The Modern Draught Heavy Horse
The 20th century saw wild swings in the fortunes of the working horse. From its heyday in the first quarter, when it was the engine of industry in a way which is generally under-appreciated, to its decline during the war years, its near disappearance in the 1950s and 1960s and its revival in the 1970s and 1980s, the future of working horses has been at the impulse of man and his inventions.
The 1990s can probably be seen as a period of consolidation of those revival years.
Despite recession and the dramatic effects on agriculture of various public health scares affecting the finances of many heavy horse owners, the numbers and activities of draught horses appear to have been maintained. As at other times in the past, the tenacity of individuals and a few organisations have been responsible for the survival of this draught animal in roles which may appear incongruous in the modern age.
There are fewer modern horsemen than there were of course, and the tasks for which they use their horses are often different to those of the past. The role of the working horse, whether a Shire, a native pony or a working cross, is evolving and changing in response to a changing world.
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Great interest is now being shown in developing modern machinery suitable for horse-drawn use. The indomitable machines of the horse age remain in use on smallholdings throughout the UK, but new equipment has been developed for today’s agricultural situations. Some modern machinery has been imported from the USA, Scandinavia and Eastern European countries where horse-drawn equipment continued to evolve during the low point of the draught horse in the UK.
Today’s world of the working horse is a kaleidoscope of activity, albeit specialist and small-scale. From breeding draught horses, through shows, parades, matches and workings, leisure activities, marketing and promotion, to agriculture, horticulture and forestry, each aspect has an important part to play and contributes to a new role for the working horse.
Table of Contents
- 1 Breeding Heavy Horses
- 2 Forestry and the Working Horse
- 3 Agriculture and Horticulture
- 4 Shows, Parades, Ploughing Matches and Workings
- 5 Skills Tests, Obstacle Driving, Timber Snigging and Cross-country Trials
- 6 Leisure
- 7 Marketing and Promotion
- 8 Public Authorities
- 9 Other Activities
- 10 Putting the Horse Before the Cart
Breeding Heavy Horses
The breeding of pedigree draught horses remains predominantly in the hands of those who saved them during the 1950s and 1960s and their successors, very often sons or daughters. Yet the traditional ways, which are still important, are giving ground to modern techniques. Greater mobility within the UK means that mare owners are prepared to travel many miles to a suitable, or fashionable, stallion. Stallions, once ‘walked’ to mares at local farms, but now they stand at stud either with their owner or with a society which hires them for a season.
Other stallions, not of championship quality but sound in all other respects, are probably just as good a sire for most mares, and worth some research before they are rejected. Appropriate stallions can best be found through the secretaries of the various breed societies, which receive financial assistance towards breeding programmes from the Horserace Betting Levy Board.
However, breeding horizons are widening rapidly and AI (artificial insemination) coupled with chilled or frozen semen means that a stallion in eastern Lincolnshire can father a colt or filly in the USA or Australia. The skills and techniques involved in collecting the semen, storing it and transporting it are being refined all the time, and increasing numbers of people in the draught horse world internationally are prepared to pay the comparatively high costs of this new breeding system.
For a Shire owner in Australia it is vital to encourage diversity in breed lines. For a British stallion owner it can be useful income. Exporting genes overseas in this way can sustain a line which has become rare, or even extinct, in its home country. Others point out that it can have the effect of encouraging widespread use of genes from a very few popular stallions, thereby reducing the gene pool rather than widening it.
Breeding pedigree draught horses has its limitations. Demand for them is not high, prices are sometimes low and a future as a meat aninal is all that some young stock can expect. Yet committed new breeders are important, particularly to those breeds with small numbers, such as the Suffolk.
Breeding strategies are complex, and anyone contemplating serious breeding is well advised to contact the appropriate breed society. Cross-breeding is also an important element for the breeders of both stallions and mares to bear in mind. A cross-bred animal can be useful to a wider sector of the population, perhaps as a heavy hunter, a driving horse for leisure use, or for general hacking. Crossing can be an important source of income for the breeder.
In the show ring, judges of all pedigree breeds are looking for certain conformation characteristics. In some breeds this has changed considerably in recent years. The modern Shire is taller, less feathered on the leg, has a narrower chest and less bone than its predecessor, partly through cross-breeding with the Clydesdale, and partly as a result of greater demand as a driven draught horse horse in dray teams and for promotional purposes. Height and silky feathers have given both these breeds a majesty which is attractive, not least to the new European enthusiasts. Some would claim the Suffolk has been bred too tall, compared with its sometimes shorter draught ancestors.
Whilst a tall animal is dramatic in shows, parades and promotions, a shorter, compact, more heavily built animal with a broad chest is necessary for ‘real’ agricultural draught work or in timber extraction. Both types have their place in the modern draught horse world, and breeders need to provide both sorts for the market. Judges at shows should acknowledge the qualities of both. In practice, breeders tend to concentrate on one type or another. Judging tends to favour those being produced for promotional purposes.
Exports of pedigree draught horses increased in the 1970s and 1980s. Clydesdale breeders were very successful at selling to Canada, the USA and Australasia in particular. Some concern is expressed that many of the best animals go overseas. The Shire found a new market in Europe – in Germany, France and the Netherlands especially. In these countries new societies have been established which are affiliated to the mother society in Britain. The USA continues to import Shires, including some notable champion stallions.
The fortunes of the breeds are monitored by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST). The Suffolk is on the priority list in category 1 (critical), and has some 80 breeding females. The Clydesdale is in category 4 (at risk). The Shire remains the most numerous of the heavy breeds, staying off the priority list, but included among minority breeds being constantly monitored. Economic factors could easily shift it into the priority category however, and some, especially its American supporters, believe that its numbers are sufficiently low to cause concern.
Other horses and ponies on the RBST priority or minority lists are the Cleveland Bay, Eriskay, Exmoor, Dales, Irish Draught and Fell, all of which were traditionally used for draught work in their native regions.
The British Percheron, while not a native breed, is given financial help towards breeding programmes by the Horserace Betting Levy Board on the basis that its breeding statistics are comparable to those on the RBST list. Fortunately its relationship with its relatively numerous French cousins give it stability.
Forestry and the Working Horse
Timber extraction by horse has been the surprising growth area in the use of working horses in the UK over the last few decades. From a handful of people in the early 1970s, this activity has grown until the new British Horse Loggers Association was subsumed into the larger, professional Forestry Contractors Association in the mid-1990s – the clearest indication that horses were accepted by the forestry industry.
Prior to that, the Forestry Authority (now know as the Forestry Commission) had carried out technical research surveys into the production levels of horse-drawn extraction operations and found in their favour. Where environmentally sensitive ground, conservation areas or steep sloped were involved, horses were economically sound. Their production levels were less than those of modern machines, but not drastically so. While machinery could still do the job, the damage to the forest floor was unacceptable – imprint of hooves and dragged timber was negligible in comparison.
In addition to the Forestry Authority, the National Trust, Countryside Commission and individual landowners took a serious interest in the use of horses in forestry, sealing its acceptance and putting it on a commercially viable footing.
A number of horsemen used to agricultural work began extracting timber as part of their living, a few eventually turning to the work full-time. Some foresters were prepared to turn away from machines to horses – an important factor, since a knowledge of forestry is vital to horse operations in woodland. Courses encourages the safe efficient practice of horse extraction using horses. There are now some 70 professional horse loggers working throughout Britain.
Agriculture and Horticulture
It is always surprising to those unfamiliar with heavy horses to discover that they still can be found working the land on farms, smallholdings and in market gardens. No middle to large-scale commercial farmer is going to reintroduce horses onto his land, but for smaller farms and those who care for the natural power and quiet friendship which working with a horse can bring, there is still a place for draught animals. In practice, such a farmer will probably also have a tractor in the yard, but for some tasks a working horse is ideal. Harrowing, rolling, cultivating and carting are all jobs for which the horse is suited on small farms. Horses can carry winter feed out to cattle and sheep, keep pasture in good heart, hoe between vegetable or vine rows and move endless objects about the farm, whether gate posts and fencing wire, or pig arks and troughs.
Such a farmer who ‘thinks horse’ will have no difficulty in running his business substantially, or even completely, by horse, comforted in the knowledge that increasing interest in our natural environment and its protection, particularly among the younger generation, may actually lead to an increase in people like him in the future.
Shows, Parades, Ploughing Matches and Workings
Agricultural and specialist heavy horse shows, town parades, ploughing matches and workings present the public face of working horses. Here, those newly interested in working horses can collect much information, both visual and verbal, by watching proceedings and chatting with horse owners.
Heavy horses can be seen at some 250 shows and events annually all over the country. The smaller local shows make an excellent introduction for anyone wanting to show their horse in hand or with a vehicle, while the parades, such as those at Battersea, Portsmouth and Burton-on-Trent, are enormous fun and offer the opportunity of turning out your horse and vehicle to the best of your ability.
Ploughing matches had virtually ceased by the 1950s and 1060s, but were revived by horsemen determined to keep the skills of the ploughman alive. The leader in the field was the Southern Counties Heavy Horse Association (SCHHA), which began as a ploughing association in the early 1970s, and whose rules form the basis of many matches all over England today. The Association’s Great All England Ploughing Match is the largest horses-only ploughing match in the country. Classes for novices are also held.
Workings have also increased in number, especially since the growth of working horse associations. These exist now in the southern, western, eastern, midland and northern counties, all brought together under the umbrella of a newly formed Federation. Their aim is to encourage the working of draught horses and to enable members to meet together for camaraderies and practical horsemanship. Their less competitive native, the fact that they allow the cultivation of suitable fields in the company of like-minded people and the variety of activities which they have encouraged have made them a great success.
Skills Tests, Obstacle Driving, Timber Snigging and Cross-country Trials
At shows, matches and workings, several new activities have been introduced over the last 20 years designed to demonstrate the versatility and usefulness of the working horse and to enable their owners to have fun.
An added impetus was the Shire Horse Society project History with a Future (1985-1988), which was designed to highlight ways in which the draught horse could be used in the future. Obstacle driving and timber snigging, in particular, developed from ideas explored during the project. Obstacle driving involves a single horse or pair of horses driving through a course of cones accurately against the clock. Heats of a national competition take place at different shows during the year, culminating in a championship. Competitors tend to be drawn from show turnout enthusiasts.
Timber snigging is more likely to be found at a working and involves a horse being driven through a course of cones dragging a log, without touching the cones and against the clock. Considerable skill is necessary to achieve a competent round, but it is a highly suitable activity for people relatively new to heavy horses.
Skills tests involve a course of varied hazards and are designed to show the horse’s versatility. Horses pull a two or four-wheeled vehicle through the course, which can involve such skills as accurate backing, loading and unloading, standing and turning ability, steadiness and ability to drive past noisy or distracting obstacles. Such tests can be set up anywhere, usually in a field at a working.
The cross-country trial is the newest of these activities and aims to demonstrate that draught horses can follow a course similar to those for light horse driving marathons, involving skill and endurance. Such relay races are very popular in France, where they have played a significant part in increasing the profile of the draught breeds. In the UK pairs of horses working together in teams tackle the course, typically a UK Chasers Course, involving stretches of trotting and walking, hazards involving water, hill climbs, chicanes and slaloms. Competitors have to finish the course in an optimum time and with as few penalties as possible. Introduced to the UK by Rowena and John McDermott of Hampshire, these trials are now held in that county, in Warwickshire and Sussex, and are fast gaining in popularity. The British Heavy Horse Driving Trials Club has been established. This particular ‘sport’ is exciting to watch, fun to take part in and has much potential for growth.
Draught horses in leisure has probably been the fastest growing new use during the revival period. Quite apart from the fact that horse owners are often showing and working them in their own leisure time, the interest in heavy horses has led to the opening of several heavy horse centres all over the country. The National Shire Horse Centre in Devon was the market leader. Others mushroomed, until nearly every county had its own heavy horse centre, working farm or rare breeds farm centre. Museums of rural life, such as those at Beamish, Co Durham; Acton Scott in Shropshire, the Norfolk Rural Life Museum at Gressenhall and the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex also bought Heavy Horses. At most of these the horses can be seen at work regularly, demonstrating agricultural tasks to their visitors.
Working horses are also in use on the inland waterway system, where they pull barges along canals on quiet country lanes where they draw ‘gypsy’ caravans for holidaymakers and in attractive countryside where heavy horse owners give rides to paying passengers, perhaps with a pub lunch as part of the experience.
Marketing and Promotion
A vital aspect of the heavy horse’s revival was the part the horses themselves played in marketing and promotion. The breweries, which had continued to use them for beer deliveries in towns, led the way, with their heavy horse operations becoming part of their public relations departments. Their appearance in their smart drays in London and other towns where breweries were found publicised the brewery’s products and drew attention to the majestic nature of the animals themselves. Whitbreads, Youngs, Ind Coope, Fullers, Joshua Tetley, Vaux, Thwaites, Samuel Smith’s, to name only a few, have also set the standard by which heavy horse turnouts are to be judged. Sadly, economics have forced a reduction of heavy horse operations, and their activity has been curtailed.
Other companies joined the breweries in making use of heavy horses for marketing and promotion, appearing at shows, in parades and in towns where they were perceived to be beneficial to the sales of their product or service. Rather than run their own teams they have contracted-out the heavy horse operation, a factor which has helped the new professional heavy horse businesses which exist.
Far-sighted local authorities saw the potential of heavy horses on their streets as the revival gathered pace. The City of Aberdeen led the way, with other authorities joining them in running teams of horses in a variety of tasks, such as park maintenance, rubbish clearance, plant watering in town centres and promotion. The public preferred them to polluting lorries and felt their local authority was being environmentally conscious while the same time helping the cause of heavy horses. Local authorities also introduced heavy horses at city farms.
Other public authorities such as the Royal Parks also took on heavy horses for tasks such as timber and ground clearance, harrowing rides and general promotion.
Heavy horse owners have become adept at finding all sorts of uses for their animals and their own enjoyment. Many provide their horse and wagon for weddings, join in with local carnivals and appear at village fetes. Some have provided horse power to harrow sports grounds, where this natural alternative to the tractor does much less damage. Others are engaged in harrowing river beds for their local water and environment agencies to refresh stale fish breeding grounds. Many of these ‘new uses’ are adaptations of what used to happen, and no doubt fresh activities will continue to be found.
Putting the Horse Before the Cart
A potential working horseman will usually have some idea of what he would like to achieve with his equine companion. The heavy horse breeds dominate, but native ponies, or cross-bred horses can be considered. In creating this website it is hoped that those who are new to the world of working horses will find the essentials to lead them into a contented and rewarding life in partnership with these remarkable draught animals.