The Clydesdale is widely known in the United States for its role as the official Budweiser hitch horse. The iconic 10-horse hitch, which features bay horses with black manes and tails, white blazes, four white legs and flowing leg feathers, has captured the hearts of fans around the country.

From their Super Bowl commercial appearances to their tour stops across the country, the Budweiser Clydesdales have cast a national spotlight on the breed.But long before the Clydesdale became synonymous with Budweiser, this draft breed played an integral role in farming communities along the banks of the River Clyde in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

According to the Budweiser website, the Clydesdale breed was founded by 19th century Scottish farmers. “(These farmers) bred the Great Flemish horse, the forerunner of the Clydesdale. These first draft horses pulled loads of more than one ton at a walking speed of five miles per hour. Soon their reputation spread beyond the Scottish borders. In the mid-1800s, Canadians of Scottish descent brought the first Clydesdales to the United States where the draft horses resumed their existence on farms.”

The Clydesdale Horse Society, located in the United Kingdom, reports that the breed also played an integral role in World War I, serving with deployed army units. By World War II, mechanized horsepower displaced the four-legged horses, and the population began to dwindle.

“During the 1960s and early 1970s, breed numbers dwindled and in 1975, the Clydesdale was categorized by the Rare Breed Survival Trust as “vulnerable.” Over the years and with the increase in breed numbers, it is now categorized as ‘at risk.'”

Thanks to American breeders and enthusiasts loyal to the Clydesdale, the breed has the strongest numbers in the United States, with about 600 new horses registered with the association each year.

“The Clydesdale is a great breed because it is gentle and curious, intelligent and steadfast,” said Win Lake of Willow Grove Farm in Long Valley, New Jersey. “Those traits are important to a farmer or teamster.”

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Clydesdale characteristics

The most common Clydesdale coat color is bay. Horses can also have black, brown, chestnut or roan colored coats. The preferred markings are four white socks that extend to the knees and hocks, and a well-defined blaze or bald face.

Feathers, the long hairs on the lower legs, distinguish the Clydesdale from other draft breeds, except the Shire. “The Clydesdale and the Shire are like cousins,” Lake said. “They can look very similar.”

The feathers developed in Scotland offered natural protection from the boggy ground and underbrush in the woods. The extra hair can make the horses more prone to scratches, a fairly common skin disease found on the heels and back of the pastern, but with regular maintenance, it can be avoided.

Regularly rinsing the dirt out of the feathers can help prevent scratches. Carefully choose the cleansing products used, because certain soaps can dry out their skin and can lead to other issues.

Lake explains that in addition to the flowing leg feathering, Clydesdales are most well-known for the hoof size. “They have a little bit bigger foot than the other draft breeds,” he said.

The Clydesdale Breeders of America compares the Clydesdale’s hoof to the size of a dinner plate. The association’s website explains that the hoof weighs approximately 5 pounds and is approximately four times larger than the hoof of a thoroughbred race horse.

Traditionally, draft horses naturally have strong hooves and don’t need shoes. However, years of selective breeding focused on cosmetics rather than conformation and utility has increased the number of draft horses that require shoes year-round to keep the horses sound.

For the show ring, Scotch bottom shoes are often used. These shoes are straight across the toe, full at the toe, wide and heavy to accentuate the horse’s movements in the show ring. Horses wearing these shoes are encouraged to grow longer, flared hooves, which contribute to stride action. Working horses may use Scotch bottom shoes, especially when working in soft ground. A fuller toe and a boxy shape prevent horses from sinking into the ground. The term “Scotch bottom” literally means that the edge of the shoe is beveled or angled to meet the angle of the foot. Given the strong tradition of working horses in the soft ground of Scotland, this shoe was a standard option.

“Scotch bottom shoeing is somewhat controversial and people have differing opinions on the topic,” Lake said.

It’s best to work with a veterinarian and farrier to determine the best shoe option for your Clydesdale.

Clydesdales today

The majority of Clydesdales in the United States are used for showing, carriage services and breeding purposes. But, as Lake has discovered, they also are well-suited for trail riding strings. At his stable in Long Valley, New Jersey, he exclusively uses Clydesdales for trail rides.

“The Clydesdale is like a Labrador Retriever; the horses are gentle and steadfast,” he said. “Their laidback demeanor makes them suitable for novices.”

The Clydesdale’s size makes them well-suited for public trail riding strings. In fact, ranch operations that provide guided trail rides are increasingly adding draft horses to their string. In April 2014, several ranch hands told reporters from The Guardian that they are increasingly using draft horses, the diesels of the world, to prevent losing income from potential customers of any size. In addition to temperament and size, Clydesdales add a “uniqueness” factor that Lake believes sets his stable apart from others.

“People know the Clydesdale breed because of Budweiser, and they think it’s neat to be able to ride these horses that look like their famous cousins,” he said.

Get involved

At the height of the show season, Clydesdales can be found competing at state and county fairs. Attending these events offers an opportunity to observe, learn and ask questions. Each April, The Clydesdale Breeders of the United States holds its annual meeting and National Clydesdale Sale in April, and The Clydesdale Breeders hosts a Fall Classic Draft Horse Sale in October.

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