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by Jil Wiedemann
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The big, bonny Clydesdale Horse is a famous draft horse breed from Scotland. The breed was created in the eighteenth century to work mainly in industry. These heavy horses also worked in agriculture, plowing the land and drawing carts. Powerful and good-natured, the Clydesdale Horse soon became popular as a work horse in many other countries. Though they once existed in tens of thousands, the Clydesdale Horse is a rare sight today. However, enthusiasts are working hard to make sure these gorgeous horses do not become extinct.

History and Origins of the Clydesdale Horse

Clydesdales are named after the River Clyde in Scotland. This river flows through the region of Lanarkshire. The breed was developed here in the late eighteenth century, at first by a local farmer named Paterson who had a large, strong black stallion. Later, the local landowner, the Duke of Hamilton, who owned coal mines in the area, is said to have imported big strong Flemish stallions which were bred to the local mares. Many of these mares were Galloways working as farm and pack horses. These strong, hardy, pony-sized animals were already vital to the local economy. They were powerful enough to carry loads of coal from the collieries on pack saddles. 

The breeders of the Clydesdale had additional intentions for the new horses. They would draw coal carts on the new hard road surfaces that were being created across Britain. More local farmers and horse breeders began to produce the new larger horses, which were not given the name “Clydesdales” until 1826. The Clydesdale became the draft horse of choice for many in Scotland and Northern England. In fact, the Clydesdale was the first British draft horse breed to get its own stud book, beating the equally famous English Shire Horse. 

In 1878, a year after the founding of the Clydesdale Horse Society, the first publication of stallions and mares and youngstock of the breed was made available. Due to their strength and gentle nature, the horses also became popular across the British Empire, particularly in Canada and Australia, where there were large populations of Scots. They commanded high prices, too. Only when the combustion engine began to take over the jobs previously carried out by horses, did the Clydesdale Horse begin to lose its popularity.

Are Clydesdales going extinct?

From being common across the world in their thousands, the global population of Clydesdales is now just 5000 horses. This puts them into the “at-risk” and “vulnerable to extinction” categories. They are on the watch list of organizations, such as the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Clydesdale horses for sale

Clydesdale Conformation: Height and Strength

Most modern Clydesdales are between 16 and 18 hands (64 to 72 inches/163 to 183 cm) high. However, some are even taller and have entered the books as record-breakers. A Canadian Clydesdale called Poe reached an astonishing 20.2 hands high (80.8 inches/205 cm). They can weigh over 2300 lb/1043 kg. Clydesdales were bred to draw heavy loads, which requires upright, well-defined shoulders and withers. 

Since they were often working on hard roads, their feet and legs needed to be as strong as iron. The legs and pastern joints are flexible and powerful, giving them vigorously high steps. Today, the Clydesdale is noted among the draft breeds for its vitality. The quarters and back legs, with turned-in hocks, give them the strength and power to get heavy loads moving. In profile, their face is straight, with a long upper lip, soft, inquisitive muzzle, and large ears.

Clydesdale horse: head side view

Clysedales are large and strong horses with a lot of power. Nevertheless, they usually have a gentle disposition.

Characteristics of the Clydesdale

Clydesdale Horses have an unmistakable expression, which conveys gentleness and curiosity. Their coats are often a rich brown with splashes of white, and they have a blaze and white feathers, which are not as full as their English counterparts, the Shire Horses. Clydesdales are reliable and intelligent workers. Speed is, perhaps, not associated with Clydesdales. However, mine owners and industrialists needed more than their coal and other items to be transported. 

They needed commodities to be moved as quickly as possible, and in the days before steam railways, strong, fast horses were valued. Clydesdales could pull over a ton in weight at the rate of five miles an hour. This was much more efficient than using pack horses or ponies. Since some of their ancestors were the fast Galloways of Southwest Scotland, perhaps this was the source of their animated walk and good stride. Today, Clydesdales even have their own Grand National Race, a very impressive sight.

Video of Clydesdale

Why are Clydesdales so big?

Breeders selected horses in order to produce a large breed. Big, strong horses were needed when industries such as coal mining, and iron and steel manufacturing, grew during the Industrial Revolution.

Breeding and Uses

Clydesdale Horses were created primarily from imported draft stallions and local mares. This made them hardy and strong, with plenty of stamina to work for long periods drawing heavy loads. While they were (and still are) used in agricultural work, their main area of service is as urban draft horses. In this capacity, they have worked as brewery horses, railway horses, and delivery horses.

 They are also used as drum horses by the band of the Queen’s Household Cavalry, due to their impressive size and sensible nature. Today they work in agriculture, logging, and the heritage sector. Some still carry out their traditional work as dray horses. The Budweiser Clydesdales are famous across the world, and everyone looks forward to finding out what their next adventure will be in the company’s advertisements. Clydesdales are increasingly popular as riding horses.

Clydesdale horse: grazing on a meadow

Most Clydesdales are between 16 and 18 hands (64 to 72 inches/163 to 183 cm) high. They can weigh over 2300 lb/1043 kg

Clydesdale Horses – Diet and Nutrition

Thanks to their breeding, Clydesdales are relatively easy to keep. However, all large horses require more food than smaller ones, and they need more acreage if they are kept at grass. A minimum of 1.5% of body weight in forage daily is required. The forage should be top quality, and in hard work, they will need more carbohydrates and protein.

Are Clydesdale horses friendly?

Clydesdales have a reputation for being some of the friendliest horses around. It’s essential for all working horses to be willing and to get on well with their handlers. The bigger they are, the more important it is that they have a good nature, and enjoy the company of humans while working.

Health and Behavior

Everyone loves to see a Clydesdale with beautiful white feathers on the legs. However, it takes a lot of care and commitment to keep them that way. Clydesdales are prone to leg problems common to many horses with feathers. These include mallenders and sallenders, conditions that occur at the back of the knee and on the hock as a result of the over-production of keratin. 

They can also suffer badly from mites, and in extreme cases, this may lead to a condition called chronic progressive lymphodema, or CPL, which may need veterinary treatment. Otherwise, they are generally healthy and relaxed horses and can live to be 20 years or more. However, big horses inevitably mean greater costs in feed, shoeing, and general care than smaller ones.

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