First Aid Guide for Draft Horses


Accidents, injuries, and illnesses are part of horse ownership. When an emergency arises, you’ll need to know how to respond, especially when a veterinarian can’t be reached or can’t get to the horse for an extended period.

Accidents, injuries, and illnesses are part of horse ownership. When an emergency arises, you’ll need to know how to respond, especially when a veterinarian can’t be reached or can’t get to the horse for an extended period.

“For this reason alone, every horse owner should be able to administer basic first aid,” said Steve Adair, DVM, an associate professor of equine surgery at the University of Tennessee (UT).

Being proficient in administering first aid means you’ll be able to handle minor cuts and scrapes on your own and that you’ll be able to provide basic care to keep your horse comfortable until the veterinarian arrives.

In his role at UT, Dr. Adair has worked extensively with draft breeds. For 30 years, he and other veterinarians at the University of Tennessee have overseen the famous Budweiser Clydesdales’ health. In this article, he highlights first aid appropriate for draft horse owners.

Horse’s vital signs

Regardless of the injury, infection or illness, it’s critical to familiarize yourself with a horse’s vital signs. Monitoring a horse’s temperature, pulse (heart rate) and respiration rate (TPR) provide insight into the severity of the situation and can provide an early indication of illness.

Dr. Adair says the resting temperature for a healthy adult horse is 99.5-101.5 F. Always include a thermometer in your first aid kit and have extra batteries on hand for digital models.

The heart rate for a horse at rest is 28-44 beats per minute. A horse’s pulse can be observed without a stethoscope, but Dr. Adair recommends keeping one in the barn to make the process easier. If you don’t have a stethoscope, find the horse’s pulse and count the pulsations for 15 seconds. Multiply that by four. If you have a stethoscope, listen for the heart’s “lub dub” sound. Every beat counts as one.

To evaluate the horse’s respiration rate, watch the horse’s chest move in and out. One exhale and inhale equals one breath. The respiration rate is 10-24 breaths per minute.

“If you suspect the horse is not feeling well, check his vitals twice a day and up to every few hours,” Dr. Adair said.

In addition to monitoring a horse’s TPR, also check the horse’s mucous membrane (gum) color and capillary refill time. Normally, a horse’s gums are pink in color and are moist to the touch. While inspecting his gums, press a finger on the gum line and slowly count how long it takes for color to return after the pressure is released. Gums that are shades of red, blue and even white can indicate a problem. An abnormal color combined with longer capillary refill times, typically means the horse is in shock. Share this information with your veterinarian immediately.


Horses have a natural knack for acquiring cuts, scratches or gouges. Wounds are typically classified by where they are on the horse’s body, for example, head, limb, body. The size of the gash and the amount of blood don’t always accurately depict the severity of the injury. If the wound is severe enough to require veterinary attention, follow your veterinarian’s instructions until he or she arrives because there are instances where they will advise you not to clean a wound.

Horses that are bleeding profusely need immediate attention. Catch the horse and apply pressure to the wound to slow or stop the flow of blood. Never put yourself in danger of getting hurt while tending to a horse’s wounds. Have a handler hold the horse if possible and have plenty of room to stay clear of a thrashing horse.

Prevention is always recommended. Check horse stalls, barns and run-in sheds for sharp edges and take care of dangling tree limbs to limit the opportunity for trouble. Horses will find a way to get injured in even the most well-tended environments. Ask your veterinarian for advice on how to handle potential lacerations before they occur.

Splints and bandages

Various bandage types and applications are available. In the first aid context, they are commonly used to reduce swelling in the legs or as protection for a wound.

“You should be able to apply a bandage or splint in case of lacerations, punctures or broken legs,” Dr. Adair said.

Bandages, for example, may be needed to treat progressive lymphangitis (big leg), a condition that is more common in draft breeds than light breeds. It is identifiable by the noticeable swelling on the rear legs that begin at the hoof and extend all the way up to the stifle. Big leg starts from an infection in a skin wound that spreads into the lymphatic system. Wraps are one part of a treatment protocol for the condition.

The best resource for learning the difference between wraps and how to apply them is your veterinarian. Local cooperative extension and related horse husbandry organizations may also offer workshops on the basics of applying wraps.

Intravenous injections

Giving an intravenous injection is not a task that should be taken lightly or done without speaking with your veterinarian first. However, there may be instances, especially with draft horses, when it may be necessary to administer an IV injection.

Anti-inflammatory medications are often a component of a treatment regimen of big leg and other conditions more prevalent in draft horses including laminitis and myositis.

“You should know how to give an anti-inflammatory intravenous (IV) injection such as banamine,” Dr. Adair said.

It is important to understand dosing and the proper technique for administering IV injections. Giving too much or in the incorrect location can be toxic. Ask your veterinarian for training on how to properly give an injection and only administer under veterinary advice.


Learn to develop a working knowledge of basic first aid techniques. Though such knowledge is never a replacement for veterinary care, it is an essential skill that could one day save your horse’s life.

“Always seek advice from a veterinarian if possible,” Dr. Adair said.

Ask your veterinarian for resources and or training to learn important first aid techniques.

Must-haves in your first aid kit

Keeping a well-stocked first aid kit means that you’ll have the right tools to help your horse in the event of an injury, illness or accident.

Treating wounds quickly is key to reducing the opportunity for infection. Depending on the severity, treatment limits the amount of blood lost. Dr. Adair recommends the following items for treating lacerations and other wounds:

  • Gauze pads
  • Roll cotton
  • Brown gauze
  • Adhesive tape (Elastikon, VetWrap, etc.)
  • Non-adherent wound dressings
  • Leg wraps
  • Scissors
  • White tape
  • Duct Tape
  • Surgical soap (such as betadine scrub)
  • Eye wash
  • Exam gloves

Monitoring your horse’s vital signs is critical to determining the severity of an illness. Keep these items in your first aid kit for easy access:

  • Stethoscope
  • Thermometer and spare batteries for digital versions
  • Stethoscope
  • Hoof Pick

In emergency situations, you may need to free your horse from an entanglement. Dr. Adair suggests including the following items in any first aid kit:

  • Flashlight and spare batteries
  • Hack saw (for trailer in case of wreck and you should cut partition or divider)
  • Utility knife or seatbelt cutter (in case of wreck and you must cut head tie)

The Draft Gratitude Organization: Providing Aged Draft Horses With Retirement Homes

draft horses in horse trailer on the road

The Draft Gratitude organization is committed to providing aged farming draft horses with a retirement home.

Emergencies involving farm animals are unpredictable and no farm is immune. Livestock, including draft horses, can get trapped in floods, building collapses, trailer accidents and fires. Horses, naturally curious animals, can even getting “stuck” in unusual places and may be unable to return to safety on their own. When these situations happen, they can challenge even the most experienced emergency provider or animal handler.

According to the Penn State Extension, which offers large animal rescue training, “In stressful situations, farm animals are very unpredictable and can pose significant danger to themselves, the general public and those individuals that are trying to help or contain them.”

Specialized training is needed to ensure animal safety and the safety to those responding. Rebecca and Jay Roy, founders of Draft Gratitude in Winchester, New Hampshire, recognize the importance of training for first responders. Each spring Draft Gratitude, a nonprofit horse rescue organization, hosts a large animal rescue training (LART). The training is open to local firefighters, first responders and horse enthusiasts.

“Our topic this year was trailer accidents and safe horse hauling. We had mannequin horses and junk trailers to simulate real accidents,” Rebecca said. “We were able to roll the trailers on their sides and have our attendees practice extricating the mannequin horses out of the trailer.”

The annual event served two purposes: one, to provide necessary training to first responders. The other purpose was to meet the eligibility requirements for the nationwide celebration of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals’ (ASPCA) Help A Horse Day. Through the ASPCA’s Help A Horse Day program, equine rescues and sanctuaries are encouraged to host an event highlighting the work they do and showing community members how they can help.

“Through this program the ASPCA offers one $25,000 grant, five $10,000 grants and five $5,000 grants as part of Help A Horse Day. We have submitted our grant application in accordance with their guidelines. They will announce their winners in June,” Rebecca said.

The Draft Gratitude organization is committed to providing aged farming draft horses with a retirement home.

“Most of the horses at Draft Gratitude can no longer handle the workload, many from New York and Pennsylvania,” she said.

Roy was raised on a small farm in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, where her family raised dairy replacement heifers. The family also owned draft horses, pigs and chickens. “Our draft horses did some farming work and some pulling. Draft horses have always held a special spot in my heart,” she said.

As an adult, Rebecca purchased her first draft horse from a neighbor who had bought a mare named Rita at an auction. The aged mare was underweight and needed attention. “I regularly saw her as I passed by the farm. I finally stopped and found out she was for sale,” she said.

During the six years that Rebecca owned Rita, she developed a trusting relationship with the horse who gave most handlers a hard time. “Rita battled scratches on her hind legs. She trusted me to handle her legs to care for her, but always gave the veterinarian and farrier a hard time,” she said.

After six years of caring for Rita, Rebecca knew it was time to let the mare go. As winter was approaching, Rita struggled to maintain her weight and Rebecca made the decision to euthanize her. “It was such a difficult decision and I wondered if it was the right thing to do,” she said. “That winter turned out to be an extremely harsh winter, and I was thankful to have made the decision when I did because it would not have gone well for her.”

For several years after Rita’s passing, Rebecca thought of the mare often. She’d begun an application to get approved as a nonprofit, but it wasn’t until 2014 that she completed it and officially launched her draft horse rescue. In three short years, the rescue has served 25 horses and in 2017 was named a grant recipient of the Doris Day Animal Foundation.

“It’s amazing how it has snowballed from where we started,” she said.

The rescue occasionally buys horses at auctions. She acknowledged that not all retired horses end up at slaughter auctions, but she emphasized that an unwanted horse is at very high risk for being slaughtered and people should know that when they place their horse.

“We also have been building relationships in some farming communities offering to take an unwanted to draft horse directly off the farm and compensate them the same as they would bring at an auction,” Rebecca said. “It’s a win-win because the horse doesn’t have to be exposed to sick horses at an auction, and we arrange our own hauling.”

Draft Gratitude reserves its resources for draft horses, specifically aged draft horses. The horses taken in are often 15 years or older, but that doesn’t mean they no longer have a purpose.

“Older horses tend to be calm and well-trained and are good for companionship, trail riding, homesteading and pleasure driving, which could be pulling a light two- or four-wheel cart for hobby,” she said.

The facilities at Draft Gratitude can house between 12 and 15 horses at a time, but between 10 and 12 horses is comfortable financially. Rebecca said the focus is on quality care rather than quantity. By maintaining a smaller herd size, she is able to provide the routine and often times additional medical care the horses need. Depending on the horse and its physical condition, it may be offered for adoption, one way that she is able to keep the herd size manageable. “They are adopted out with a contract that does not allow breeding. We have the first option to take the horse back if the home doesn’t work out, and all of our adopted horses are microchipped,” she said.

For horses that are “lifers” and those that are in transition but need veterinary and farrier care, Draft Gratitude invites interested individuals to help support the organization. It’s easy to get involved. Several feed companies will donate to the rescue for every feed tag submitted. If you feed Nutrena brand feeds, save the sewn tag from the bottom of the bag. Tags from horse, cow, pig, chicken feeds and even dog food are eligible.

Legends, Triple Crown, Tribute and Southern States are other brands that will also donate. For these companies, cut the proof of purchase out of the bag and mail the tags and/or proof of purchases to Draft Gratitude, 148 Ashuelot Street, Winchester, NH 03470.

Caring for Senior Draft Horses


Aging for horses, as with humans, aging isn’t always graceful or easy or fun. But, the good news is that a combination of routine care and a little TLC can keep senior horses healthy, comfortable and productive.

Aging for horses, as with humans, aging isn’t always graceful or easy or fun. But, the good news is that a combination of routine care and a little TLC can keep senior horses healthy, comfortable and productive.

“Senior horses are going to have good days and bad days. We all do,” said Michael Stone, D.V.M. “Don’t write them off before their time; keep up on their preventatives.”

Stone, veterinarian and owner of Oak Harbor Veterinary Hospital, Inc. in Oak Harbor, Ohio, and owner of Belgian breeding farm, Oak Haven Belgians in Fremont, Ohio, says that senior draft horses can thrive with the appropriate care. In this article, he shares insights into the challenges that senior horses may experience and offers tips for keeping geriatric draft horses comfortable and healthy in their later years.

The golden years

In 2016, the Horse Network reported the passing of the world’s oldest living horse. Orchid, a Thoroughbred/Arabian cross, was living at the Remus Horse Sanctuary in Ingatestone, Essex, U.K. The retired broodmare was believed to be the world’s oldest equine when she passed away at the ripe old age of 50.

With Orchid’s lifespan an exception, Stone said it’s highly unlikely that draft horse breeds will live five decades like Orchid did. A half-century is even a long time for light horse breeds. He noted that he has seen Belgians live into their mid-20s, but notes that the majority of draft horses live to be 18 or 19.

Like large breed dogs, draft horses have shorter life expectancies than their smaller breed cousins. Strain on the musculoskeletal system, colic and heart problems tend to accelerate the aging process in draft horses. Routine care, such as dental care, wellness exams and practices, and nutrition, slows these age-related processes.

“Without regular floating of the horse’s teeth they can get quite sharp and painful. They may not be able to masticate their hay appropriately, (which) can lead to colic or nutritional issues,” Stone said.

Senior horses are also prone to developing periodontal disease, one of the most painful equine diseases. Horses are stoic when it comes to dentition problems. They may still eat despite a fractured tooth of periodontal disease. Regular checkups are important to prevent unnecessary suffering.

Nutrition is another aspect of routine care that should be monitored. As with humans, an older horse’s metabolism slows. “It’s important to make sure they’re not getting overly obese, which can cause problems with moving around and fire up arthritic conditions,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, senior horses may have difficulty keeping weight on. Losing weight can be attributed to dental problems and herd dynamics.

“It’s important to make sure they are not getting too thin, especially if they are grouped with other horses and low on the pecking order,” he said.

Nutrition impacts more than a horse’s weight. “Draft horses are more prone to laminitis so making sure they don’t get too heavy or too rich of feed is very important,” he added.

Sticking to a regular vaccination and deworming routine is as important for senior horses as for younger horses that may travel off the farm. Similar to aging humans, an older horse’s immunity weakens with age.

“Even though they may not be traveling or showing like they used to they are typically housed in close proximity to horses that are traveling, which puts them at risk,” he said.

Read more: Reducing Your Horses’ Risk of Rapid and Unexplained Death

Ouch, that hurts!

Joint pain, inflammation and stiffness are synonymous with aging. Degenerative joint disease can accumulate from years of moving their excess weight and from the concussion of working on hard surfaces. The aches and pains that accumulate from a lifetime of work isn’t limited to show or parade horses. Working horses may also experience an earlier onset of degenerative joint disease.

Providing older horses with lighter workloads and administering nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory can relieve the majority of discomfort.

“I think it is important to keep the horses as active as possible,” Stone said.

But some horses may be stiff and need some anti-inflammatory medications to help them with their mobility.

Keeping them healthy

Typically, draft horses require similar care as lighter breed horses. The biggest difference is their size and with size comes mobility issues and arthritic issues.

“Try to get these senior horses as much fresh air and exercise as possible,” Stone said. Exercise can be as simple as walking from one end of the pasture to another to reach a water tub or hay bale to hand-walking outings around the farm. Exercise encourages a horse’s musculoskeletal health and combats weakening bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Light “work” also keeps obesity in check and helps prevent colic, which can be more common in senior horses.

Before your horse develops an age-related medical condition, get to know his resting temperature, pulse and respiration. Track his vital signs and save them in an easily accessible location.

Read more: First Aid Guide for Draft Horses

Getting Your Draft Horses Ready for Spring


Spring is in the air and your draft horses are chomping at the bit to get back to work. As you select seeds for your crops and outline a schedule for fitting the fields, stop to consider the care your draft horse(s) need.

Spring is in the air and your draft horses are chomping at the bit to get back to work. As you select seeds for your crops and outline a schedule for fitting the fields, stop to consider the care your draft horse(s) need.

Even if you’ve kept your horses working through the winter months, spring is a good time to evaluate their health, inspect their harness and check equipment for any damage or wear.

In Hartland, Vermont, Stephen Leslie and his wife, Kerry Gawalt, look at spring as a time to prepare their Fjord horses for upcoming work in the CSA market garden. The couple has developed a springtime maintenance routine to keep their working horses healthy and sound all year.

In the article that follows, Leslie offers spring-prep expertise to help you start your season off on the right hoof.

Veterinary care

Similar to people, horses should receive an annual wellness exam. During a physical, the veterinarian evaluates the horse’s overall well-being and makes sure the animal has maintained weight through the winter. During this visit, the veterinarian can also make recommendations for a worming program, administer vaccinations and complete an oral exam.

Until recently, rotational worming programs, which included six treatments a year, meant that horses received dewormers year-round. Due to increasing parasite resistance, many veterinarians now recommend a deworming program based on the individual horse, with spring and fall being the most common time for dosing.

“Our horses see the veterinarian regularly for updates on rabies shots. We do all immunization shots ourselves under the supervision of our vet,” he said.

Always ask your veterinarian for guidance as some vaccinations may require a veterinary certificate as proof they were given.

An oral exam can identify any sharp points or dental issues that may have developed. “Spring is when our horses get their teeth floated, which is when the teeth are filed and any sharp points are removed,” he added.

Get fit

“Unlike a tractor, you can’t let your horses sit idle for months in the winter and then expect them to jump right into spring plowing,” Leslie cautioned.

You need to invent ways to keep them useful and active in the winter. Using your horses to clear snow, give sleigh rides, skid firewood, feed out hay to livestock and collect maple sap can keep them in shape in the “off season.”

Without winter chores to maintain fitness, you’ll need to build your horse’s stamina up slowly. One of the most common training devices is the stone boat.

“If you happen to live in a region of the country that has stony soil, then spring training with the stone boat can take on the very practical task of picking rock from the fields,” Leslie said.

He explained that at first, the sled is lightly loaded. Then, over several days and several work sessions, the weight of the load is gradually increased until it approaches the pull of the plow.

“Another excellent early spring work activity for the horses is going over pastures and hayfields with a drag harrow,” he said.

This is good steady work with moderate draft. Leslie uses a flex (chain) harrow and either walks behind it or hitches it to a forecart. On pastures the harrow breaks up old manure pies and on hayfields the harrow disperses fall-spread compost. In both cases, the shallow teeth of the flex harrow will lightly open up the sod to let in air and moisture and encourage grass roots to tiller out.

Building the horses up gradually can also avoid sore shoulders or ligament and tendon injuries and look forward to a healthy and successful farming season for both human and horse. Over exertion is only one of the concerns. Leslie explains that if you ask too much of your horses all at once, sores may develop under the collars or on spots where the harness typically rubs.

“It’s similar to when you break in a new pair of hiking boots, (the horses) might develop blisters on their feet,” he said.

Harness check

Checking the horse’s harness is truly a year-round chore and should be done every time the horse is harnessed. “Leather harness needs to be on a regular schedule of cleaning and oiling,” Leslie said.

You can test a strap by holding it in both hands and turning and twisting to test for excessive wear and tear or dry rot. Any strap or piece that appears dry or cracked should be replaced.

Dry rot is not an issue for harnesses made from synthetic materials dry rot is not an issue. However, many harness sets made out of synthetic materials include some leather components (usually at the points of greatest contact such as on the inside of the breeching) and these parts do require cleaning and oiling to keep them supple.

“Leather harness has passionate advocates for many good reasons but synthetic harness is definitely low maintenance by comparison,” he said.

In addition to checking for damage, harnesses should regularly be checked for proper fit. Cloth collar pads can be used to a certain extent to adjust the fit, in particular if the horse loses or gains weight with the change of seasons.

Horses that are idle over the winter may gain weight. In this case, you may need one collar for spring work and another for when the horse gets back in shape with daily work.

“We take pains to manage the horse’s weight year-round so that it does not fluctuate much at all. This is better for their health and simplifies collar and harness fitting,” he said.

As long as the fit is right, you can exchange collars from horse to horse, but it is best to let each horse have her own. Over time the collar will assume the shape of the horse that wears it.

“Achieving a proper fit of bit, bridle, collar and harness is essential to attaining efficient and sustained work from your horses,” he said.

Read more: Can I Ride My Draft Horse?

Equipment check

Generally, you want to maintain horse-drawn equipment the same way you would any machinery used in the woods or on the farm.

“If you have a farm shop, winter is a great time to bring equipment in, give it the once over and make necessary repairs,” Leslie said.

Equipment that has a lot of moving parts, like a cultivator or mowing machine, should be greased and oiled throughout the growing season. The machinery will operate more smoothly, be less prone to breakage and be easier for the horses to pull.

The same is true for farm equipment that has shanks, teeth, plow shares, etc. When the parts designed to move through the soil are kept sharpened or replaced, they will work with less resistance and lighten the draft for your working animals.

“On pieces of horse-drawn equipment that have a wooden tongue these components should be on a replacement schedule,” he said.

Even if the wood appears sound it may be vulnerable to dry rot over time. Other safety considerations with horse drawn machinery pertain to hitch points. Bolts, hitch pins, etc., that hold the pieces together such as eveners and yokes should be checked regularly for wear.

“Even a really solid team of horses may get rattled if a doubletree suddenly snaps loose and slams into their fetlocks,” he said.

Learn more

Good horse husbandry is a year-round process, but in some regions cold and snow can interrupt a good routine. Spring is the ideal time to get back to basics and take the time to prepare for a successful and safe farming season. Your veterinarian, other draft horse owners and educational events are good venues for learning more about caring for your draft horses. Leslie has authored two books, “The New Horse-Powered Farm” and “Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century,” which also offer detailed information to help your horse-powered farm running smoothly.

Read more: Do Draft Horses Need Dental Care?

Understanding Nutrition for Working Horses

horse grazing

Performance, racing and high-strung light breed horses often require high-energy feeds to maintain healthy body conditions.

Horses are grazing animals designed to obtain nourishment by eating fiber-rich forage. With the domestication of horses, meals have evolved to include a combination of grass, hay and processed feeds. Performance, racing and high-strung light breed horses often require high-energy feeds to maintain healthy body conditions.

Conversely, draft breeds, even working draft horses, require less energy than their smaller counterparts.

“When it comes to daily calories, draft horses require slightly less calories pound for pound than a comparably sized light horse,” said Beth Valentine, DVM, Ph.D., an expert in draft horse nutrition and professor of anatomic pathology at Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The way a draft horse’s metabolism functions accounts for the most significant difference. “Draft horses have a slower metabolism than riding horses. They are more even tempered and have a different fight or flight instinct,” added Michael R. Stone, DVM and owner of Oak Haven Belgians in Fremont, Ohio.

“There is a general consensus that while a draft horse may eat more than a light horse because they are larger animals, their energy requirements are lower on a pound for pound basis,” said Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research.

Estimating rations

Rations for all horses are determined with mathematical formulas. For light horse owners, Valentine said that you can estimate the daily calorie needs for your draft horse(s) by the calorie intake of similarly sized light horses. An accepted standard of calorie intake in relation to body weight exists for light horses. Using the accepted light horse standards, the target calorie total is multiplied by 0.75 to determine the daily needs for draft horses.

“As an example, the maintenance diet of a 1,000 pound light horse is 15,000 calories per day,” she said, adding that “the maintenance diet for a 2,000 pound draft horse is (2 ×15,000) × 0.75 = 22,500 calories per day.”

A chart of standard daily caloric requirements has been developed and is available in Valentine’s book, “Draft Horses: An Owner’s Manual.” “There is a table of estimated calorie needs for light horses and draft horses published in the book,” she said.

Once you identify the calories your draft needs to maintain his body condition, it’s important to translate that into the pounds of forage (hay and grass) the horse needs each day. Typically, draft horses need between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent of their body weight in forage. “For example, if your draft horse weighs 2,000 pounds you multiply that by .015. That equals a minimum of 30 pounds of forage on a dry matter basis the horse needs each day,” Crandell said.

Some draft horses can thrive on hay and or grass without needing a feed. Good quality hay will go a long way in meeting your horse’s nutritional needs. “I personally like feeding high quality grass hay with some alfalfa mix,” Stone added.

Draft horses that are able to maintain healthy body conditions on pasture and hay alone often require additional supplements to compensate for minerals and vitamins lacking in the forage. Many areas in the United States have soils that are deficient in selenium and low in other trace minerals like copper and zinc. However, it is important to work with your veterinarian to determine the appropriate amount for your horse. Providing too much selenium can be toxic. “A good mineral supplement or a ration balancer can help provide the other trace minerals as well as selenium,” Crandell said.

Valentine often recommends additional vitamin E even for horses kept on pasture and or alfalfa products, which are naturally high in vitamin E content. “Extra vitamin E never hurts and sometimes helps. I recommend 1 IU vitamin E per pound of horse each day,” she said.

In addition to concentrates that compensate for lacking minerals or vitamins, some horses may need additional supplements. “If hoof quality is an issue, I recommend a hoof supplement with methionine as well as biotin,” Valentine said.

Working horses that are pulling or straining to move heavy loads may benefit from joint supplements. “The key is to only use supplements when they are needed,” Crandell noted.

Special considerations

“As it turns out, two-thirds of all draft related horses are ‘metabolically different’ and prone to developing a muscle issue known as equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (EPSM, also called EPSSM and PSSM),” Valentine said.

“Equine polysaccharide storage myopathy is an abnormal glucose metabolism in the horse which leads to excessive glycogen storage in muscle cells,” Stone said. “Clinical signs are similar to tying up.”

The disease can also be found in other breeds such as draft crosses, warmbloods and quarter horses. Symptoms can vary among breeds. Before much was known about the condition, it was called “Monday morning sickness.” The biggest challenge with EPSM in draft horses is that the animals are stoic and symptoms can be subtle. Clinical signs include muscle soreness and weakness in muscles. Left untreated, the condition is potentially fatal.

During research in 2000 Valentine discovered that EPSM is strongly linked to nutrition. “These horses need a high fat and fiber, low starch and sugar diet,” she explained. “Alfalfa, hay pellets, senior feeds or other low starch and sugar commercial feeds are best.”

“For a horse with recognized EPSM issues, I recommend adding 1 pound of fat per 1,000 pounds of horse each day,” she said.

The least expensive method of doing this is by adding soy, canola or corn oil. “Two cups of oil is 1 pound of fat. You want to introduce the fat slowly and increase it gradually,” she suggested.

Even horses that have not been diagnosed with EPSM can benefit from added fat. For non-EPSM horses, she recommends adding at least ½ pound of fat per 1,000 pounds of body weight each day. Crandell cautioned that ” feeding dietary fat to a horse that is already overweight may exacerbate a condition, insulin resistance, which is common in obese horses.”

Plentiful turnout and consistent exercise are important components to managing horses diagnosed with EPSM. “These horses do better with regular, steady work,” Stone said. “It’s best to avoid giving long bouts of stall rest and then a quick return to work.”

Learn more

Draft horses are generally considered “easy keepers” in comparison with their light horse counterparts, requiring fewer commercial feeds. Despite needing fewer calories to maintain a healthy body condition, it’s important to recognize the metabolic differences between draft horses and light horses.

Understanding EPSM, its symptoms and triggers are keys to keeping draft horses healthy. Work with your regular veterinarian to develop a daily ration that meets all of your horse’s needs. Genetic testing is available to determine whether a horse has EPSM.

This test looks for a change in a GYS1 (glycogen synthase 1) gene, which identifies some, but not all EPSM horses. A negative test does not necessarily rule out EPSM. Muscle biopsy, or a response to diet change, can identify these GYS1 negative EPSM horses. Once diagnosed, diet and exercise changes can take nearly four months to take effect. “All too often the first sign of a problem is when it is too late. That is why I recommend this type of diet for all draft-related horses,” Valentine concluded.

Do Draft Horses Need Dental Care?


Most horses today do not have the opportunity to graze for hours at a time, thus leading to increased opportunities for dental problems.

When was the last time you visited the dentist? For many, it was within the last six months to follow the widely accepted twice-a-year check-up schedule.

Does that rule also apply to your draft horse?

“All horses, including drafts, should be checked every six months,” said Meredith Barlow, EqDT, IAED/C, licensed by the Virginia State Veterinary Board to perform Equine Dentistry, and certified by the International Association of Equine Dentistry. “Routine dentistry should occur at least annually.”

During regular dental exams, the horse’s mouth is examined for sharp points and malocclusions. Malocclusions are defined as an imperfect positioning of teeth when the jaw is closed. “Draft horses often have less major dental issues than smaller breed equines. This is likely due to the large size of their heads. More simply put, their teeth fit in their heads,” she said.

Routine exams

As herbivores, horses are naturally grazing animals. Before humans domesticated and confined them, they grazed nearly 16-18 hours each day. Positioned with their heads down, snipping blades of grass and chewing in a circular motion, a horse’s chewing action naturally wears teeth evenly.

Most horses today do not have the opportunity to graze for hours at a time, thus leading to increased opportunities for dental problems. Limited access to grass, combined with rations of grain and hay fed at regulated intervals and from elevated racks or nets, contribute to changing the angle at which a horse chews and consequently, changing the natural wear patterns of their teeth, resulting in sharp edges.

Regular dental check-ups can identify and even correct uneven dental wear. “A basic examination includes an oral palpitation and should be done using a full mouth speculum and a head lamp,” Barlow said. “Sedation, by a licensed veterinarian, may be necessary to perform a complete and thorough exam.”

A sedative keeps the horse quiet, limits head tossing and helps reduce anxiety that the horse may experience.

At the start of the exam, a speculum is slid into the horse’s mouth that is designed to gently open the horse’s jaw and hold it open. Barlow explained that during an initial examination, a veterinarian will look for issues including periodontal disease, loose or diseased teeth, open pulps, or fractured teeth. “This is why the three part exam is so important, the speculum, light, and palpation,” she said.

Depending on the horse’s age and frequency of dental check-ups, it’s likely he will need his teeth floated to remove any sharp or uneven edges. “Drafts, like all equines, should have their teeth floated,” Barlow said.

Floating is the process of removing sharp edges that can injure the soft tissue in a horse’s mouth. A rasp or file is used to smooth out uneven edges. “Floating also reduces equilibrated, defined as overlong teeth, and brings them to an appropriate level,” she added.

After a dental exam and or procedure while under sedation the horse should be kept in a stall or confined area to avoid any injury while groggy. Feed and hay should also be withheld until the horse is fully alert, and there is no risk of choke.

Common dental problems

The list of dental abnormalities is long. Some of the most common dental problems are listed as follows.

Excessive transverse ridges

Teeth with excessive transverse ridges look like an old-fashioned washboard. Although normal and desirable for teeth to have ridges, if ridges become too pronounced they can affect the movement of the mandible and temporal mandible joint. Routine dental procedures can smooth out extreme ridges.


Hooks develop from a misalignment of the molar arcades, commonly caused by an overbite (parrot mouth) or under bite (sow mouth). All herbivores require tooth opposition to wear teeth evenly. The portion of the tooth not in contact with an opposing tooth will become longer, causing extreme discomfort. Left unattended, hooks can lead to weight loss, choke, and potentially colic.

Incisor dental conditions

Incisor dental conditions are caused by various situations, including retained deciduous teeth, traumatic injuries, and even vices like cribbing or wind sucking, and inherited abnormalities. Emergency situations like a kick to the face are treated on a case-by-case basis. Uneven wear from vices can be corrected by a veterinarian or equine dentist and by altering the horse’s environment to limit cribbing and wind sucking.

Parrot Mouth

A horse with a parrot mouth has upper incisors that protrude or hang over the lower incisors. Horses with a parrot mouth also tend to have large upper hooks and large lower hooks on the molar arcades.


Ramps are similar to hooks, but more gradual in slope. Ramps on the lower cheek teeth can cause pinching of the soft tissue and will limit movement of the mandible.

Sharp enamel points

Nearly all horses develop sharp enamel points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and on the inside of the lower cheek teeth over time as the horse’s teeth erupt. Regular dental check-ups and routine care can eliminate sharp points on teeth.

Wolf teeth

Wolf teeth can interfere with the bit and are often removed. In horses under 3 years old, wolf teeth can easily be completely removed. Extracting wolf teeth in older horse can become problematic as the teeth become firmly attached to the bone below.


Aside from scheduling routine dental exams, there is little horse owners can do to maintain healthy teeth. “Owners should always keep a close eye on their horse’s eating habits and remember that keeping up with annual maintenance and biannual checks is the best thing they can do for healthy teeth, and a healthy horse,” Barlow said.

Dental problems not only cause discomfort in your horse’s mouth, but can also affect the horse’s movement, and musculoskeletal structures of the neck and back, causing pain, stiffness and inflammation. A combination of physical and behavioral changes can suggest there is an issue with your horse’s teeth.

It’s often impossible to see when a horse is in the early stages of dental problems. “Horses are prey animals and do all they can to hide pain and discomfort,” she said.

As dental problems progress or an acute problem develops, they may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:


  • Dropping grain while chewing
  • Weight loss
  • Excess salivation
  • Foul breath
  • Facial swelling


  • Head tossing with the bit
  • Tilting of the head
  • Grabbing the bit
  • Uncooperative while working


Because the symptoms of dental problems may also be signs of other issues, it’s important to work with a veterinarian to determine the true cause of discomfort. Schedule dental exams for the same time as other regular scheduled barn calls to be sure checkups aren’t forgotten throughout the year.

Breed Spotlight: Clydesdale


The Clydesdale is widely known in the United States for its role as the official Budweiser hitch horse.

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.”

Read more: Breed Spotlight: Percheron

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.

Read more: Breed Spotlight: Shires

Photo: georgeclerk/istock

Winter Care for Draft Horses


Photo: Cynthia Baldauf/istock

Horses are naturally designed to survive the winter months. As fewer hours of daylight are available, the horse’s internal clock sounds the alarm to grow more hair. The horse’s coat provides a natural defense against colder weather.

“The long winter hair coat serves as insulation by reducing the loss of body heat and provides the first line of defense against the cold,” said Ann Swinker, Ph.D., Penn State Extension equine specialist. In 2016, Swinker received the American Horse Council’s (AHC) Van Ness Award in recognition of her leadership and service to the horse industry.

The hair loses its insulating quality when the horse becomes wet and/or is covered in mud, she added.

“There is an old misnomer that a horse that is muddy and caked with dirt is better prepared for winter,” Swinker said, “but that’s not a good idea. It’s better to brush off the mud so the hair can fluff up and provide the insulation it is designed to.”

Horses also have a layer of fat beneath the skin. Along with the long hair, the fat provides an extra lining from the cold. In fact, horses prefer cooler temperatures to warm, sultry days.

“Humans are most comfortable when it’s between 60 and 80 degrees. Horses actually prefer cooler weather and are most comfortable between 30 (and) 70 degrees,” Swinker said.

Swinker noted that even though horses are naturally wired to sustain the winter months, it’s important to provide a few essentials to keep the horses healthy.

“The three most important things for horses in the winter are water, feed and shelter,” she said.

Even though horses are naturally designed to acclimate to colder weather, it’s important to provide basic care to keep them healthy and comfortable during the winter months.

Water and feed

During the summer, it’s easy and convenient to regularly visit the barn or pasture. Especially when the horses are used in the fields or woods, you’re paying particular attention to the water and feed they consume. It’s equally important to monitor their water supply throughout the day in the winter months. Mature riding horses need as much as 10 gallons of water per day and draft horses consume at least – if not more – than that amount.

“Without water, a horse can likely only survive for about three days,” Swinker said.

Horses expend water through the saliva needed to digest hay and feed and a well-hydrated horse can better fend off hypothermia. Horses prefer water that is around 40 degrees. Heated water troughs and/or automatic waterers are the least labor intensive method of providing an ample supply of drinking water.

“Check the tank daily to make sure the heater isn’t shorting out and shocking the horse,” Swinker said.

Though the current is not likely high enough voltage to physically harm the horse, an electric shock is going to deter the horse from drinking out of that tub.

If electrical service is not be available for heaters or automatic waterers, it’s even more important to check the water supply throughout the day. Placing two or three 5-gallon pails per horse in the pasture is another alternative. Once the buckets freeze, bring them into a heated garage to defrost or grab a hammer and knock the ice out. Buy enough buckets so that water is available while other (buckets) are thawing. In situations where streams and other natural water sources are the main means for providing water, plan on checking the source throughout the day and breaking any ice.

“It’s best to create a plan for providing plenty of water before winter sets in,” she said.

Forage intake is as important as water consumption. It is the digestion of hay that produces heat to keep the horse warm, which means a horse’s caloric intake will increase. Draft horses typically need between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of their body weight in forage each day. For example, if your draft horse weighs 2,000 pounds, multiply that by 0.15. That equals a minimum of 30 pounds of dry forage a day. But, they may need more than that to maintain their weight in colder months.

“If they seem to be losing weight, you’ll need to increase that to make sure they are consuming enough calories,” she said.

Providing the right amount of feed and hay is important. Overfeeding can be as detrimental as underfeeding. “Overfeeding can cause too much weight gain and lead to laminitis and other health problems,” she said.

Ask your veterinarian for guidance in creating a ration for your horse in the winter months if you’re concerned about his body condition.


Horses need shelter from cold winds, rain and snow for their long coats, and extra fat to keep them warm.

While we might feel chilled at the thought of snow sitting on our back, Swinker said that’s actually a sign the horse is healthy when he’s outside in the winter.

“If you don’t see snow on the back and it has melted off, that means the horse may not be doing well or has a fever,” she said.

Damp weather can lead to rain rot and other skin problems.

“If left unchecked, rain rot can result in hair loss and irrigation,” she said, “it’s important to keep the horse from losing its hair coat, so regularly check for signs of skin conditions.”

Shelter is a must, but it’s not necessary to keep the horses in a closed barn. A three-sided shed or a row of trees can be equally effective in providing enough shelter from the elements. A run-in shed should be built so that it opens away from the normal wind patterns.

“Horses kept outside with a shelter generally have fewer respiratory disease problems than horses kept in poorly ventilated, heated barns,” she said.

Stalls inside are equally acceptable as long as they are well-ventilated and not drafty. “Horses need fresh air. Avoid insulating the barn tightly, but also make sure it’s not overly drafty,” she said.

Don’t neglect routine care

It’s important to continue regular care through the winter months even if the horse isn’t worked as hard as it is the remainder of the year. Even though he may not be working as hard or as frequently, hooves are still growing. “In the winter, the horse is traveling on uneven, frozen ground that can crack and break feet so regular visits from the farrier are important,” Swinker said.

Some horses, either because they are still working or because they have poor hooves, require shoes.

Ask the farrier for shoes that provide traction on ice or snow; snow pads may also be added beneath the hoof to limit the build-up of snow balls in the hoof.

“The most important thing is, do not just turn horses out and forget about them,” Swinker said. “Every day at feeding at least give them a visual examination.”

Breed Spotlight: Shires


The Shire horse fell from well over a million to just a few thousand horses by the 1960s.

There was a time when the Bengal Tigers population outnumbered Shire horses worldwide. That’s according to Tom D. Greenlee Jr. He and his wife, Charity, own Greenlee Farms Shires in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, and he serves on the American Shire Horse Association board of directors.

According to the Shire Horse Society in England, the Shire horse fell from well over a million to just a few thousand horses by the 1960s. Today, there are nearly 3,000 Shire horses in the United States based on statistics published on the American Shire Horse Association’s website (ASHA).

Although among the smallest draft breed by population, the Shire horse has historically been known as one of the tallest. Reportedly, the largest horse to ever live was a Shire named Sampson. The colt was foaled in 1846 in Toddington Mills, Bedfordshire, England. By age four, he weighed 3,360 pounds and matured to 21½ hands. He was renamed “Mammoth,” to more accurately depict his size.

A few modern-day horses are giving him a run for his money. Based on the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the tallest horse alive today is Jake, a Belgian. He is just over 20 hands tall. Jake claimed that title when he was measured at Smokey Hollow Farm in Poynette, Wisconsin, in January 2010.

“Even though a Shire horse doesn’t currently hold the record, they are on average the tallest draft breed,” said Vicky McCaffrey, DVM. She and husband Gene own Ox Kill Farm in Schoharie, New York.

Height isn’t the only trait for which the Shires have records.

“The largest load of wood ever hauled on ice was done by a Shire horse,” she said.

In 1924, a single Shire in England pulled 29 tons, the equivalent of 58,000 pounds, and a team of Shire horses pulled 50 tons at the same trial. Later that year at the Iowa State Fair, a team recorded 38,960 pounds or 17 tons.

Widely known for their height and strength, the Shire’s distinctive breed characteristics make it a favorite among enthusiasts who use this type of horse to work fields, to haul logs, in a show hitch, under saddle in dressage and much more.

Breed standard

Shire horses are widely known for the heavy feathering on their lower legs and for their long-leggedness and strength.

“The feathers developed in England and offered natural protection from the boggy ground and underbrush in the woods,” McCaffrey said.

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 that can be avoided.

“Rinsing dirt out of the legs can help prevent scratches,” Greenlee said, “but you have to be careful with the products used because certain soaps will dry out their skin and may cause other issues.”

Based on ASHA’s breed standards, Shires are most commonly black, brown, bay or gray. In rare occasions, Shires can be chestnut or sorrel.

“They look very similar to a Clydesdale,” Greenlee said. “There are a lot of hitches that have as many Shires in them as they do Clydesdales and you can’t tell the difference between them.”

Excessive white or roaning are considered undesirable markings and the Shire must reach a minimum of 16.2 hands tall, but can exceed 17 hands. The Shire, like every other breed of horse, has different conformation types or builds that make the horse better suited for the job.

“Shires have an Old English build that is short and stocky and well-suited for farm work or logging,” Greenlee said. “They have a slightly shorter back and neck and are a bit broader.”

The modern Shire build has a longer neck, tends to be taller and is more refined. These horses are used for show and dressage.

“It’s the same breed, just a different style. The one that is best suited for you depends on what you want to do with it,” he added.

Shires at work

Shire enthusiasts love the breed not only for the genetic characteristics, but also for their easygoing, willing approach to work. “They figure out what you need and want quickly,” McCaffrey said.

When the McCaffreys purchased Babe, a mare used by a logger in Vermont, the husband and wife couple witnessed the Shire’s natural instinct to problem-solve.

“We took Babe out into the woods to collect firewood for the house. If a log was lodged against another tree, she tried on her own to maneuver it free,” she said. “First Babe would take two to three steps left, then two or three steps right to jockey the log free. If she didn’t succeed, she’d wait for us to help.”

Individuals who work with Shires regularly have reported being able to send the horses with a log to the drop-off point to a handler at the other end who’d free the log, and the horse would turn around and return into the woods all on their own.

Get involved

The best way to get involved with working any draft animal for field or logging work is to observe and learn from those already using draft horses.

“I encourage people to look around the area where they live for someone who is using draft horses in the same manner they would like to,” Greenlee said. “Spend time learning from them before jumping in.”

Throughout the year there are a variety of draft horse events open to the public. Each year Greenlee spends nearly a week at the New York State Fair with several of his Shires competing and introducing the breeds to the public. The annual Keystone International Livestock Exposition in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, every October is another event that features hitch horses. And, in November, the Equine Affaire held at the Eastern States Exposition Center in West Springfield, Massachusetts offers a breed showcase that includes a Shire.

“Historic museums also tend to offer plowing, logging and other working draft horse demonstrations,” he said. “It’s also good to call ASHA. We are always willing to connect newcomers with a breeder or owner already participating in an activity they are interested in.”

Read more: Breed Spotlight: Belgian Horses

 Photo courtesy of ASHA

Breed Spotlight: Percheron


Le Perche, on old French province, is considered the “cradle of the breed”

Training is the most important consideration when choosing which draft horse breed is the right fit for your farming or woodlot enterprise. For those just starting out with drafts, the horse(s) should be quiet and well-trained with many “miles” in the harness. Conversely, experienced draft horse handlers have the skills needed to handle green or untrained horses.

“There’s a horse out there for every person’s ability,” said David Brown, president of the Percheron Horse Association of America.

Often, an equally important consideration is the horse’s breed. Each draft horse breed has a unique history and is well loved for its breed specific characteristics. Conformation, appearance and ability to withstand hard work are among the reasons people choose Percherons.

“We chose the breed because of their look,” said Skylar Clemens. “They can go from farm to show, which is great for parades and other events. They are also smart and have a gentle disposition.”

Clemens and his parents rely on Charlie and Travis, a team of Percheron geldings, to work the family’s 6-acre market garden and hay fields on their Pennsylvania farm.

Erika Marczak, a Connecticut-based farmer agreed. “They are classy and rugged and if I break down in the field I can ride them home,” she said.

For the past five years, she has looked to her four Percherons to work her corn, small grains and vegetable fields. Brown said Percherons – who are also good for logging – are popular because of the traits they inherited from medieval ancestors. “Percherons are one of the few drafts that can be traced back to the Arabians,” he said.

Arabians are known for having tremendous heart and long-lasting endurance. Their intelligence makes them particularly well suited for woodlots.

“When they are working in the woods, the handler can tie up the lines, and once a log is attached they can point the horses to the handler on the other end and the horses will walk right to them,” he said. “Once the log is dropped, the horse can be turned around and sent back for another.”

Carriage drivers often opt for Percherons because of their photogenic nature. For example, on Mackinac Island in Michigan where vehicles aren’t allowed, gray Percherons are the horse of choice for the livery service that greets visitors at the dock and delivers them to their lodging.

“I asked one of the drivers why they chose gray Percherons and he told me because they are more photogenic and reflect the light much better for tourists trying to snap pictures,” Brown said.

History of the breed

Le Perche, on old French province, is considered the “cradle of the breed.” Le Perche is approximately 50 miles southwest of Paris and is bordered by Normandy on the northeast and the Beauce country, known as the granary of France, on the east.

While Percherons are usually black or gray, they can also be sorrel, bay or roan. Many Percherons have white markings on the head and feet, but excessive white is undesirable. On average, Percherons range in height from 15 to 19 hands high and can weigh up to 2,600 pounds with the average being around 1,900.

Unlike their other draft cousins, the Percheron horse does not have feathering on the lower legs. Feathering is the long hairs that are common in draft horse breeds that can almost cover the hooves.

Feathering is highly sought after and increases a horse’s value in some breeds, but Percheron breeders and owners value no feathering.

The extra hair holds moisture, creating a damp environment where fungus can thrive creating a condition known as scratches. “Percherons tend to work in damp conditions so their lack of feathers makes them less susceptible to scratches,” Brown said.

Getting started with Percherons

Working with horses takes a lot of practice. “Find a good mentor who will let you watch them work,” Marczak said.

Those who own and work Percherons consider themselves a family who is welcoming of newcomers and willing to share their expertise.

“I try to know someone in every state,” Brown said. “That way when we get a letter from someone interested in getting involved with Percherons, I can connect them with a breeder.”

The national association registers nearly 1,000 new horses each year. In 1954, a mere 85 horses were recorded and the breed in the United States was in danger of disappearing. A group of devoted enthusiasts rallied to preserve the breed. Today the breed enjoys a healthy interest and the tight-knit group is eager to embrace newcomers.

The Draft Animal Power Network is another resource for those working with draft horses. The group maintains a website, an online forum, a Facebook group and a page for the Draft Animal Power Field Days and other events in the Northeast.

“It is a great way to find a mentor in your area and has helped countless people find the information that they need to get started or to expand on existing knowledge,” Marczak said.

In general, Percherons don’t require care that is any different from any other horse. There are always exceptions, but Brown noted that feeding the recommended rate of 25 pounds of dry feed per 1,000 pounds of body weight is a good starting place for determining rations. “That means each Percheron will eat about a bale of hay a day,” he said.

Clemens has also found it helpful to feed minerals to his team of Percherons. “Minerals really help make a horse’s coat nice, which makes it a lot easier to get a horse ready for a show or parade,” he said. “That along with a good bath really makes a horse look nice.”

Once you have the horsemanship skills to safely work with a team of Percherons, Clemens offers tips for successfully working in a vegetable field. “Start with jobs that if you mess up a little, it won’t hurt as much,” he said. “That applies to all types of work.”

Since Clemens primarily uses the horses for tillage and cultivation in the market garden, proper row spacing is key.

Learn more

Every four years, the Percheron Horse Association of America hosts the World Percheron Congress. More than 1,000 Percheron horses are on display and compete in various events from obstacle courses to a pulling contest, log skidding, show cart and under saddle classes. The next Congress will take place Oct. 8-13, 2018, at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa. For more about the Percheron horse, contact the Percheron Horse Association of America at (740) 694-3602.

Read more: Breed Spotlight: Belgian Horses