings, their common use extending into the 1960s when they were still a familiar sight pulling the carts of milk and vegetable vendors.

They have been exported in the Commonwealth and United States where they are famous for their use as the mascot of various beer brands, including Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser brand, Carlton & United Beverages and several others.

At one time there were at least 140,000 Clydesdales known in Scotland; by 1949 just 80 animals were licensed in England and by 1975 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust had listed the breed as "vulnerable". Clydesdales have since seen resurgence in popularity and population, resulting in the breed's status being reclassified favorably as "at risk" with an estimated global population of just 5,000 individuals. Clydesdales are now most numerous in the United States where recently over 600 foals are reportedly born each year.

Close cousins to horses, donkeys have been used by the world's civilizations for thousands of years, and is believed to have originated on the African continent. Mammoth Jackstock was first introduced to this country by George Washington in the late 1700's, when the King of Spain gifted the first president a couple of animals. Mammoths are particularly large, often standing 16HH, and are crossed with draft horse mares to make an exceptional draft mule. Although donkeys are equids, they have a very distinctive sensibility about them, and the handling and training of donkeys is not the same as when dealing with horses. Although grey is a common donkey color, they can be seen in other colors as well, such as black, brown, and even "pinto" markings. Their ears, which can clearly hear sounds up to three miles away, are 2.5 times the length of horses' ears.

Draft Crosses

Draft crosses come in many sizes, colors, and configurations. A cross is generally the progeny of any draft breed mare, such as a Blegian or Percheron, bred with a light breed stud, such as a Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse. The crosses are generally lighter boned and more spirited than the pure draft, and are often used for riding, jumping, dressage, and "light" harness work, such as showing and eventing.

• Pictured at left is ECDHA member Peter von Halem, with a pair of Clydesdale/Hackney crosses.

Photo by Dot Billington, AmeriCan Carriage Driver Magazine

Domesticated more than 4,000 years ago in Norway, the Fjord is one of the oldest breed of horses in the world. They were used by the Vikings, and are very closely related to the Przewalski Horse, the wild horse of Asia. 90% of all Fjords are brown Dun, with zebra stripes on the legs and a dorsal stripe from forelock to tail. Their manes are often cut short, so that they stand up straight, with the center dark hairs higher than the outer white hairs for emphasis. Although the Fjord is not large like the traditional draft breeds, they are strong, with a willing work ethic and great stamina. They generally stand between 14- 14.2HH and weigh anywhere from 900 - 1200lbs. Fjords are not only used for draft purposes, but for riding as well.

Friesians (photo by Jansphotos.fototime.com)

The Friesian horse originated in 500BC in Friesland, a province of the Netherlands (Holland). During the 16th & 17th centuries, Arabian blood was introduced to the breed, most likely through Andalusians of Spain. Since then, Friesian bloodlines have remained pure, with the Friesian Government having set many stringent regulations throughout the centuries, to safeguard good breeding. The Friesian is always black, with no white permissable. Their tails, manes and feathers are always left long. The breed is a very animated one, with a high carriage of the head and neck and high knee action. Being relatively smaller than their other draft cousins, they are exquisite both in harness and under saddle. They stand anywhere from 14.3HH (mares only) to above 16HH, and weigh upwards of 1300 pounds or more.

Gypsy (photo by Jansphotos.fototime.com)

The brightly-colored heavily-feathered horse gets it's name due to the simple fact that it is a horse bred and owned by Eurpoean gypsies. It is called Gypsy Horse, Gypsy Cob, Gypsy Vanner, Irish Cob, Coloured Cob, Tinker Horse, and Romany Horse, to name a few.

There is much speculation as to the origins of the "Gypsy Horse" and there are varying opinions as to what breeds were used to create the horse of today. Most agree that the ancestors of the Gypsy Horse were cold-blooded. Often you will hear that Shire and Clydesdale provided the bone and feather and Dales Pony or Fells Pony provided the smaller stature. Some suggest that there is Trotting Horse influence as well, improving upon the endurance of the draft breeds. It has also been said that the Friesian breed and a pacing breed known as the Galloway may well be involved in the make-up of the Gypsy Horse.

Irish Draught

The breed originated from the Irish Hobby, a small ambling horse with many similarities to the primitive Garrano and Sorraia horses of Northern Spain and Portugal. War horses brought to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman invasions were bred with this local stock and later, additional Iberian blood was incorporated as Spanish horses from the shipwrecked Armadas found their way ashore near Cork and the South West of Ireland. Clydesdale, Thoroughbred and half-bred sires were used on the local Draught mares in the 1800s and early 1900s, and a sprinkling of native Connemara pony blood added to form the breed known as the Irish Draught today.

The breed was bred to be docile, yet strong. They were required not only to perform the farm work of pulling carts and ploughing, but they were also used as riding and hunt horses, and during the Great European Wars, as army artillery horses. Irish Draughts were bred to be economical to keep, surviving on grass and gorse, and on any boiled turnips, oats and bran left over from cattle feed.

Mules and Hinnies

Mules and hinnies are the hybred progeny of crossing horses with donkeys. Breeding a male donkey to a female horse results in a mule; breeding a male horse to a female donkey produces a hinny. The mule has greater endurance and strength than a horse, and tends to be less excitable. Different breeds of horses can be used to produce fine riding mules, heavy draft mules or medium-sized pack animals. In Medieval Europe, when horses were bred large to carry armored knights, mules were preferred by the gentry as riding animals — medieval paintings and tapestries still exist showing ladies riding mules side saddle. In the contemporary US, mules play an important role in rural Amish agriculture, as well as in the commercial carriage industry, which uses mules extensively in cities in the south and southwest. Mules come in all sizes and colors - however, they will typically show the light muzzle coloring of the donkey parent.


Well known in the South German state of Bavaria, the Oberlander Horse is relatively new to North America. The ancestors of the Oberlander horses trace back to the Roman Empire, when Roman warhorses were taken to the Roman province NORICUM, a part of today’s Austria.

There are five breeders of Oberlander horses in North America. In 2005, exactly 59 head of purebred Oberlander horses were to be found on this continent.

The first Production Sale held at Cherry Creek Ranch in July 1999 sold 23 Oberlander. Seven horses were sold to Anheuser and Busch (Budweiser) in St. Louis, MO. The Oberlander are used at Grants Farm Manor as breeding stock, personal horses of Mr. Andrew Busch as well as for pulling sightseeing visitors around the farm in wagons.

The Oberlander Horse Association, established in 1999, is registered in British Columbia, Canada. It is guiding the breeding activities in North America by applying similar breeding standards as practiced in Bavaria.


Percherons were, until the 1930s, the most populous breed of draft horse in the US, with government census of the time showing three times as many Percherons as all the other draft breeds combined. This breed, widely believed to have been established in France during the time of the Mediaeval Crusades with a heavy Arabian and Andalusian influence, was, and still is, recognized as a horse of outstanding substance, soundness, spirit and beauty. Although its ancestors, as with the Belgian, were developed as war horses, it was a very adaptable breed and had gained notoriety over the centuries as coach horses. The contemporary Percheron continues to be popular as a carriage horse, and is just as popular for work, show, pleasure, and under saddle. Percherons come in the colors black, or grey (dapple through white).

Poitevin Mulassier (Photo by Terri Aigner)

This is a french draft breed, of which there are only three to five animals in the United States. They are often crossed with mammoth jacks to get a very sturdy mule. Pictured below is Hercule, demonstrated at the 2009 Old Dominion Draft Horse and Mule Show.

(From Wikipedia) The Poitevin is believed to be a descendent of the ancient Forest Horse of Northern Europe.[2] Today's breed was developed from the crossing of native Poitiers mares with heavy draft stallions imported by the Dutch from the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark for use in land reclamation work. The breed was in danger of extinction during the 1950s, but is now enjoying a revival.[1][3] A descendant of the Flemish horses brought to Poitou in the 17th century to drain the marshes, it is related to the Shire - and hence to the Clydesdale - whose ancestors came from Holland to reclaim the Fens. Whilst most heavy horses were bred for specific purposes - including meat production - the only work required of the Poitevin was that it sired enough mares to provide for the booming mule trade. It has therefore retained all the characteristics of the "primitive" horse, including the rare dun color. It is lighter than most draught horses and its gait is sprightly; The breed has a long back, heavy bone in the legs with abundant feathers and flowing mane and tail.

The Poitevin has been used mainly for the production of Poitevin mules through crossing Poitevin mares with the jacks of the Baudet de Poitou breed. The resulting mules are prized throughout Europe. Poitevins are also bred for the European horsemeat markets.

The Poitevin stands between 15 and 17 hands high, and weighs 1,540 to 1,980 lbs. Their coat is usually gray, bay, black, or shades of dun (called isabella in France, but not to be confused with the cream-gene Palomino), with fairly heavy feathering on their lower legs. Their heads are heavy, with a straight or convex profile set onto a neck that is short and muscular. Their shoulders are sloped, their back is long, straight, and broad, and their croup is long and sloping. Their legs are fairly thick and short, with broad joints and hooves. The breed is not as high-stepping and showy as some other breeds, quoted in old text as being somewhat slow, but it has been used as a reliable work-horse for centuries.

Shire ancestry dates back as far as the Roman Conquest of England. They are a solidly built horse with long legs, prolific feathering, and move in a very flashy manner. They come in all solid colors, as well as grey and roan. Although white legs is common, white above the knee and hocks is generally frowned upon. At one time, they were considered to be the largest horses in the world, with some individuals standing better than 19HH and weighing in at over 2200 pounds. The largest horse on record, according to Rural Heritage, a magazine dedicated to the working draft and oxen, was a Shire named Samson. He stood 21.2 1/2 HH, and weighed in at 3,360 pounds. Although all the other draft breeds can boast of individuals of huge weights and heights, this horse, measured in the year 1850, continues to tower over them all.

Spotted Draft and the Pinto Draft Registry. The breed's characteristics are diverse, in that their build can be more characterized by the influencing draft, such as Percheron/Belgian vs. Clydesdale/Shire body types. The one characteristic that remains constant, however, is the pinto coloring. Spotted drafts exhibit a willingness to work and great endurance. These horses are used for agricultural work, pleasure driving, commercial carriage rides, showing, logging and riding. Although Spotted Drafts have been working American farms since the mid-20th century, the breed registry wasn't established in the USA until 1995. Because of its excellent temperment and flashy looks, the breed continues to gain tremendous popularity.

The Suffolk Punch was developed in England, and is the only breed of draft horse developed specifically for agriculture, as opposed to war. They tend to be shorter and proportionally stockier than most other draft breeds common to the US, and are famous for their exceptionally good feet. Considered to be a rare breed, there are only 1350 Suffolks world-wide, with approximately 1200 in North America. Suffolk Punches are seen in chestnut colors only, with very little white other than stars and snips, stand between 16 - 17HH, and generally weigh between 1600 - 2000 pounds.

Sugarbush Draft

Around the turn of the 20th century there were over 13 million horses in the United States, over half of which were draft or part draft horses. When the US calvary disbanded the herds of the Nez Perce, history holds that they crossed draft horses to the horses of the Native Americans, and dispersed the resulting offspring to be used as plow horses. However, as draft horses lost their place on the American farm, many of the remaining horses were put to use in carriage companies. They pulled decorative carriages for weddings or sight seeing in large towns. One such company, The Sugarbush Hitch Co. was operated by Everett Smith of Ohio. Mr. Smith felt that a fancier horse would draw more attention to his business, and looked at a relatively new breed of horse gaining popularity called the Appaloosa. Many of the Appaloosa horses showed classic signs of draft influence, often being quality draft crosses suitable for carriage work. We look back now, and wonder if those could have been offspring of the Nez Perce dispersal. He chose the finest Percheron bloodlines available to him, and crossed those with quality Appaloosas; those showing the traits he desired such as good bone and larger hooves. Mr. Smith selectively culled his breeding stock, always aiming for a true draft horse with excellent conformation as well as color.

As these horses gained local popularity, they became known as the Sugarbush Horse.