Can I Ride My Draft Horse?

Light breed horses are most often bred and raised to become saddle horses. Originally, draft horses, were bred and raised for working in the fields, transporting people and goods and working in the woods. While many draft horse owners today continue to use their heavy horses for similar types of work and/or for competition, there is growing interest in riding the “gentle giants.”

“Yes, you can ride your draft horse(s),” said Teresa Stull, with the Percheron Horse Association of America in Fredericktown, Ohio.

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 are increasingly using draft horses, the diesels of the world, to prevent losing income from potential customers of any size.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to draft owners who have already enjoyed the benefits of riding their hitch horses. “I rode all of the mares that were a part of our six-horse hitch,” said Heather Zahno, of JSM Belgians in Cazenovia, New York.

Each of Zahno’s six mares walked, trotted and cantered under saddle. Despite the encouragement to perform the canter while being ridden, it did not affect the horses’ performance in harness. “They did not randomly break into a canter while pulling a hitch,” she said.

Using specific cues in the saddle versus in harness helped avoid confusion. “I used a different cue when asking for the canter while riding so I did not confuse them when hitched. Cluck to trot, kiss to canter,” she said.

Ready to ride

A seasoned draft horse used to wearing a harness and responding to cues may make a good candidate under saddle. “If they are broke to harness, then half of your battle has already been won. They should already be used to the bit and bridle and also a little of the tightness around the girth,” said Zahno.

Although they are already accustomed to accepting bit and cinch pressure, it is wise to start slow. Stull recommends gently placing the saddle on the horse’s back and lightly tightening the cinch. “Then lead them around for a few minutes and then tighten the cinch a little more until they seem to be used to it,” she added.

The first few times the horse is ridden, it can also be beneficial to have a helper. “I always started out with someone walking with me just in case,” Zahno said.

Because your draft is likely already trained to respond to voice and rein cues, it’s important to remember that they won’t immediately understand leg and seat cues like horses trained to ride. To create a smooth transition and help your draft understand what you’re asking, use voice commands at the same time that you apply leg pressure. “I use voice commands along with leg pressure to help them learn to respond to my leg,” she said.

Specialized equipment

Depending on the size of your draft horse and the tack you already own, you may or may not need to invest in new equipment.

Correct saddle fit is critical to preventing back pain. Many draft horses have wide, broad backs and minimal withers. A saddle designed for smaller, light breed horses may pinch. A veterinarian or local saddle fitter can offer advice when fitting a saddle to your draft. In Zahno’s case, the three saddles she already owned fit her Belgian mares well. The most significant changes she needed to make were to the girt and billet straps.

“For my saddle seat saddle I had to purchase a 56-inch girth and two 6-inch girth extenders to fit around the horses’ bellies,” she said.

The western saddle, too, required minor modifications to the billet strap on the right side of the saddle. “I changed the billet strap to a latigo strap so that I could easily adjust between using it on my Quarter Horse and my Belgians, two totally different body types,” she said.

It is possible to ride your draft with the same bit he is accustomed to in harness. However, if you plan on competing with your horse, the rules of the event may specify which types of bits are acceptable. “I like a kimberwick for English, instead of a driving bit. I also rode saddle seat, so I went with double reins, which meant having a bit that allows for two sets of reins,” Zahno said.

Ultimately, bit choice depends on your horse. “Of the six hitch mares that I started riding, there was only one that I went back to her driving bit because that was the bit she responded best to,” she said.

If you decide to use a different bit while riding you will likely need to purchase a larger bit than one used on a light horse. “A draft is going to need a larger bit to fit in their mouth unless you are using their driving bit,” Stull said.

Finding draft-sized riding equipment is not as difficult as it once was. Amish harness shops are one source for finding a wide variety of equipment built specifically for draft horses. “If they don’t have it, they can usually make it to the size you need,” Stull noted.

Pleasure or competition

If you’re competitive by nature there are plenty of opportunities to show your draft horse. There is not one specific discipline that is better for a draft than another. It boils down to your preference and what your horse enjoys doing. “In general, a slower horse will work better in the western classes and a faster horse will be better suited for English events,” Stull said.

The discipline you choose also depends on your ability as a rider. “A hitch draft will never move like a quarter horse, but with enough miles in the saddle they can be slowed down and lower their heads,” Zahno said.

Like light horses, picking an event the horse is naturally suited for is a win-win for the horse and the rider. For Zahno’s horses, saddle seat was a good fit. Her mares were high-headed and high-stepping, which is what the judges look for in that discipline. And, she did well with her mares.

“If you want to jump and the horse will, then jump. If you want to do dressage, then go for it. I rode my mares western, but it wasn’t their favorite. Do what makes you and your horse happy,” she concluded.

Read more: Training Draft Horses