If humans could invent a machine that would willingly work, run on renewable fuel and produce new versions of itself to replace older models, why wouldn’t we? In the draft horse, Mother Nature has provided these very things, ready for work and with centuries of proven performance. Horses also make great companions for humans and even produce organic soil-enriching fertilizer as a byproduct of their work.
The term “draft” applies not only to horses, but also to any animals that pull heavy workloads. The draft breeds of horses were developed for heavy work over centuries of human influence. Draft breeds, such as the Belgian, Clydesdale, Suffolk Punch and Percheron, are the heaviest of all equines, with thick muscular bodies and relatively short legs perfect for pulling large loads. (See Suffolk Draft Horse Farming.) The disposition of draft horses also is well suited to this role, as they tend to be slower to react in every circumstance than their hotblooded and thinner cousins, such as thoroughbreds, Arabians and quarter horses.
Working with draft breeds is regaining popularity in North America, even though industrial machines long ago took over the horses’ essential position in the human world. Their resurgence can be attributed to a growing desire for more environmentally sound agricultural practices, as well as the horses’ sheer beauty.
The many generations of human/horse interaction are evident whenever these gentle giants work in a forest, field or even prance in a parade. Whether pulling carts, plows or logs, these equines have a great work ethic imprinted at the genetic level. Capable trainers who develop strong relationships with their horses often find them at the gate in the morning, ready to be harnessed and curious about the day’s endeavors. Some horse trainers can become so attuned to their teams that communication between them becomes nearly telepathic.
Humans generally enjoy watching draft horses work — there’s just something about these magnificent creatures that stirs people. To see animals 15 times our size with feet as big as a human head gently agreeing to be harnessed and directed to work is truly awe-inspiring. Combine several of these slick-coated giants into a team with shiny, well-oiled harnesses, then watch as they bear into their collars, dig in their hooves and tuck their chins to move a heavy load, and it’s easy to see why the draft breeds remain popular for their roles in parades, festivities and horse-pulling competitions.
In addition to show uses, draft breeds remain valuable work animals. The Amish community maintains the tradition of using horsepower for agricultural purposes. And in the American West, draft horses still work on ranches to haul cattle feed and chuck wagons for working cowboys. To gaze upon these giants tilling a field or pulling a log is not only a way to view the past alive today, but also a firsthand glimpse into a sustainable way of life that could return as a necessary part of our future.