Native and Working Crosses: Lighter Working Types

It is worth remembering that while the UK now relies heavily on mechanisation for power in both town and country, it is not so everywhere. Worldwide over 50% of draught power is still provided by animals, mainly equine or bovine.

The slogan ‘weight is needed to move weight’ harks back to selection of the powerful shunting horses used a hundred years ago in railways and dock yards. A pair of substantial animals weighing in the region of 2,000 lb was needed for the heavy loads which could be up to 3 tons in weight.

Today it is likely that you will only need to move half a ton at a time, and plough and harrow a few fields without too tight a schedule, and for this kind of work there is no need to a 2,000 lb animal. For lighter jobs, a lighter horse or pony suffices, and it is worth considering native ponies and working crosses. They will probably cost less to buy, certainly less to house and feed and, vitally important, considerably less to harness and shoe.

In some areas there is a shortage of farriers willing to shoe heavy horses. A farrier who concentrates on light horses will seldom baulk at a cob. Also harness is lighter and cheaper. It must still be up to its job, but the really large collar or saddle is where the high costs come in. Travelling people seldom go for a horse much above 14.3 hh; they consider economy in all these points, plus greater ‘wearability’.

Sir Alfred Pease neatly summed up the position in Horse Breeding for Farmers: ‘There are many jobs on the farm for which a light horse is better suited, being handier and quicker, such as the market cart, the milk cart, the hoe, the scuffler, moving feeding racks and light loading; whilst a mare of this sort will be always ready to take her place when necessary in hay or corn harvest, in the plough, in the harrow, or as leader of a team.’

In considering the most suitable lighter animals here, we deal with types rather than breeds, although most pure native breeds are assessed.

The Vanner

This most useful animal suffered early and badly when the working horse declined. It is essentially a light cart-horse; strong, quick-stepping, and able and willing to trot on command, especially with an empty vehicle. If it is a mare, it also makes an admirable brood animal. The Vanner is out of a heavy breed mare by a lighter stallion, or by a cart stallion out of one of the bigger pony breeds, especially Dales, Fell or Highland. It usually has some hair on the legs.

The return of the Vanner was advocated for certain tasks as recently as the early 1990s by Syd Emmerson, the retired first Head of Equine Services, ADAS (Agricultural Development and Advisory Service). He had been involved with national breeding policies for the Ministry of Agriculture, and he praised this ‘half-legged’ type. It had strong bone and some hair, but less of both than the Shire or Clydesdale from which it was often derived. It was performance-tested by virtue of its hours on hard roads. Feet and temperament had to be sound.

The Vanner was employed in the lighter delivery trades by the milkman or greengrocer. It was too light to be ideal for a coal merchant, yet not swift or smart enough for a cab. Such a horse would be about 14.1 hh-15.1 hh. There are no recognised sales where Vanners can be purchased, but a suitable one might be found at fairs frequented by the travelling people, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Lee Fair, Wakefield, or Appleby, in Cumbria. It is worth trying sales at Wigton, Cumbria, or indeed at any non-specialist event.


During the Second World War Thoroughbreds were tried on the land. In most cases they were unsuccessful. They were too quick, and given to short bursts of speed rather than the steady pull which was required.

Cleveland Bay

Bays and other ‘coaching’ horses are generally unsuitable for the novice, being inclined to ‘rive’, and being difficult to match for pace and willingness. Sir Alfred Pease praised the Cleveland, which needed a ‘real horseman’, whereas ‘anyone could drive the slower heavies’. Today’s position is the complete reverse. Most people who work horses today are amateurs in the true sense of the word; they do not wish to spend their mastering an unruly animal.

Gypsy Cob

Ivan Armitage, a ‘settled traveller’, described the ideal physique of the Gypsy Cob, bearing in mind that he was dealing with a road horse rather than a land horse. The neck should be short and strong and the shoulder straight. The back may be broad and the animal should be short-coupled and deep-bodied. Forearms should be strong, knees large and flat, and the cannon short and strong. A springing pastern and a well set-up heel are desired. A broad and round hoof is essential.

Hindquarters should be strong, powerful and ‘apple cheeked’. The tail should be set higher than a cart-horse’s, but lower than an Arab’s. The tail on a Gypsy Cob sweeps the ground and is of great width and density. When the owner of a ‘full tail’ turns its back to the wind, it is sheltered by the equivalent of half a topcoat and can not only winter out, but do so on only a little hay. The ideal height for a gypsy pony is 14.1 hh – 14.2 hh.


The Welsh is a varied breed, ranging from the small mountain pony to the cob. Originally all worked. The Welsh breeds cover almost the entire range of weights and heights possible for riding and driving, divided by size, weight and type into four categories. The Welsh Pony and Cob Society differentiates them as follows:

Welsh Mountain Pony (Section A) not exceeding 12 hh.

Welsh Pony (Section B) up to 13.2 hh.

Sections A and B are often too fine for draught work.

Welsh Pony of Cob Type (Section C) up to 13.22 hh.

This is the stronger counterpart of the Welsh Pony, but with Cob blood. It is dual purpose and excels in harness.

Welsh Cob (Section D) exceeding 13.22 h. Most are around 15-15.2 hh, though can be 16 hh.

Of all native pony breeds, none needs greater care than the Welsh Cob when selecting an individual animal for draught. A steady one is unbeatable, but the buyer must remember that there are fiery Cobs that require ’10 days work a week’ to keep them easily manageable.


The Highland combines size with placidity. For decades it provided the motive power in its native glens, and Andrew F. Fraser in The Native Horses of Scotland describes it as ‘particularly suitable for endurance riding and draught work’. For pack and pannier work in steep, rugged country, the Highland is ideal. More recently it has proved itself in the Scottish forests for timber hauling.

Greys and various shades of dun are found, but there are also cream duns and yellow duns. Most specimens of the breed may be turned away for a few weeks, then caught and put straight into harness without a skirmish. Height is 13-14.2 hh, although some grow bigger.

The Fell and Dales

The Fell and the Dales are north-country ponies whose territory is divided by the Pennines. The Fell is the smaller, not over 14 hh, and shines in inter-breed classes. Registered females are expensive. However, a gelding bought for a reasonable sum will be up to most jobs and make a quick and sure-footed draught animal.

The Dales and its crosses may often top the 14.22 hh stipulated pony size, and make admirable draught animals. Earlier this century some Dales mares were crossed with Clydesdales to power the grass reapers designed for low-country farms and bigger horses. Such was the agricultural depression that no implement makers catered specifically for dales farmers working on hillsides. ‘Steady, quiet and sensible’ describes the average Dales.


The Dartmoor is a splendid native pony, which once ran wild in herds on its native moors. Some were caught and used by the moormen for sledging, carrying packs or carrying the owners. Today’s emphasis is more on showing and children’s pony work than on draught. The height is up to 12.2 hh.


The Exmoor is much used in its own locality, but is generally smaller than the average teamster wants. It has a thick, woolly undercoat and a topcoat of thick, harsh, waterproofing hairs. Height is 12.3 hh for males and 12.2 hh for females.

New Forest

New Forests are docile and friendly and used to outdoor life. Of mixed ancestry, they are now being carefully selected and are often good in traffic and harness. The height limit is 14.2 hh.


In 1900, leading equine authority Professor J. Cosser Ewart visited Ireland to study the Connemara. He found the ponies as strong and hardy as mules, and capable of living where all except wild ponies would starve. Enthusiastic breeders have raised standards in recent years and the breed is a fine ride-and-drive. It makes up to 14.2 hh. Some strong types capable of any job on a small holding can still be found.

Irish Draught

The Irish Draught is ideal for any work requiring less than a very powerful heavy. It is, however, in such demand for breeding performance horses and show-jumpers that the females are in-ordinarily expensive. If a gelding can be picked up for cheaply enough, one need look no further.

The Irish Draught official breed standard describes an active, short-shinned, powerful horse with substance and quality, proud of bearing, with deep girth, strong back, loins and quarters. Known for its intelligent and gentle nature and good sense, its height at three years is as follows: stallions 16 hh and over; mares from 15.22 hh, with 9 inch or more of clean flat bone. Any strong whole colour is accepted including grey.


Although the Shetland is regarded as a children’s pony it can carry a man mile after mile, is the strongest equine for its size (that is, strongest in proportion to its height) and was used in thousands to draw coal mine loads. Shetland ponies are very popular, and have the attraction of a range of coat colours. Piebalds and skewbalds are encouraged. Shetlands and their crosses are used in scurry-driving competitions, providing their worth as harness ponies, although driven at a lower speed on the land! Registered Shetlands must not exceed 40 inch (102 cm) at three years old, nor 42 inch (107 cm) at four years old.


The Haflinger came to Britain from Austria and the Tyrol after the Second World War. It is a small but thickset mountain horse, formerly much used for pack work. The art of packing has been largely lost in Britain, but has many virtues in difficult terrain, and the Haflinger is an ideal pont on which to practise.

Its height is about 144 hh, colour chestnut, with full flaxen or lighter mane and tail. Short-legged, it has strong quarters, broad back, hard joints and hooves. The breed’s strength and sure-footedness make it excellent in harness, with cart or sleigh.


The donkey has served man since biblical times and although it is usually associated with small children and beaches today, it has played a full part in agriculture. In the UK, donkeys met a special need in supplying the power to raise water from deep wells. The animals worked wooden tread-wheels in the chalk hills of south-east England, raising water from up to 300 ft with ease.

Early this century, donkey teams were used widely in North Western Australia, taking over from bullock teams. Huge teams of over 20 donkeys were led by intelligent leaders; none was bitted, and the whole team was controlled by verbal command.

Donkeys were an important draught animal in Ireland until relatively recently. Enthusiasts drive their animals successfully and they would certainly be capable of work on a smallholding.


Another use of the donkey is, of course, to breed the mule. Britain lags behind most other countries in its use. Draught mules are bred by using large donkey jacks on heavy breed mares. Height varies, but individuals can be as tall as average draught horses. Such animals hauled American combines in teams of 40, and have both advantages and disadvantages compared with horses.

Their devotees claim that mules will live longer, require less attention and feed, and are less liable to digestive upsets, lameness and disease. In 1930, almost five and a half million mules were found on USA farms, the bulk of them in the hotter southern states. The US Department of Agriculture stated in the 1920s that ‘a very desirable “mule mare” is one having about one fourth draft blood. A smart, alert mule, with a long, free stride at the walk and a snappy balanced trot is highly desired.’

Experiments in 1962 showed that the mule’s pulse and respiration rates after ploughing rose far less than those of horses, and they returned to normal more rapidly.


A number of people using draught horse power on their land today are content to use a working cross, typically a Shire or Clydesdale, Percheron or Suffolk crossed with a smaller, lighter animal, perhaps one of the native ponies described above, giving a lower point of draught and being quite adequate for most most tasks. These can be obtained privately or at sales and their heavy horse genes are usually obvious in their conformation.

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.