Clydesdale horses were developed in the early 1700’s by the 6th Duke of Hamilton, a Scottish peer which controlled the district of Clydesdale, now known as Lanarkshire near the river Clyde. He imported six stallions from Flanders to his estate. These were almost certainly Brabant horses, and Belgian Drafts. His wealthy family bred them to some of the best local Galloway mares they owned. Then in 1715, Scotsman John Paterson of Lochlyloch brought a Flemish stallion north from England, black in colour with a white face and some white on his legs. The resulting cross produced large horses, brown or black in colour with white markings on their faces and legs. A horse foaled in 1810 called Glancer (also known as Thompson’s Black Horse) is found in the pedigree of many modern Clydesdales.

Bob Langrish photo

The first recorded use of the name ‘Clydesdale’ for the breed was in 1826, which was the dawn of the industrial age and a time when strong horses were essential for factory jobs and for hauling heavy loads.  The big horses fetched top prices at auctions and they slowly spread through much of Scotland and into northern England right alongside the mills and commerce. The Clydesdale Horse Society was formally launched in June 1877 in an age when factories were moving overseas. During this decade thousands of the strong horses were exported to developing countries, especially to commonwealth nations that were colonies with Australia and New Zealand at the top of the list.

At one time, Scotland had around 140,000 part- or fullbred Clydesdales working on farms and in towns and cities. Clydesdales were conscripted by the army to serve in World War I and those animals must have had a terrible time in the trenches. Their numbers further started to fall as transportation and technology changed farming. Following World War II, the number of Clydesdale breeding stallions in England plummeted from more than 200 in 1946 to 80 in 1949. In 1975, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust listed them as vulnerable to extinction, where they remain today, with just 500-900 animals in the UK. Worldwide, their numbers are slowly climbing, thanks to exports to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States, but with only about 5,000 in the entire world the breed is still considered threatened.

A Contemporary Account of the Clydesdale Breed

woods, 1853 sketch of Clydesdale horse, Prince AlbertA fascinating description of the breed appears in an 1864 British treatise entitled, The Complete Grazier And Farmer’s And Cattle-Breeder’s Assistant, by William Youatt and R S Burn. The authors report: ‘The Clydesdale or Lanarkshire race are strong, active, hardy animals, of the middle size, remarkably steady, true pullers, usually of sound constitution, and well adapted for all the purposes of husbandry; indeed, for the purposes of the farm, they cannot be surpassed. They are, therefore, deservedly in esteem among the northern farmers, particularly on heavy soils; they are not, however, so active, nor so well adapted for light land, as the Clevelands; neither are they so handsome. Their prevailing faults are a tendency to length of limb, and lightness of body, and they are apt to become heated by their work; but, apart from this, they are valuable farm-horses, and will work with more strength and continuance than almost any other kind; but they also require a larger amount of food than others. They are said to have descended from a cross, by one of the Dukes of Hamilton, between some Flemish stallions, imported many years ago, and some Lanarkshire mares, and they derive their appellation from the district on the Clyde where they are chiefly found. The story of their origin is, however, denied by a very intelligent writer on the subject, who considers them an improved breed of the old Lanark species. They have, long ago, made their way into the bordering counties of England, and there can be little doubt that, when their good qualities are more truly appreciated, they will travel still farther south.’

What are Clydesdale horses used for today?

While the heavy horse was originally bred for arduous farm work and industrial toil, they can be found today in remote areas of Canada working as draught horses logging and timbering in regions where it’s not possible or less efficient to operate machinery.  Heavy horse teams are ideal for skidding logs in bogs and marshes in northern Ontario and Quebec. A single horse can skid about 1,500 board-feet (80 logs) while a pair of horses can skid about 3,000 board-feet of hardwood or 160 logs per day.

Budweiser Clydesdales

Budweiser Clydesdale co/ Anheuser-Busch

Clydesdales are most often encountered pulling sleds at maple syrup festivals or giving wagon rides at fall fairs. The Budweiser Clydesdales are a unique equestrian attraction; ten healthy Clydesdale horses pull a twelve-ton wagon.  Anheuser-Busch owns over 250 Clydesdales, kept at various locations throughout the United States, and this is one of the largest herds of Clydesdale horses in the world. The animals are transported around the US and appear at special events including and especially alcohol related holiday celebrations like Oktoberfest and the 16th of January which is the anniversary of the 21st Amendment to the US constitution, the Repeal of Prohibition.

 

Are Clydesdales the world’s biggest horses?

Farrier shoeing Clydesdale horse in barnNot quite. But you could make the argument that Clydesdales are the world’s tallest horses. Shereen Thompson, a horse owner in Tupperville, Ontario won worldwide attention with her Clydesdale named Poe who stood 20.2 hands.  This horse was an outlier as a typical Clydesdale stands 16.1 to 17.1 hands tall on average, and weighs between 1800 and 2,200 lbs which makes it a heavy horse.

Belgian horses are bigger, and bulkier than Clydesdales. A Belgian horse is typically between 16.2 and 17.2 hands (1.6 – 1.7 meters) tall and weighs anywhere from 1,800 to 2,250 pounds (816 kg to 1000 kg). Clydesdales are slightly taller but weigh less. Belgians are slightly larger overall than Clydesdales, but size isn’t the only characteristic that distinguishes the two breeds.

 

Can you ride a Clydesdale horse?

The answer is yes.  Clydesdales are listed among the heavy haulers of the horse world because they were bred for work, and not recreation. But they can also be riding horses.  You won’t see a Clydesdale on the dressage team anytime soon though, that would be like driving a tractor around the ring. Throughout history the Clydesdale was used as a cavalry mount. For example we know they were present at The Battle of Vimy Ridge in World War I as they were mentioned in dispatches and letters home.

We had an old roman-nosed Clydesdale in the transport that was a veteran and had been with the battalion through many battles. He had been wounded, shell-shocked and gassed. Now when he was taken to a bad place that was under fire, he knew what to expect. He would shiver, tremble all over, and break out in a sweat and whinny softly for sympathy. That old Clyde had real courage for he never baulked or refused to go… It seemed to get your goat worse than seeing men cut up. The men have an idea what it is all about but the horses have to take it as it comes and say nothing.” (Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 189)

 

Why are Clydesdale horses’ tails cut short or cropped?

Aesthetics, tradition and transport practicality all factor into the extreme-grooming practice known as docking. horse docking, cropping horse tailsDraft horses tails are sometimes docked, that is to say they are cut unnaturally short to prevent their hair from interfering with carriage rigging and yokes and harnesses for hauling wagons and equipment. Docking is when horse owners cut away the skin, flesh, muscle and even bone underneath the hair. The Budweiser Clydesdales’ tails are not docked. They are just cut short, meaning only hair is removed. Docking is also done for cosmetic purposes, and to keep the horse’s rear end cleaner and more presentable and all this makes such a horse easier to harness. The practice is a little controversial.  Wild horses use their tails for balance and they’ll throw-their-tails to rapidly change direction. It can be weaponized to keep away birds and insects. Domestic horses without proper tails have nothing with which to brush away flies in the stable and this reduces their happiness and also increases their chances of getting infected with fly-born diseases.

 

How fast is a Clydesdale horse?

20 mph. The top recorded speed of a Clydesdale horse is 20 miles per hour.

Bob Langrish photo

This measurement was recently acquired in 2013 at a special exhibition at the Exeter Racecourse in which the National Hunt Club jockeys took to the saddle to ride the heavy horses as part of Exeter’s inaugural Devon Day. They raced many top Clydesdales and 20 mph or 32 km per hour was the highest recorded speed. Compare this to the Guinness World Record for speed which recognizes Winning Brew, a Thoroughbred, as the fastest horse in the world at 43.97 mph, or approx. 71 km/h.

How to recognize a Clydesdale?

Clydesdales hold their noble heads proudly and have well-shaped, alert ears. They have kind, intelligent eyes and a long, well-set neck with high crests that lead to high withers. Their strong, short backs and powerful quarters are supported by long legs with silky feathers on their lower legs. They can have either bay, black, or brown coats (rarely chestnut) and it is not uncommon for them to have white patches up their legs and under their belly. Clydesdale’s hooves are very large relative to its size; its a horse with big feet. The breed is noted for its energetic, high-stepping action, which makes it one of the most elegant heavy horses.

Clydesdales and Belgians are commonly confused but the key to differentiating them is their brighter manes and tails. Belgians can be sorrel, chestnut, bay or gray, but the preferred color is a very light chestnut or sorrel color and unlike Clydesdales they tend to have creamy white manes and tails.

For more information, visit:
Clydesdale Horse Society
Clydesdale Horse Assoc. of Canada