Heavy Horse Breeds

Many distinctive breeds and a whole range of colours await the heavy horse exhibitor. In Britain, the Shire, Clydesdale and Suffolk could be considered the traditional native ‘core’ breeds, with the Percheron growing in popularity from the 1920s onward.

More recently, the Continental Ardennes has also found favour, and this low-slung horse now has more and more show classes in Britain, as it does in its native France. In North America, the Belgian is a highly popular show horse, and it is now appearing in the United Kingdom also.

In addition to these main breeds, we might also consider the Irish Draught, an admirable breed used traditionally for farm work and ploughing matches. Although now the basis of a breeding programme producing top-quality event and performance horses, and perhaps thought of more readily in that light, it is, in fact, the dominant heavy breed of both the Republic of Ireland and Ulster (despite the fact that there are some excellent Clydesdales in the latter region).

Finally, although they are not, by definition, ‘heavy horses’, it is worth considering the Fell and Dales ponies, since both are used in ploughing matches and particularly in classes featuring haymaking machinery – a purpose for which these sturdy breeds were traditionally employed.

How to Choose a Heavy Horse Breed

The heavy breeds are basically lowland breeds; fertile soils are their natural home, and on sparse, wind swept uplands the native breeds of pony are more likely to thrive. This point aside, which breed is the most suitable for the newcomer? To a certain extent, this is unanswerable, since all have their adherents and strong points.

However, for those looking for horses with the avowed intention of showing them, geography is one major consideration. There are two related reasons for this. The first is that, historically, the different breeds developed in (or were introduced to) areas to which they were best suited as working horses. For example, the clean-legged heavy breeds, Suffolk and Percheron, both have strong East Anglian links. The former originated on the heavy clays of its home county, where copious feather on the legs would be a distinct disadvantage.

The latter, a native of France, arrived in Britain in numbers during the 1920s and immediately found a niche on the Fens, where fast-walking, neat-footed animals were required for the comparatively light but accurate row-crop work between small plants drilled in straight lines.

Although this relationship of breed to area has moderated somewhat down the years, it still has a significant impact upon overall distribution. In general terms, the distribution of the main heavy breeds throughout Britain might be summarised as follows

The Suffolk is still based in East Anglia, although there is a sizeable Suffolk community in the south-west, particularly in Dorset. The greatest concentration of Percheron breeders and exhibitors is still to be found in the East Anglian Fens, although Percheron stables have made their mark from Sunderland in the North-East to Hampshire in the south. The Shire is found throughout England and Wales, but only rarely in Scotland, where the Clydesdale is first choice.

Cumbria is another Clydesdale stronghold, and the breed was, historically, in direct competition with the Shire in northern England above a wavering line from Kendal in Cumbria to Whitby on the North Sea cost. Northern Ireland is another region with a high regard for the breed (and some of the best examples). It has some excellent studs, and turnout exhibitors cross the Irish Sea to compete in Scotland. Nowadays, there are also Clydesdale enthusiasts in southern England.

This discussion of distribution brings us to the second reason why geography is a major consideration in choice of breed. It is the pragmatic point that there is much to be said for choosing a breed already found in one’s own area. The way of the pioneer is hard, and to establish a Percheron stud in North Wales, for example, would be to saddle oneself with costs that would not apply in East Anglia.

Travelling to suitable shows would be far more complicated and costly, as would the expense of taking a mare to a top stallion. If you plan to keep heavy horses for fun, that aspect is easier when like-minded people live within range.

Of course, if there were no pioneering spirit, no breeds would ever spread beyond their existing ranges and, as we shall see, there can be certain attractions to involvement with a numerically small breed.

However, the difficulties inherent with going out on a limb should not be underrated.

Characteristics and Standards for the Heavy Horse Breeds

If you intend to acquire a heavy horse, of whatever breed, with the intention of showing it, it is imperative that you are conversant with the standards laid down by the relevant breed society. Even though not all classes are judged exclusively on the horse’s type and conformation, these are inevitably major factors, and there is little chance of success with an animal that is a poor specimen and does not conform to type. (If you already own a horse, and have recently decided that showing might be fun, comparison with the breed standard may help you decide upon the most appropriate classes.)

The characteristics and standards of the main heavy horse breeds are as follows.

Shire Heavy Horse Breed

Three Shire horses galloping across field

To the general public, all heavy horses tend to be ‘Shires’. This is, of course, completely wrong and causes much resentment among Clydesdale, Percheron and Suffolk breeders, who are driven to put notices on their stands reading: ‘This is NOT a Shire’. Matters can become more serious, and relationships further strained, when Shires are blamed for accidents caused by horses of other breeds!

Such issues aside, the hairy-legged Shire is numerically the most common heavy breed in Britain, and is popular not only in England and Wales but also in North America, Australasia and, more recently, in Europe. It is found in bay, brown, black and grey, and suitable specimens abound, albeit sometimes at a price.

A mature Shire is a magnificent animal. It is excellent for showing in-hand, or in halter classes as Canadians, Americans and Australians term them. It is the most popular turnout horse, with well-developed action and flowing movement. For Working Harness or Decorated Harness classes the Shire is admirable, its long, fine feather making an added attraction, its length of mane lending itself to plaiting. In recent times, especially in Europe, it has become sought after for riding, and many big shows now have Ridden Shire classes.

The Shire is a ‘town and country’ horse, equally at home in front of the plough or in crowded city streets. To show one at either your local village event or at the East of England Showground’s National Shire Horse Show near Peterborough is a thrill unlikely to be forgotten.

The Shire Horse Society is an active and forward-looking organisation, welcoming newcomers. It will assist in finding a suitable Shire, and issues a list of members with stock for sale. The Shire world is a highly competitive one, however, and rivalry at the top, in all classes, is very keen indeed. Both skill and money are needed in any attempt to join the top Shire ranks.

Ever since its formation in 1877, the Shire Horse Society has endeavoured to keep up with modern requirements, and its standard of points for Shire horses has been amended when necessary. For instance, years ago, a great characteristic of the Shire was the wealth of hair, or feather, on the legs. Today the demand is for a cleaner-legged horse, with straight, fine, silky hair.

Shire Horse Stallion Breed Standard

The standard of points as laid down by the Shire Horse Society Council is:

ColourBlack, brown, bay or grey. No good stallion should be splashed with large white patches over the body. He must not be roan or chestnut.
HeightStandard 17 hands and upwards. Average about 17.2 hands.
HeadLong and lean, neither too large nor too small, with long neck in proportion to the body. Large jawbone should be avoided.
EyeLarge, well set and docile in expression, Wall eyes not acceptable.
NoseSlightly Roman, nostrils thin and wide; lips together.
EarsLong, lean, sharp and sensitive.
ThroatClean-cut and lean.
ShoulderDeep and oblique, wide enough to support the collar.
NeckLong, slightly arched, well set on to give the horse a commanding appearance.
GirthThe girth varies from 6ft to 8ft (189-244cm) in stallions of from 16.2 to 18 hands.
BackShort, strong and muscular. Should not be dipped or roached.
LoinsStanding well up, denoting good constitution (must not be flat).
Fore-endWide across the chest, with legs well under the body and well enveloped in muscle, or action is impeded.
HindquartersLong and sweeping, wide and full of muscle. Quarters well let down towards the thighs.
RibsRound, deep and well sprung, not flat.
ForelegsShould be as straight as possible down to pastern.
Hind legsHocks should be not too far back and in line with the hindquarters, with ample width broadside and narrow in front. ‘Puffy’ and ‘sickle’ hocks should be avoided. The leg sinews should be clean-cut and hard, like fine cords to touch, and clear of short cannon bones.
BoneOf flat bone 11in (28cm) is ample, although occasionally 12 1/2in (32cm) is recorded – flat bone is heavier and stronger than spongy bone. Hocks must be broad, deep and flat, and set at the correct angle for leverage.
FeetDeep, solid and wide, with thick, open walls. Coronets should be hard and sinewy, with substance.
HairNot too much, fine, straight and silky.

The Official Standard continues:

A good Shire stallion should stand from 16.2 hands upwards, and weigh from 18 cwt to 22 cwt (914-1118 kg) when matured, without being overdone in condition. He should possess a masculine head, and a good crest with sloping, not upright, shoulders running well into the back, which should be short and well coupled with the loins.

The tail should be well set up, and not what is known as ‘goose-rumped’. Both head and tail should be carried erect.

The ribs should be well sprung, not flat sided, with good middle, which generally denotes good constitution. A stallion should have good feet and joints; the feet should be wide and big around the top of the coronets with sufficient length in the pasterns.

When in motion, he should go with force using both knees and hocks, which latter should be kept close together. He should go straight and true before and behind.

A good Shire stallion should have strong character.

Shire Horse Mare Breed Standard

Modification or variation of the stallion standard of points for mares reads:

ColourBlack, brown, bay, grey, roan.
Height16 hands upwards.
HeadLong and lean, neither too large nor too small; long neck in proportion to the body, but of feminine appearance.
EyesLarge, well set and docile in expression. Wall eyes are acceptable, except for animals in Grade A or B register.
NeckLong and slightly arched, not of masculine appearance.
Girth5 ft to 7 ft (152-213cm) according to size and age of animal.
BackStrong and in some instances longer than a male.
LegsShort, with short cannons.
Bone9 to 11in (23-28 cm) of flat bone, with clean-cut sinews.

A mare (says the Standard) ‘should be on the quality side, long and deep with free action, of a feminine and matronly appearance, standing from 16 hands and upwards on short legs: she should have plenty of room to carry her foal’.

Shire Horse Gelding Breed Standard

A similar modification or variation of stallion standard points for geldings reads:

ColourAs for mares.
Height16.2 hands and upwards.
GirthFrom 6 ft to 7 ft 6 in (183-228 cm).
Bone10 to 11 in (25.5-28 cm) under knee, slightly more under hock and broadside on, of flat, hard quality.

A gelding should be upstanding, thick, well balanced, very active and a gay mover; he should be full of courage, and should look as though he can do a full day’s work – an impression he should be able to confirm in practice. Geldings weigh from 17 to 22 cwt (864-1118 kg).

One point arises from the current standard for hair: ‘Not too much, fine, straight and silky’. Around the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, Shire breeders had a fetish for ‘feather’. This involved masses of long hair covering the hoof and stretching upwards – almost to the knee in some cases. This hair was equated with bone and strength, and clever grooms could make a great display of it, hiding other faults. If the horses had been walked through a pond before judging, they would have looked very different!

It is important to be aware of this background since, despite the current standard, some judges were brought up to believe in the value of hair from their fathers and grandfathers. To some extent we can sympathise with them on seeing a few modern foals that have little more bone than a heavyweight hunter.

Regarding colour, the dearth of true blacks in the Shire is a cause of some concern. Arlin Wareing, who imported the Shire stallion Jim’s Chieftain into the USA in 1970 and helped start the revival, found too many Shires of the late 1990s were muddy brown rather than black. You must use your eyes, and note the true blacks, then compare them with others claimed to be black but which are not really so.

Fortunately the 2002 National Shire Show saw the return of some excellent black stallions.

Bay is, by definition, brown with black mane and tail. In the Shire, this colour occurs in a wide range of pleasing shades, from light to dark bay. A brown horse has a mane and tail that match its body colour. The brown body colour should be deep and solid, not tending to roan or splatched with white. However, the beginner should not be put off if these less desirable colours occur at a reasonable price. The main thing is to be in the ring or on the box seat, taking part in the spectacle rather than watching it. Horse, harness and vehicle may all be improved upon as time goes on.

Clydesdale Heavy Horse Breed

This is the other British hairy-legged heavy breed. It evolved in the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from imported Flemish stallions used on sound native stock. Its course has run parallel to the Shire’s, at times closely; at others more distantly.

Ferocious arguments arise about each breed’s influence on the other. Yet John M. Martin, writing in Horses of the British Empire in 1907, best summed up the position:

It cannot be claimed that the Clydesdale is an indigenous, native, or pure breed, in the sense in which the White Cattle of Chillingham, or the black, red or dun West Highlander, are so styled. The modern Clydesdale is unquestionably of mixed origin and has continued to be mixed, until the compilation of the Stud Book (1878).

The great foundation sires of the Clydesdale breed, Darnley and Prince of Wales 674, both had English blood in them. In the draught horse’s heyday in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dealers took large numbers of both Clydesdale and Shires across the England-Scotland border both ways.

In terms of numbers registered, the Clydesdale reached its peak in the early 1920s. Clydesdale stud books for the three years from 1919 to 1921 have a combined width of almost seven inches, and contain the registration of 700 stallions and 5,000 mares.

Many more thousands were unregistered, even though many were sired in one of the best breeding organisations the world has ever seen.

In the inter-war decades, the Shire and Clydesdale breeds were more distinctive, the Shire being heavier-legged with masses of feather, the Clydesdale more active. These distinctions led to heated discussions between their adherents.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s heavy horse numbers reduced rapidly. During this period of the Great Slaughter, whole stables were emptied overnight as mechanisation took over. The heavy horse seemed indeed doomed to distinction and, at this time, Clydesdale blood was undoubtedly a factor in ‘cleaning up’ the ample Shire feather which found no place in an era of more expensive labour and of keeping horses for fun. Trying to clean and dry a bushy-legged Shire after a day on wet clay was certainly no fun, especially as hair dryers were not then used on farm animals!

During this difficult period, some pedigree faking seems to have taken place. At the time there was no blood typing and some animals appeared in both Shire and Clydesdale stud books under different names. This caused a furore at the time and, with so few animals being registered, an outstanding sire of either breed might be used, along with an inaccurate pedigree. In the 1960s and 1970s it took a real horseman to be able to differentiate between Shire and Clydesdale, and even then they could be proved wrong!

In his book The Shire Horse, Keith Chivers wrote:

‘Some breeders who wished to speed the cleaner-legs campaign in their own way found it hard to resist the temptation to fake certificates of breeding to gain entry for the produce into the Stud-book.’

Whatever one may think now of such practices, almost everyone in that small remaining band of heavy horse enthusiasts knew at the time what was going on. And it is well to remember that they and they alone kept the two breeds alive when all seemed lost.

Subsequently, the two breeds drew apart one again, particularly after blood typing was introduced to prove or disprove parentage. This was done first by the Shire Horse Society and later by the Clydesdale Society. Many excellent Clydesdales were exported, and those remaining included rather too many light colours and mealy roans.

After considerable discussion the register was opened in 1992 to allow in ‘other’ blood. This invariably meant Shire, since the clean-legged Percherons and Suffolks were not considered for the register.

If Shire breeders formerly had a fetish for hair, the same may be said of modern Clydesdale exhibitors. Fine, silky hair being combed out to perfection seems to be the main show ring activity; it is not uncommon to see one helper at each foot, teasing out the fine feather.

As previously mentioned, Clydesdales are spreading from their traditional northern strongholds down into southern England. In recent times, several newcomers to showing have obtained nice coloured working geldings, which may well have been cheaper than Shire alternatives. This is all to the good, and the two breeds will often compete against each other in Heavy Horse or Agricultural classes at smaller shows.

The most common Clydesdale colours are black, brown, bay and roan. Grey is uncommon. The modern breed includes some striking blue roans and roan-and-whites, which the interested lay public can readily identify – surely an advantage when so much of the heavy breeds’ future depends on audiences who are prepared to pay to see them. A conspicuous roan is a real crowd-puller; hard colours are the breeder’s rather than the public’s delight.

Roans are said to trace back to Dunure Footprint, a famous stallion foaled in 1908, who won every possible trophy. He had a light splotch on one side, but after he became famous he was never photographed from that side! Footprint served a mare every two hours a day and night during the covering season. Two cows were kept solely to provide him with milk.

A bald or white face occurs occasionally in Clydesdales. The poet Will H. Ogilvie knew their broad blazes:

But for me the giant graces,

And the white and honest faces,

The power upon the traces

Of the Clydes!

Clydesdale Breed Standard

The breed standard for Clydesdales makes the following requirements:

The head must be strong, intelligent and carried high. The forehead open, broad between the eyes, wide muzzle, large nostrils, bright, clear eyes, big ears and a well arched long neck springing out of an oblique shoulder with high withers.

The body should be deep, the back short and the ribs well sprung. The kidneys should be below the level of the withers and the tail placed high but well set in.

Mature stallions should be 17.1 to 18 hands and mares 16.3 to 17.2 hands.

Forelegs must be planted well under the shoulders. There should be no openness at the knees, or tendency to knock-knees. Knees should be big and broad at the front. The ankles (the Clydesdale Horse Society use this term for fetlocks) should be fine, of medium length and set at an angle of 45 degrees. The foot should be large and strong, the hoof wide and springy.

Hind legs must be set close together with the hocks turned inwards. The thighs must come well down to the hocks, clean and well packed with muscle and sinew. The cannon bones again must be long. The hocks should be broad, clean and sharply developed. The ankles should be fine, of medium length and at a lesser angle than the fore ankles. The feet should be large and sound with a tendency to strength on the outside.

The (cannon) bones should be broad and flat with an abundance of long, silky hair from behind the knees and from the hocks to the ground. The front of the bones should be clean, but the hair should again spring from the hoof head to the ground.

The front action should be straight with the fetlock and knee joints being well utilised. The hind action should be close, clear and defined. When moving, the horse should lift its feet cleanly off the ground so that someone standing behind it can see the inside of every shoe.

The overall impression created by a well-built typical Clydesdale is that of strength, power and activity.

In its general comments the Clydesdale Horse Society stresses:

The outstanding characteristics of this renowned horse are a combination of weight, size and activity. What is looked for first and last by a Clydesdale man is the exceptional wearing qualities of feet and limbs. The former must be round and open with hoof heads wide and springy, for any suspicion of contraction might lead to sidebones or ringbones.

Further requirements of this breed vary somewhat from the orthodox and should be noted. The horse must have action, but not to an exaggerated degree, the inside of every shoe being made visible to anyone walking behind. The forelegs must be well under the shoulders, not carried bulldog fashion. The legs, in fact, must hang straight from shoulders to fetlock joints, with no openness at the knee, yet with no inclination to knock.

The hind legs must be similar, with the points of the hocks turned inwards rather than outwards, and the pasterns must be long.

More details is given concerning the face, which ‘must be flat, neither dished nor Roman’. Expanding on colour, the Society lists ‘bay, brown or black, with much white on the face and legs, often running into the body. It should be noted that chestnuts are rarely seen’. The last remark has become outdated, for Dr Christine Wallace Mann’s lively team of chestnut Clydesdales became part of the summer show scene.

Anyone contemplating purchasing a Clydesdale must pay special attention to hock action and hair. Regarding the former, it is fashionable nowadays for the hocks to be so ‘nipped’ together that they almost brush one another at the walk or trot. Having watched Clydesdale devotees at the Highland as a horse ‘leaves’ them during its show, and they appear to concentrate on the hocks and nothing else. It should be noted, however, that veterinary surgeons condemn this fashion, saying that it offends against the laws of dynamics, and that stress is placed in the wrong areas when a heavy horse walks with hocks in and its toes out.

Uneven wear on the shoes also comes into the equation, and the shoeing of Clydesdales is discussed further here. On the second matter, however lovely the silky feather, combed and brushed so assiduously in the show ring, it should never be allowed to take precedence over points of conformation.

Percheron Heavy Horse Breed

Percheron showing event grey

The British Percheron Horse Society is a small but friendly body. It has a high proportion of farmer-breeders and, while competition at shows is keen, it is less cut-throat than is the case with some other breeds. The main breed show has had a variety of dates, but at present takes place in either April or May.

The History of the British Percheron Horse in the Society’s show programme tells us:

The breed originated in the Le Perche area of north-west France. Here in 732 AD Arabian horses abandoned by the Moors after their defeat in the Battle of Tours were crossed with massive Flemish stock, and from this cross came the Percheron type which has endured for twelve centuries. During the Crusades, further infusions of Arab blood were made. Arab sires procured in the Holy Land were bred to the Percheron and in the early 1800s the French Government’s Stud at La Pin introduced further Arab blood into the Percheron breed by covering selected mares with two outstanding Arab sires, and now all contemporary Percherons share this common heritage descending from the foundation stock which originated in Le Perche.

The Percheron Horse Society of France was formed in 1883, and the British version in 1918. The latter’s main aim was to encourage the breeding of a clean-legged draught horse with short legs, short back, ample bone, powerful, active and quick in work, with a good temper and easy to handle. ‘The docility of the breed was very important as experienced horsemen were declining on farms’, stated the Society.

Today, this is a very valid point for new owners. They may also consider the Percheron’s considerable advantage in having an available supply of new blood from across both the Channel and the Atlantic.

Various importations have been blended successfully into British bloodlines, and following their progress is a source of interest at any major show. There is also close and friendly cooperation among Percheron breed societies worldwide, with a periodic World Congress.

For those accustomed to the ‘feather’ on a Shire and Clydesdale, clean-legged breeds such as the Percheron and Suffolk may appear insubstantial.

Bone measurements prove that this is not the case. In pure black or a range of greys from dapple to iron and steel, the Percheron is an attractive animal.

Percheron Breed Standard

GeneralThe British Percheron Horse is essentially a heavy draught horse possessing great muscular development combined with style and activity. It should possess ample bone of good quality, and give a general impression of balance and power.
ColourGrey or black, with a minimum of white. No other colour in stallions is eligible for entry in the Stud Book.
Skin & CoatShould be of fine quality.
SizeStallions should be not less than 16.3 hands in height and mares not less than 16.1 hands, but width and depth should not be sacrificed to height at maturity.
HeadWide across the eyes, which should be full and docile; ears medium in size and erect; deep cheek curved on lower side, not long from eye to nose; intelligent expression.
BodyStrong neck, not short; full arched crest in case of stallions; wide chest, deep, well-laid shoulders; back strong and short; ribs wide and deep, deep at flank; hindquarters of exceptional width and long from hips to tail, avoiding any suggestion of a goose rump.
LimbsStrong arms and full second thighs, big knees and broad hocks; heavy flat bone, short cannons, pasterns of medium length, feet of reasonable size, of good quality hard blue horn. Limbs as clean and free from hair as possible.
ActionTypical of the breed; straight, bold, with a long, free stride rather than short, snappy action. Hocks well flexed and kept close.
WeightOn average, stallions 18 to 20 cwt (914-1016 kg): mares 16 to 18 cwt (813-914 kg).

Of all our heavy horse breeds, the Percheron is probably the most suitable to cross with a Thoroughbred, Cleveland Bay or other active breed to produce performance horses, eventers, showjumpers or spanking driving animals. The cross is usually free from feather, and of acceptable colour. Whereas the chestnut often found in Suffolk crosses is not everyone’s favourite colour, the Percheron’s grey or black gives rise to very saleable animals, and if an exhibitor must subsidise showing costs by breeding a cross-bred foal for sale, there is much to be said for the Percheron dam.

No Percheron breed show in Britain is complete without a working demonstration by the Sampson family’s fire engine, horsed by a Percheron pair at a really flying pace. Where power combined with speed is essential, the Percheron is difficult to beat, and the original military reason favouring ‘a heavy breed that can trot’ is vindicated when watching the style and strength of today’s greys and blacks.

Suffolk Heavy Horse Breed

Like that of the Percheron, the Suffolk Horse Society is a comparatively small, but well-organised and friendly body. In 1993 the tally was some 80 registered mares but, at the time of writing, that figure had more than trebled, with 19 stallions also registered. Although a far cry from the days when the breed supplied the motive power over must of East Anglia, it is evident that, with assistance from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (based at the National Agriculture Centre in Stoneleigh), the breed is beginning to expand once more. One attractive of involvement with a breed in the throes of expansion is that there are sufficient fresh faces in evidence to ensure that the newcomer does not feel out of place.

Expansion is also occurring in the United States, where there are now approximately 900-1000 registered Suffolks, an increasing number of which are also registered with the American Suffolk Horse Association. The increasingly international aspect of the breed was highlighted in December 2001, when Dorset breeder Randy Hiscock imported the registered Suffolk colt Garrettland’s Golden Eagle from an Amish breeder, Sam Yoder. This ended a thirteen-year search by Randy, who found Golden Eagle’s pedigree ‘impeccable’.

The British breed show is part of Woodbridge Horse Show Society’s major event on the Suffolk Showground, Ipswich, in early May. The whole show attracts some 700 entries, and the Suffolk section is vital to the breed’s well being. One rule enforced by the Suffolk Horse Society is that no yearlings may be shown. Members of very wide equestrian experience decided long ago that forcing a yearling into show condition may do lasting harm.

This is not the only lead they give. At one time Suffolk feet were notoriously bad. The breed was much more agricultural rather than a town horse, which latter environment would immediately induce lameness in faulty hooves. The Suffolk Horse Society became aware of the problem, admitted it, and tackled it in practical fashion. Foot classes for stallions and mares were instigated – although for some obscure reason none was provided for geldings until 1993. Farriers and vets were chosen as judges, and the improvement over the years is such that the Suffolk can now claim parity with any other breed, and is probably the leader in this respect.

Feet are judged separately from the main ring classes. The judge wanders around the collecting ring or anywhere a Suffolk is unboxed, and inspects feet and shoeing. Thus there is no hold-up in the main ring when other judging is taking place.

The breed has only one basic colour, of which ‘chestnut’ is the accepted spelling. However, it comes in seven shades, and none can better the description laid down by Hermann Biddell in Volume I of the Suffolk Horse Society Stud Book (1880):

Of the chestnut there are seven shades – the dark, sometimes approaching a brown-black, mahogany, or liver colour; the dull dark chestnut; the light mealy chestnut; the red; the golden; the lemon; and the bright chestnut. The most popular, the most common and the most standing colour is the last named. The bright chestnut is a lively shade, with a little graduation of lighter colour on the flanks and at the extremities – but not much. It is, in most cases, attended with a star on the forehead, or thin ‘reach’, ‘blaze’, or ‘shim’ down the face.

The flaxen mane and tail prevalent some hundred years ago and occasionally found at the present day, is usually seen on the bright chestnut. This shade is also not infrequently shot with white or silver hairs, a hereditary factor distinctive of certain strains.

The red chestnut is a very popular colour; and a red chestnut is almost sure to be a whole-coloured horse. There is no variation of shade in it, not even at the flanks, quarters, or extremities.

The golden is a beautiful colour, not many removes from the bright chestnut, but is not infrequently faced up with a white heel behind. The lemon is a very light golden shade; sometimes known as the ‘yellow’ chestnut. The dark chestnut is a favourite with some breeders, but is mostly a changing colour, varying with the season of the year, from almost a black to a dark cherry red.

The light mealy chestnut is condemned by all. Commencing with a dull chestnut body, the flanks and underline are a mottled ash colour, gradually shading off to a dirty white at the extremities, which are usually covered with soft hair of the same hue. (As a consequence of its unpopularity, this shade has now virtually disappeared.)

Biddell points out that ‘Sorrel was the name by which the chestnut was known many years ago’ and, in North America, this term is still applied. But, as Biddell stresses, ‘Black, white, grey or dun is never mentioned in connection with a Suffolk horse.’

The Scale of Points for Suffolk Horses was adopted on 11 November 1919, and has stood the test of time. It is as follows:

Color: Chestnut; a star, little white on face, or few silver hairs is no detriment. 5

Head: Big, with broad forehead.

Neck: Deep in collar, tapering gracefully towards the setting of the head.

Shoulders: Long and muscular, well thrown back at the withers. 25

Carcass: Deep, round ribbed from shoulder to flank, with graceful outline in back, loin and hindquarters; wide in front and behind (the tail well set up with good second thighs).

Feet, joints and legs: The legs should be straight with fair sloping pasterns, big knees and long clean hocks on short cannon bones, free from coarse hair. Feet to have plenty of size with circular form protecting the frog. 50

Elbows: If turned in, regarded as a serious defect.

Walk: Smart and true.

Trot: Well balanced all round with good action. 20


Probably no judge ever follows this points system implicitly in assessing an animal, but its descriptions of the various physical characteristics are noteworthy. These had also been summed up earlier by Manfred Biddell in the aforementioned Volume I of the Stud Book:

Height varying from 15 3/4 to 16 1/2 h on short flat legs with short strong pasterns, free from much long hair: hard clean legs with bone of compact quality being desired, rather than soft large legs.

Shoulders very long, lying rather forward to suit draught purposes. Hindquarters long, heavy, well and close coupled with loin and back, having the legs well under the horse. Girth should be large, and flanks well dropped. If the forehand is a little low, it is not objected to provided the neck is strong and the head well formed, and carried with spirit.

If you study old prints of Suffolk horses, or visit the admirable Suffolk Horse Museum at Woodbridge, you will be immediately struck by the close similarity in type compared with today’s horses. This continuity applies to the Suffolk breed more than any other. There is one major difference, however; Manfred Biddell’s standard of a 16 hands average is no longer acceptable for the show ring, and especially for turnout horses. ‘Big is beautiful’, and Suffolk exhibitors competing in inter-breed classes stress that they cannot beat a team of Shires or Clydesdales standing 18 hands with 16.3 hands Suffolk geldings.

Although a strong case can be made for the more chunky type of animal for draught (especially land) work, there is not doubt that size attracts the judge’s eye. A team of really big Suffolks make a truly impressive picture, their shiny chestnut coats glistening against the black of harness, gold of brass and green and gold of vehicle.

The Suffolk’s height, however, comes from its depth of body rather than length of leg. Its admirers claim that with Suffolks you are measuring the horse, not the air beneath it! A wide chest is sought, to give ample heart room and this, coupled with depth of body through the chest, gives the capacity for food enough to see the working animal through one long shift rather than two shorter ones. Big, flat knees and good, sound feet are essential to give that freedom of movement so sought by the discerning judge. Shoulders should be nicely sloping, and hocks flat. The Suffolk should be short in the cannons, giving that impression of Punch, the short, thickset man. By nature the Suffolk should be quiet. This is one of the breed’s strengths, and must always be to the fore in any breeding programme.

Prices of Suffolks are probably lower than in the Shire world for the top class, but good fillies are much sought after. One reason is that, as with the Percheron, the breed’s clean legs are a distinct advantage when producing heavyweight hunters. When John Bramley managed the Hollesley Bay stud near Woodbridge, Suffolk, he said that a pure-bred Suffolk filly would be at least as valuable as a Thoroughbred-cross one, but that a half-bred gelding was worth much more than a pure-bred one. As a starting point for breeding police horses, showjumpers or eventers, the Suffolk has much to commend it, a noteworthy point when trying to balance the books.

Ardennes Heavy Horse Breed

Ardennes heavy horse blue roan colour

Although the Ardennes is more a working horse than a show horse, it does have its own classes in the United Kingdom. Originating in the border country between France and Belgium, it is an old breed that has long been popular in northern Europe, and now has its own breed society in Britain. The society’s members are helpful and enthusiastic. They recognise that their chosen breed differs from a tall, upstanding Shire, stressing rather its virtues as a low-slung and economical pulling animal.

Ardennes Breed Standard

GeneralThe Ardennes is essentially a compact heavy draught breed, possessing great muscular development combined with style and activity. Good posture and conformation, with plenty of quality bone. Should give an impression of balance, strength and power.
HeightHeight must not be at the expense of bone and/or fine quality musculature. Stallions 15 to 16.3 hands. Mares 14.2 to 16.2 hands.
ColourAll colours permitted, except part-coloured (skewbald/piebald). No white markings permitted except on the head in stallions. A little below the fetlock is allowed in mares (but not to be encouraged). Nowhere else except on the head.
HeadIntelligent expression, flat (snub) nose or rectilinear profile. Pronounced eye sockets; eyes large and docile. Ears pointing forwards. Forehead flat or concave. Large, well opened nostrils. Must avoid long heavy heads, drooping lips, misshapen ears, and domed foreheads.
NeckMedium length, well set on, with full arched crest in stallions.
BodyStocky, expressing mass, density and power. Chest ample and deep, close to the ground. Back and loins, powerful and well supported. Haunches large and wide. Hindquarters long and well muscled. Low-set tails are common but not to be encouraged.
LimbsLong, sloping shoulders. Arm, forearm and legs very muscular, short and hard. Joints set wide and well defined. Clean-cut tendons. Neat, round feet with hard blue/brown horn. Not excessively hairy. Avoid fat and puffy joints, spindly limbs, lumpy or spongy bone, hollow knees, knock knees or outward-turning toes.
ActionCorrect and above all active and energetic.
CarriagePowerful, proud and purposeful.

American Belgian Heavy Horse Breed

A few of these attractive horses have arrived in Britain from the United States, where they are a dominant showing breed. Their sorrel (chestnut) coat colour makes a spectacular contrast with their flaxen mane and tail, and the numbers coming into Britain may well increase.

The breed is virtually clean-legged, with just a little feather allowed. Big geldings topping 19 hands are in demand for American hitches (teams). The breed evolved from the Ardennes type imported into North America from Belgium, but selective breeding for colour and size has made it unrecognisable from its origins.

The Belgian Draft Horse Corporation of America, gives the following description of the breed:

‘Many of the breed’s first imports were roundly criticised for being too thick, too low headed, straight shouldered, and round boned. There was even an expression for it… the Dutchman’s Type.

But even with his faults, those early Belgians made friends because they were easy keepers and willing workers with an amiable disposition.

The American farmer decided that the breed’s assets far outweighed its faults and the American breeders set out to retain what was right and remedy what was wrong. The success of the effort has been one of the great success stories in animal breeding. Today’s Belgian is a big, powerful fellow that retains the drafty middle, a deep, strong foot, a lot of bone, the heavy muscling and amiable disposition possessed by early Belgians. His qualities as an easy keeper, a good shipper, and a willing worker are intact.

What then have the American breeders done to change him? They have developed a horse with far more style, particularly in the head and neck, with more slope to both the shoulder and pastern, and the good clean, flat bone that goes hand in hand with such qualities. The modern Belgian is still a great worker… and has become a great wagon horse.

Along with these changes in conformation has come a colour change. The original imports came in many coat colours, with a predominance of bay. About half of the first imports were bay and bay-brown, followed by a roan, chestnut/sorrel, black, and even a few greys. There was no particular Belgian colour at the outset.

By the 1920s and 30s, when the breed really hit its stride in the USA, the colours had pretty well come down to ‘sorrels and roans’. Nowadays, although there are a few roans and even the odd bay now and then, for all practical purposes the American Belgian has become a chestnut/sorrel breed. This has long been the colour preferred by Americans… the Cadillac of colours being a chestnut/sorrel team with snow-white manes and tails, with a white strip (blaze or stripe) on the face and four white socks.’

Irish Draught Heavy Horse Breed

Females of this lovely breed are expensive, as they are so much in demand for cross-breeding to produce showjumpers and eventers as well as maintaining the pure stock. Geldings may be comparatively cheap. Irish Draughts make splendid animals for hauling agricultural vehicles and implements, and they are often well suited to ploughing matches.

Their temperaments are usually sound, and they have neat feet that fit nicely into their furrow. If you want a ride and drive horse, they may fit the bill, although it’s a long way to fall off the taller ones!

Irish Draught Breed Standard

The Irish Draught (GB) Breed Standard is as follows:

Type and characterThe Irish Draught Horse is an active, short-legged powerful horse with substance and quality. It is proud of bearing, deep of girth and strong of back and quarters. Standing over a lot of ground, it has an exceptionally strong and sound constitution. It has an intelligent and gentle nature and is noted for its docility and sense.
HeightStallions to mature at 15.3 hands to 16.3 hands approximately; mares at 15.1 hands to 16.1 hands approximately.
BoneGood, strong, clean bone.
HeadGood, bold eyes, set well apart, long, well set ears, wide of forehead. Head should be generous and pleasant, not coarse or hatched-headed, though a slight Roman nose is permissible. The jawbones should have enough room to take the gullet and allow ease of breathing.
Shoulders, neck, frontShoulders should be clean-cut and not loaded, wither well-defined, not coarse, the neck set in high and carried proudly. The chest should not be too broad and beefy. The forearms should be long and muscular, not caught in at the elbows.

The knee should be large and generous, set near the ground; the cannon bone straight and short, with plenty of flat, clean bone, never back at the knee (calf kneed), i.e. not sloping forward from the knee to fetlock.

The bone must not be round and coarse. The legs should be clean and hard, with a little hair permissible at the back of the fetlock, as a necessary protection; the pasterns strong and in proportion, not short and upright, nor too long and weak.

The hoof should be generous and sound, not boxy or contracted and there should be plenty of room at the heel.
Back, hindquarters, body and hind legsThe back to be powerful, the girth very deep, the loins must not be weak but the mares must have enough room to carry a foal. The croup to buttocks to be long and sloping, not short and rounded or flat-topped; hips not wide and plain; thighs strong and powerful and at least as wide from the back view as the hips; the second thighs long and well-developed.

The hocks near the ground and generous, points not too close together or wide apart but straight; they should not be out behind the horse but should be in line from the back of the quarters to the heel to the ground; they should not be over-bent or in any way weak. The cannon bone, as for the foreleg, short and strong.
ActionSmooth and free but without exaggeration and not heavy or ponderous. Walk and trot to be straight and true, with good flexion of the hocks and freedom of the shoulders.
ColourAny strong whole colour, including greys.

Fell and Dales Ponies

Although, as mentioned at the start of this article, these breeds are not ‘heavy horses’ as such, both are used in ploughing matches and particularly in classes featuring haymaking machinery – thus reflecting traditional use. Indeed, since they developed in areas where small family farms predominated and there was little room for specialist breeds, these versatile animals also drew the market trap and carried the farmer round his sheep – and following hounds.

The two breeds are very similar in origin but they developed, respectively, on the west and the east coast of the Pennines. Nowadays, the Dales tends to be taller, and an admixture of Clydesdale blood to some strains in the past may have been an influence here.

Fell and Dales Ponies Breed Standard

The following is the Breed Standard for the Fell: that of the Dales is very similar, their additional height (to 14.2 hands) being the main difference.

HeightNot exceeding 14 hands.
ColourBlack, brown, bay and grey, preferably with no white markings, though a star or a little white on the foot is allowed.
HeadSmall, well chiselled in outline, well set on, forehead broad, tapering to nose.
NostrilsLarge and expanding.
EyesProminent, bright, mild and intelligent.
EarsNeatly set, well formed and small.
Throat and jawsFine, showing no sign of throatiness or coarseness.
NeckOf proportionate length, giving good length of rein, strong and not too heavy, moderate crest in stallions.
ShouldersMost important, well laid back and sloping, not too fine at withers, nor loaded at the points – a good, long shoulder blade, muscles well developed.
CarcassGood, strong back of good outline, muscular loins, deep carcass, thick through heart, round ribbed from shoulders to flank, short and well coupled, hindquarters square and strong with tail well set on.
Feet, legs and jointsFeet of good size, round and well formed, open at heels with the characteristic blue horn, fair sloping pasterns not too long; forelegs should be straight, well placed, not tied in at elbows, big, well formed knees, short cannon bone, plenty of good flat bone below the knee (8 in [20,3 cm] at least), great muscularity of arm.
Hind legsGood thighs and second thighs, very muscular, hocks well let down and clean cut, plenty of bone below joint; should not be sickle or cow hocked.
Mane, tail and featherPlenty of fine hair at heels (coarse hair objectionable); all the fine hair except that at point of heel may be cast in summer. Mane and tail are left to grow long.
ActionWalk smart and true. Trot well balanced all round with good knee and hock action, going well from the shoulder and flexing the hocks, not going too wide or too near behind. Should show great pace and endurance, bringing the hind legs well under the body when going.
GeneralShould be constitutionally as hard as iron and show good pony characteristics, with the unmistakable appearance of hardiness peculiar to mountain ponies and, at the same time, have a lively, alert appearance and great bone.

The scale of points by which the breed is judged is as follows:

Height and colour: 5 points

Head, nostrils, eyes, ears, throat, jaws, neck: 10 points

Shoulders: 15 points

Carcass: 20 points

Feet, legs and joints, hind legs: 25 points

Action: 25 points

General characteristics: 100 points

In summary, a good Fell should be a substantial animal, well built and powerful, but active and free moving, with plenty of pony quality and native character.

Tips on Choosing the Most Suitable Heavy Horse Breed

It will now be obvious that there is a range of types and colours in our heavy breeds to meet anyone’s fancy. The choice of individuals is helped by assessing the reasons for buying. For example, is it to compete in-hand, or drive a turnout, or to enter Decorated Horse classes? Does a desire for involvement in breeding enter the equation? If you have determined to buy a pair or a four, the ideal is to have them matching in colour and size, but this is by no means easy to achieve. Matching size is slightly less important than colour, as the bigger pair can make the wheelers, with the slightly smaller animals in front. If you had three bays and couldn’t find a fourth, a grey as off leader is a possibility.

Moving beyond these background criteria, here are a few pointers for newcomers in search of a suitable heavy horse. First, beware of the ‘gentle giants’ syndrome. That phrase may be basically true, but if you run into one of the exceptions you are in real trouble. A big horse with a nasty, flighty, unreliable temperament is a dangerous animal. Make sure that you buy one that you feel really comfortable with, one that will prove an enjoyable companion.

Above all, unless you really are one yourself, take an expert with you. Approach someone who understands not only the horses, but also their vendors. Some of the latter take special pride in supplying a beginner with a suitable animal. Sadly, however, a few might take advantage of ignorance, and palm off an unsuitable, unreliable and expensive animal onto the unsuspecting tyro. In a similar vein, if you don’t know anyone who is an expert in the breed that you fancy, the breed society is an obvious starting point for inquiring about breeders and vendors.

However, make sure that you ask for several names – in that way, you should get a genuine choice of contacts, rather than risk being put in touch with just one particular breeder or vender.

Finally, in addition to choosing a horse that you will be happy with as a character, try to choose one that will really suit your purposes for some time. Horses tend to become ‘part of the family’, and a basically unsuitable one may hang around for years because no one has the heart to sell it. Also, provided you have the money, it is much easier to buy a horse than to sell one.

Selling a horse these days is an art and an achievement, so bear in mind that the horse you are thinking of buying may one day be the horse you are trying to sell!

Shire Horse

Shire horse information and breed guide.


Clydesdale information and breed guide.


Suffolk information and breed guide.


Percheron information and breed guide.


Ardennes information and breed guide.


Native and working crosses information and breed guide.