The Clydesdale

History of the Clydesdale Breed

The Clydesdale is Scotland’s indigenous breed of heavy draught horse. It takes its name from the district of Scotland through which the upper reaches of the River Clyde flow. It is from this area, now known as South Lanarkshire, that the breed originated in circa 1700.

The farmers of the Clyde Valley provided themselves on developing a breed of horse capable of drawing 20-30 cwt, in a single cart, at a pace of from 3.5 to 5 miles an hour at a walking gait. To do this with ease for any length of time, a certain springiness of stride was needed and was obtained through breeding for well-sloped pasterns and sound, big feet.

For almost two centuries the Clydesdale has been recognised as a distinct breed, but it was not until 1877 that the Clydesdale Horse Society of Great Britain and Ireland was established to promote the breed and maintain its purity.

The two most successful stallions of the late 19th century were ‘Darnley’ and his contemporary, ‘Prince of Wales’. Celebrated Stallions that followed them include ‘Hiawatha’ and ‘Baron’s Pride’. The latter was owned by A & W Montgomery, proprietors of the Netherhall Stud, which until 1918 was considered to be the biggest and most influential Clydesdale stud in the world. They played a significant role in the establishment of the breed in North America.

The popularity of ‘the soundest horse in the world’ peaked immediately after the First World War. In 1920 the Society’s stud book held a record number of entries – 6,870. The most important of the 300 stallions listed in that year was ‘Fyvie Sensation’, a Cawdor Cup winner for Netherhall in 1922, and sire of the 1926 Cawdor Cup winner, ‘Benefactor’, arguably one of the greatest stallions in the history of the breed. His reputation is eclipsed only by those of the legendary ‘Baron of Buchlyvie’, the most expensive Clydesdale of all time, and Baron’s most famous son, the prolific ‘Dunure Footprint’ (1908-1930). Winner of every trophy available to a stallion, ‘Footprint’ is reputed to have sired more foals than any other Clydesdale stallion. In one year, 146 foals were registered in the stud book as sired by him. His fee at the at the height of his fame was a record 60 guineas for service and a further 60 guineas when the mare proved to be in foal.

The outstanding personality in the history of the Clydesdale is undoubtedly James Kilpatrick, owner of the Craigie Mains Stud, Ayrshire, and winner of more trophies than any other show yard exhibitor. His first Cawdor Cup win was in 1893, and he recorded his final Cawdor victory some 57 years later with ‘Craigie Commodore’ in 1950. He won the Cawdor Cup 16 times in all.

Interest in the breed slumped dramatically after the Second World War. By the early 1970s the Clydesdale was considered to be a rare breed, forsaken by all but a small band of dedicated enthusiasts, many of whom continue to be actively involved with the breed.

Today the Clydesdale Society has over 900 members and the breed enjoys particular popularity not only in Scotland, northern England and Northern Ireland, but also in North America, Australia and New Zealand, where ‘sister’ breed societies are thriving.

In Britain today there are around 350 registered breeders, registering on average a total of around 150 foals per year. Modern uses of the Clydesdale mirror those of other draught breeds.

General Appearance

The ideal is neither grossness nor bulk but quality and weight, giving it the general appearance of strength, power and activity.

WeightMature stallions and geldings should weigh 2,000-2,250 lb and mares proportionally less.
Height16.3-18 hh (females), 17.1-18.2 hh (males).
SymmetryThere should be a broad, clear outline, well proportioned with the body depth balanced for height.
QualityFine, clean bone, silky feather, well-defined tendons and fine silky hair.
TemperamentAlert, docile disposition and tractable.
ColourTraditionally, the preferred colours are dark brown or bay with a white stripe on the face and white legs to just over the knees and hocks. However, chestnuts, blacks, light bays and roans, are not uncommon. Strawberry roans and blue roans are quite popular in many quarters and can be attractive. Greys are acceptable, but very rare.

Head and Neck

The head should be of moderate size, carried erect and possessing an open forehead, broad between the eyes. The front of the face should be flat rather than dished or roman. The eyes should be full, round, bright, clear, placid and intelligent-looking. The ears should be fairly large and smartly set, and the muzzle wide and rather square. Nostrils should be large and open, and the lower jaw deep and broad with wide angles.

The neck should be strong, muscular and of medium length. Well arched and showing more crest than other breeds, it should be springing out of an oblique shoulder with high withers and complemented by a large windpipe and fine throat latch.


Strong, muscular and moderately sloped shoulders should have a broad bearing surface and be close topped. The arm should be short and strongly muscled with a long, broad and muscular forearm. Large, broad, flat and straight knees should have no openness and no inclination to knock together. The cannon bones should not only be flat and flinty, but also long to place the knee well up the leg. Tendons should be hard, clean and distinct.

The fetlocks should be well defined and the ankles fine, of medium length and set at an angle of 45 degrees from the hoof head to the fetlock joint. A good strong ankle is one with enough slope to cushion the shock of hitting the ground. The feet should be symmetrical, open, wide, round and squarely placed with wide heels, dense horn and elastic frogs. The coronets should be wide and round, and the hoofs should be spread as they descend from the coronet.

Forelegs should be planted well under the shoulders and hang plumb from the shoulder to the fetlock joint. There should be a fine growth of soft, silky, straight hair, forming a feather from the back of the knee down the leg to the pastern joint. The front of the leg and fetlock joint must be clean and smooth.


The chest should be well developed, capacious and deep, with a large girth and high withers. The fore-ribs should be well sprung and deep; the back ribs should be deep, round and well let down, forming a round barrel and short coupling. A good middle generally denotes a good constitution. The back should be short, level, broad and muscular, and the loin wide, level, short and muscular. The underline should be fairly horizontal with the flanks low and full.


The bones of the hips should be well apart, symmetrical and smooth. The croup should be level, with strongly developed muscles. The tail should be set well up. The thighs should be strong, muscular, deep and broad, the quarters well-turned, broad, deep and heavily muscled, and the gaskins prominent, wide and muscular.

The hocks, turned inwards, should be flat, wide, deep and correctly set, and with the points well defined. They should be placed well up and the points of the hock must be carried together, somewhat inclined inwards. Lower hocks give a more sickled look. Sickle hocks are a bad fault as they lead to loss of leverage.

As in the fore quarters, cannons should be of flat, flinty bone and tendons hard, clean and distinct. Fetlocks should be well defined and the pasterns oblique, long and strong. The feet, which should slant less than the fore feet, should be open, large and of even size with dense horns, elastic frogs and wide heels. The hind legs should be set tight, not open, at the thighs and close at the hocks.


The Clydesdale is an active horse and at every step the foot should be lifted clean off the ground, showing the full sole, and then placed squarely on the ground. He should go straight and true both fore and aft. When walking, the strides should be light, springy, smooth, quick and long. The hind leg should be lifted smartly and placed on the spot that the front foot has just left. When trotting there should be a clean lift of the feet using the knees and hocks well, giving a smart, gay bearing.

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