The Draft horse, also called the Draught horse or Dray horse, emerged from heavier equines selectively bred for size and strength in the northern hemisphere to be used for farming, logging and pulling heavy loads. Contrary to popular opinion, the Medieval war horses that carried armoured knights may have provided some bloodlines for the modern draft breeds, but were themselves lighter, quicker horses more reminiscent of modern Andalusians or even Friesians.
Each region developed heavy draft breeds to suit their particular purposes; from Belgium emerged the Belgian, France produced the Percheron, Clydesdales came from Scotland, and Shires and Suffolk Punch were bred in England, Fjords from Norway ‒ all of which are now the draft breeds most commonly seen in North America. Common “light” and “heavy” draft breeds found worldwide (and their country of origin) include:
American Cream Draft (USA)
Dutch Draft (Netherlands)
Irish Draft (Ireland)
Italian Heavy Draft (Italy)
North Swedish Horse (Sweden)
Polish Draft (Poland)
Rhenish-German Coldblood (Germany)
Russian Heavy Draft (Russia)
Schleswig Holstein (Germany)
South German Coldblood (Germany)
Soviet Heavy Draft (Russia)
Spotted Draft (USA)
Suffolk Horse (England)
Vladimir Heavy Draft (Russia)
Due to increasing mechanization in the 20th century and two World Wars which saw draft horses killed on the battlefield or slaughtered for food, many breeds slipped into a significant decline.
Draft horses are extremely heavily-boned, muscular and strong, with powerful hindquarters, short backs, and large, strong hooves. Most have feathering on the lower legs, either a convex or straight face, and come in a variety of colours and even patterns depending on their specific breed. They tend to possess tranquil temperaments, and are naturally curious, tolerant, and willing to learn.
Typically standing between 15.2-20 hands, a Shire born in 1848 named Mammoth (Sampson), reportedly stood a world-record 21.2 hands and weighed 1,524 kgs (3,360 lb).
The size and sheer strength of the draft breeds made them a valuable source of horsepower for farming, hauling, and military use. Beginning in the late 19th century, thousands of draft horses were exported to North America from Europe and draft registries were formed which still exist today. Some communities, such as the Amish and Mennonites, still use draft horses for farming chores, and they are also employed for logging in remote areas. Draft horses are used for transportation on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, a popular tourist destination where motorized vehicles are not allowed.
Draft breeds are used for pulling contests at shows and county fairs, in harness for both pleasure driving and in competition, shown in-hand at breed shows and ridden or driven in parades.