Heavy Horse In Full Harness
Draft horses may have originated with primitive ancestors such as the Forest Horse and the "draft subtype", wild subspecies that may have descendants as diverse as the large Shire horse and the small but sturdy Shetland pony. These wild prototypes were adapted by natural selection to the cold, damp climates of northern Europe.
Humans domesticated horses and needed them to perform a variety of duties. One type of horse-powered work was the hauling of heavy loads, ploughing fields, and other tasks that required pulling ability. A heavy, calm, patient, well-muscled animal was desired for this work. Conversely, a light, more energetic horse was needed for riding and rapid transport. Thus, to the extent possible, a certain amount of selective breeding was used to develop different types of horses for different types of work.
While it is a common misunderstanding that the Destrier that carried the armoured knight of the Middle Ages had the size and conformation of a modern draft horse, and some of these Medieval war horses may have provided some bloodlines for some of the modern draft breeds, the reality was that the high-spirited, quick-moving Destrier was closer to the size, build, and temperament of a modern Andalusian or Friesian. There also were working farm horses of more phlegmatic temperaments used for pulling military wagons or performing ordinary farm work also provided bloodlines of the modern draft horse. Records indicate that even medieval drafts were not as large as those today. Of the modern draft breeds, the Percheron probably has the closest ties to the medieval war horse.
By the nineteenth century, horses weighing more than 1600 pounds that also moved at a quick pace were in demand. Tall stature, muscular backs, and powerful hindquarters made the draft horse a source of “horsepower” for farming, hauling freight and moving passengers, particularly before railroads came on the scene. Even in the 20th century, draft horses were used for practical work, including over half a million used during World War I to support the military effort.
Beginning in the late 1800s, and with increasing mechanization in the 20th century, especially following World War I in the USA and after World War II in Europe, the popularity of the internal combustion engine, and particularly the tractor, reduced the need for the draft horse. Many were sold to slaughter for horsemeat and a number of breeds went into significant decline.
Today draft horses are most often seen at shows, pulling competition or as exhibition animals pulling large wagons. However, they are making a slow come back and can be seen on some farms who wish to farm with a renewable source of power.