Other Classes and Events

Not every owner of heavy horses wishes to get involved in the serious business of competing in major In-hand or Turnout classes; there are many who derive great pleasure and satisfaction from exhibiting their charges in a more relaxed atmosphere. For such people, participation in the traditional Decorated Harness classes, or Agricultural classes may fit the bill, and in some areas nowadays, there is a rekindling of interest in town parades. Another possibility is the Tradesman’s Turnout class.

Obstacle Driving and Ploughing Matches are other specialised forms of competition. For the more agile, Ridden Classes are becoming an increasingly popular part of the heavy horse scene and these now appear at a number of major shows.

The fundamental point is that there are many opportunities for all who wish to become part of the colourful show scene.

Decorated Harness Classes

These are rightly becoming more popular. Although many people enter them for personal pleasure, they also enable the one-horse owner to compete against the professional stables, since so much preparation time is involved that few enterprises are likely to pay staff to enter more than one horse at any show.

In these classes, the value of the horse in the judge’s eyes should count nil. In theory, this is a ‘poor man’s class’, allowing a moderate or elderly horse to compete with in-hand prizes, as it is the decorations and not the animal being judged. Realistically, however, a tall, upstanding horse of bright colour is eye-catching even without its harness, and so has a flying start. A horse such as Royal, Kenneth Keir’s tall Shire, is difficult to overlook even before his owner has decorated him.

Yet no one should be deterred from entering Decorated classes, even if their pride and joy is not a potential in-hand winner. Two of the most vital aspects are the time spent and the artistic eye, and this hobby is one for all the family. Remember that, while the heavy horse can carry an almost limitless amount of decorations, in aesthetic terms there is a point at which decorations can be overdone, and bulk is not the aim.

Thus the artistic newcomer always has a chance against old hands who might have gone ‘over the top’ in seeking fresh ways of beautifying their animals. Colour, balance and cleanliness are the important criteria in the Decorated Harness classes.

Decoration is another aspect of the heavy horse world that is enriched by a wide variety of regional styles. The south of England has its own patterns, while in northern England alone the Lancashire pattern is distinct from the West Riding just over the Pennines, which again is different from the East Riding decorations as practised on the large arable farms of the Wolds and Holderness. Further north in County Durham, the Clydesdale and the Scottish peak collar herald further variations.

Whatever regional traditions are followed, it is of major importance that the decorations should be balanced. There should be no obvious gaps, no high and low places. When viewed from behind, the tail decorations are the starting point, and embellishments along the line of the back should continue upwards in a gentle sweep, until the plume or highest point between the ears is reached.

At the sides, all flowers or wool pieces should be level, not in and out. Colours must complement both each other and the horse. For example, Leeds brewers Tetleys chose red, white and green for their grey Shires, the flowers being red and white, backed by green asparagus fern. A Suffolk horse exhibitor, however, may prefer green and gold against the horse’s chesnut coat. Sometimes, experimentation is necessary. Kenneth Keir tried a blue and white colour scheme, but this clashed with Royal’s black coat. However, black shows up brasses very well, so Kenneth had fifty-four brass cups made specially, each cup holding flowers to bedeck the 18.3 hand animal. This proved a great success, but highlights the need for attention to detail. For example, buckles should match the cups and be very, very clean both on top and below. A day and a half is needed for preparation of this sort and all exhibitors agree that there is no easy way.

At one time horse brasses were the main, and sometimes the only, means of beautifying a heavy horse and they changed hands as lots in heavy horse and carriage sales. Nowadays, they have become so collectable that specialised sales dedicated to brasses are held by firms such as Thimbleby and Shoreland of Reading.

Terry Keegan, of the Oxleys, Clows Top, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, is a major supplier of harness decorations. He states that the main show ring requirements are brasses of good quality; their age matters less. While a few exhibitors have collections of superb antique brasses, which they use, in general these do not have much advantage in the show ring over bright, modern ones. Judges, in fact, may not know whether the brasses are old or new. ‘Old’ ones can be faked, and their detection is beyond the scope of the Turnout judge, who is likely to double as judge in the Decorated class. Brasses, in fact, figure little in Turnout classes in most areas. There will be a face piece, and perhaps a breastplate or martingale sporting four or more brasses, but generally few others.

Aside from decorative brasses, horsemen in the Midlands and south and south-west of England favour brass bells and terrets, the latter being rings, usually on the hames, through which the reins pass. ‘It grieves me that the only bells obtainable do not have a nice ring’, said Terry Keegan. ‘For a good tone a bell must be turned rather than cast, but the cost of that operation simply prices itself out of the market.’

Earmuffs are another form of decoration in demand in the Midlands and south-east, but seldom elsewhere. Their original function was to guard against flies. They are obtainable in bright colours, to very smart effect.

In Decorated classes, the decoration can sometimes extend to the driver: Kenneth Keir sports a sun hat with a brim that matches Royal’s colours, a detail that cannot fail to impress judges. Since the judges in such classes are often ladies, it is by no means uncommon for gentleman exhibitors to attempt to impress them with various exhibitions of gallantry, and the success or otherwise of their endeavours is the stuff of showground legend.

Tradesman’s Turnout Classes

These classes were originally introduced in the mid-nineteenth century and had, among their aims, the promotion of better care of working horses. They also brought a little glamour into the lives of the carters, whose normal lot was an unremitting round of long hours and low pay.

While these classes remain popular today, they normally contain turnouts drawn by both heavy breeds and light, vanner types. This mixture can pose problems for some exhibitors because, while the former usually lead, the pace they set may prove uncomfortably slow for the latter. Therefore, the choice to participate in such classes may depend upon one’s individual horse and personal preference.

Agricultural Classes

These classes are inherently more varied than the Trade classes: as against the near-perfection of every trade dray, the Agricultural, or Farmers’ class will have a wide range of carts, waggons and – in many cases – wheeled implements as well. In respect of this last category, it is always imperative to study the schedule closely: while some shows accept certain farm implements in the Agricultural bracket, others confine these classes to carts and waggons. For guidance, the usual definition of an Agricultural Turnout is:

Mare or gelding any breed, exhibited in gear with two- or four-wheeled vehicle built specifically for an agricultural purpose and still in an original state except for maintenance. No high seats or patent harness are permitted.

However, it is always wise to check the specific rules of the class you intend to enter.

At one time, the Agricultural class seemed to be the poor relation, but now it is attracting growing interest. From the exhibitors’ viewpoint, it offers an outlet to those with an interest in farm working traditions and restoration skills, and a chance to participate with less outlay than the cost of running a large vehicle and a team. For the spectator – especially if implements are allowed – there is the chance to see a roller competing against a Scotch cart, a sugar beet plough or a hayrake – a more obvious diversity than a succession of drays, no matter how fine the latter. A good commentator, who will ascertain details about the age, history and use of the entries, can make such a class very interesting indeed.

Unlike Trade classes, walk is the only gait allowed. While drivers will not be wearing smart brewery livery, neat, tidy dress is still the order of the day. Similarly, while rope reins (‘strings’) are sometimes permitted, there should be nothing slapdash about the exhibit.

Participation in these classes may be especially attractive to those with an interest in the traditions of working the land with horses – particularly if restoration is one of their skills.

Town Parades

During the late nineteenth century, these parades had a valuable function, similar in essence to the Tradesman’s Turnout classes. They were a positive means of improving the often miserable lot of the town horse, and a day in the limelight for his overworked and underpaid drivers.

The outbreak of war in 1939 was the death knell of most of these parades. However, in 1985, Mike Millington, then chairman of the Southern Counties Heavy Horse Association, instigated the first of the modern parades in conjunction with the City of Portsmouth. Other cities have followed suit. These events do nothing but good. They encourage appearances from some who would not venture into a show ring, and promote the use of serviceable and correctly adjusted harness and the suitability of horse to vehicle. They also encourage enthusiasm for the heavy horse among the general public. In the north of England, the Walkington Hayride has done a magnificent job both in raising money for charities and in providing a ten-mile drive with halts where the horses and vehicles can be approached at close quarters.

Those wishing to participate in such parades will need to obtain details as and when they are promoted by local authorities. Since experienced personnel from the heavy horse world are normally involved on the organizing committee, specialist advice should be readily available.

Ridden Classes

Traditionally, the riding of working horses was limited to their being ridden at walk to and from the fields. For this expedient, their drivers invariably rode in a side-saddle posture. One reason for this is that many heavy horses are too wide for most people to ride astride comfortably. The other reason is that, with the side-saddle posture, contact with a sweaty horse is made only through the backs of the rider’s trousers, and not with the insides of the thighs as when astride. These factors were even more significant when the handlers were boys in short trousers.

It is a considerable step from this traditional practice to the Ridden classes, which are a new aspect of the heavy horse scene. The ‘active’ riding of heavy horses, and especially Shires, is a phenomenon that developed in the last decade of the twentieth century and is now increasing by leaps and bounds – sometimes literally, as low jumps are included in certain classes. This is particularly the case in Continental Europe where a significant proportion of recently exported Shires are being trained as ride-and-drive animals.

The whole concept of riding heavy horses in this way is anathema to many traditionalists, who point out that the natural gait of the heavy breeds, excepting possibly the Percheron, is the walk. There is a concern that riding a heavy horse at the trot may be stressful upon the joints. Yet the trot is used in Turnout classes, and in the constant speed of Obstacle classes.

The main potential drawback lies in the fact that the body of the average heavy horse is too wide for the average rider’s comfort. It would be of great concern if judges of Ridden classes began to favour a smarter, more active animal rather than the true draught horse. We would then be at risk of animals being bred that lacked the bone and feather, temperament and strength that characterise the heavy breeds.

There are many examples of half-bred horses that have done very well in dressage and showjumping, and it is also the case that some heavy breed shows, including the National Shire Horse Show, now hold Ridden classes for half-breds. However, there is a distinct difference between cross breeding for a specific purpose and ‘watering down’ within a breed in an attempt to turn it into something it is not. To elaborate on this (while it might be anathema to heavy horse traditionalists), crossing a good Shire with a good Thoroughbred in an attempt to produce a heavy hunter type might be a legitimate endeavour. However, inbreeding poor examples of Shires (i.e. those that lack bone and substance) in an attempt to produce a lighter riding animal would be a folly to be greatly deprecated. In this respect, we would do well to remember Arlin Wareing’s dictum: ‘Ride Shires by all means, but don’t breed for riding’.

As mentioned, the National Shire Show is one show that now includes Ridden classes. The first of these is for pure-bred Shires and the second for half-breds. Both are judged on performance and obedience as a riding horse, rather than as In-hand classes. Plaiting of manes is permitted for safety, but for the same reason there must be no flags or standards. Competitors in either of these classes are eligible to enter the Ridden Dressage Test, details of which are obtainable from the organisers.

Since events of this nature are so much in their infancy, the best advice for exhibitors is to contact show secretaries well beforehand, to ascertain just what Ridden classes are included, what they entail and what rules are applied. This last point may be especially pertinent: for example, in conventional dressage circles there are always rules relating to permitted tack and equipment. In classes for heavy horses, such rules may have various implications, for example, the horse may be used to working in winkers and blinkers, which may not be allowed, or to going in a driving bit, when the ridden class requires a snaffle. As with entry to any competitive class, such points have to be considered by both organisers and competitors, if friction and disappointment are to be avoided.

Further to this, another contentious issue which organisers must address is whether ridden horses’ legs should be shaven. The lighter type or pure-bred heavy horse with shaven legs may appear to be half-bred, and some have been know to appear in the half-bred class, whereas if the show society had checked the validity of every entry, there would have been no doubt that these horses should have been in the pedigree section.

One positive aspect of Ridden classes for part-breds is that they provide scope for an interesting array of colours that would not be acceptable in pedigree classes, yet which appeal greatly to many owners and the general public. Stallions registered as heavy vanners by the Coloured Horse and Pony Society can throw some marvellous stock. Similarly, dun, liver chestnut and palomino are not recognised Shire colours, nor are chestnut or sorrel recognised in Percherons, yet all such colours can look magnificent under saddle.

For anyone contemplating riding a heavy horse, the first consideration should be their own physique and welfare. Most pure-bred heavy horses are considerably wider than even the large riding breeds, and people with lower back or hip problems are putting themselves at risk if attempting to sit astride such animals.Short-legged riders may also struggle on the heavy breeds, and again risk strain to hips and thighs. On a more superficial note, simply mounting unaided may be problematic. A Clydesdale of 16.2 hands may not appear very tall in a breed class among its peers, but can be daunting when a rider has to mount. At home, a mounting block may provide the answer, but with the show ring in mind, the art of giving and receiving a leg up should also be practised, to avoid the possibility of a clumsy and embarrassing failure in public.

An issue that impacts upon the welfare of of both horse and rider is the choice of saddle. As with any form of riding, it is important that the saddle is as comfortable as possible for the rider, but it is even more important that it fits, and is comfortable for, the horse. For most heavy horses, the average riding saddle is completely unsuitable. In the first place, it feels insecure to the rider, since it sits on top of the muscles at the withers, so the natural reaction is to over-tighten the girth, thereby exacerbating problems associated with incorrect fit. Even an extra wide saddle (in normal terms) may provide this effect to some extent. Problems associated with ill-fitting saddles include restricted shoulder movement, back trouble in various forms, stilted movement of the limbs and stumbling, and uncooperative behaviour induced by physical discomfort.

Since provision of a suitable saddle is crucial some owners will have saddles made to measure. However, the manufacturers Balance claim to have developed a ‘soft option’ saddle designed specifically for the heavy horse, based on a model used successfully in long distance riding. In addition to other features, this has a small ‘tree’ in the front section that allows stirrups to be placed correctly for a balanced seat without putting pressure on the spine. It is also less bulk than a normal saddle and is an option that may be worthy of future investigation. Whatever route you take in procuring a saddle, it is wise to seek the advice of an expert, unless you really are one yourself.

So far as riding is concerned, if a heavy horse is to perform well under saddle, it will need training to the riding aids along similar lines to any other horse, subject to the particular requirements of the classes it is to enter. Since most heavy horses are quite willing and tractable by nature, this should present no particular problems to an experienced rider. However, if you have decided to branch into riding from a background of driving, you will find proper instruction invaluable.


Preparing your heavy horse for showing.

Show Ring

Showing your heavy horse in the show ring.

Other Classes

Other heavy horse show classes & events.

Vehicle Types

Showing vehicle types & acquisition.

Obstacle Driving

Heavy horse obstacle driving events.

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.