When most people think of a draught horse, the mental image they most often conjure is that of a Clydesdale. With its enormous, powerful body and distinctive white markings around the legs, it’s a breed that’s found particular fame in the United States selling Budweiser beer – though it first came to be, as its name would suggest, on this side of the Atlantic.
Let’s examine this most distinctive of breeds in closer detail, and see how it might fit into your stable!
Among horse breeds, the Clydesdale is unusual in that it has a wildly-undulating history. Over the course of just a few hundred years, it’s moved from a compact, nimble animal to an enormous one. This evolution has come in response to a demand for Clydesdales in parades – particularly the sort which Budweiser use to sell their product.
The breed’s origin can be traced back to the eighteenth century, to a region of Scotland which is now Lanarkshire. At the time, the region was named after the river Clyde, which runs through it. The breed was named after the region, and the name has stuck. This was a time at which many stallions were being imported from the European mainland. These stallions were larger than the local horses, and so too were the foals that they sired.
In the early 19th century, stallions were taken to breed shows, and the best was awarded a prize. The lucky stallion would then be mated with all of the local mares before being moved onto the next show. In this way, the Clydesdale breed would spread across Scotland and the north of England. By the middle of the century, almost all Scottish draught horses were Clydesdales. Shortly afterwards, Clydesdale societies were formed, first in Scotland and then in America. The breed’s popularity rose from there, and by the 20th century the breed had been exported all over the world – with it enjoying particular popularity in Australia.
Following the end of prohibition in the USA in the 1930s, the Budweiser company used the breed as part of its branding, using them at public events in order to promote the brand. The company have contributed so much to the breed, in fact, that ‘Budweiser Clydesdales’, with their famous colour scheme, are thought by Americans to be synonymous with the breed rather than a narrow subcategory of them.
When it comes to carrying a brand, consistency of appearance is extremely important. For this reason, all of the Budweiser animals look exactly the same – large bay horses with white markings. This is illustrative of the impact a horse’s role can play on its breeding.
The breed was employed heavily in the trenches of World War One, where it was used to carry supplies. After World War II, the breed’s numbers were perilously low, with just a few hundred in the UK. In the seventies, they were considered vulnerable to extinction, as the number of breeding females in the country had dropped beneath a thousand. Happily, this trend has not continued downward – but the breed is still considered vulnerable, and there are fewer than ten thousand of the animals worldwide.
Being a draught horse, the Clydesdale is gigantic. On average, they stand around eighteen hands high, and weigh almost 907kg. They therefore dwarf most other breeds of horse. Most Clydesdales are bay, though other colours do occur. The breed has a straight face, and is well-muscled. Like all draught breeds, it’s incredibly strong, with developed muscles around the neck and shoulders.
Of particular significance are the hooves, which help to give the breed its raised gait. They’re often heavily feathered, with white markings. Getting the desired combination of colours is often quite a struggle for Clydesdale breeders, who will go to great lengths to achieve white spots around the hooves and face without them being introduced elsewhere on the body.
With the advent of mechanisation, draught horses like the Clydesdale have found themselves less useful. After all, there’s not much use for a horse to transport goods when a car will do precisely the same thing, and much better.
But draught horses like the Clydesdale are still capable of doing particular, specialised tasks where cars and other mechanical solutions are impracticable. For example, they’re used in forestry, where they can drag heavy loads through even the densest woodland, and their massive hooves make short work of the uneven forest floor.
Being a draught-horse, the Clydesdale is cold-blooded. It’s not easy for its heart to pump blood around that enormous body quickly, which means that sudden bursts of acceleration are impossible. This makes it unsuitable for racing.
However, this is advantageous when it comes to other applications. Cold-blooded breeds are difficult to faze, and won’t be easily startled. They’re therefore very forgiving, and therefore especially suitable for new riders. Families looking to get young children, and older novices, into the saddle will find them very useful.
Modern Clydesdales are used extensively for shows, where they’re often paraded as a troupe of matching animals. The most famous example of this are the Budweiser parades you might see before a major American sporting event. In the UK, the horses are used by the Household Cavalry in its parade events, most notably to carry drummers. When you consider that a horse carrying out this duty must carry two drums with a combined weight of a hundred kilos, and rider as well, it’s easy to see why such an enormously powerful animal might be required!
Generally speaking, the Clydesdale is a healthy breed. That said, they are predisposed toward one disease in particular, which deserve mention.
Lymphedema is a disease which Clydesdale horses are predisposed toward, whose symptoms include thick skin, swelling and lesions on the legs. It’s thought to be connected with a genetic abnormality, but its exact root cause is unknown. As such, there is no cure for it, though in some cases its symptoms have been reduced through treatment.