Choosing and Keeping a Working Horse

Finding the right working horse for your particular needs is not likely to be an easy task. There are many ways of buying horses and many pitfalls to avoid. If you are a novice, the first step to take is to find someone who can advise you, someone who really knows heavy horses well, perhaps a retired horseman, who you can make friends with, and who will accompany you to look at the animals.

If you want a horse suitable for ordinary work you need to find one with a good temperament. You can generally tell by a horse’s nature when you first meet him if he is going to be quiet to handle and work, and whether he is broken or unbroken. Another indicator of temperament is the horse’s breeding. If you can find out which stallion and mare the horse is from you can research the breeding back from there, which will tell you more about his probable behaviour characteristics. There are always one or two rogue stallions about which you would want to avoid. Your advisor will certainly be able to help here.

If you are a novice you ought to start with a middle-aged well-broken horse – it will save you a lot of grief at the beginning of the process. You can learn from that horse for a time before moving on to the next stage and buying yourself a younger horse or horses, and setting yourself the challenge of starting from scratch.

Buying at Auction of Farm Sales

People are sometimes frightened of buying from auctions or at farm sales. Nevertheless you are in control of the amount. In addition to farm sales held at the owner’s retirement or death, where there may be a few horses forward among the other items, there are regularly held horse auctions at markets in certain parts of the country where you may find heavy breeds or heavy types, as well as specialist heavy horse sales. These occur annually at either end of the summer season, sometimes run by local heavy horse breed associations.

With your advisor by your side, you will set your price and follow his advice on the quality of the horses put forward. Make sure you arrive in time to look at them carefully. Hopefully the animals will be run out, but if not you can ask to see a horse you are interested in run out before the sale. However, beware that this request could cause your interest in the horse to be noted, thereby raising the price.

You will be bidding in guineas, following a long-standing tradition in horse-buying and there may be VAT to add as well as the cost of transport home. There may be a warranty, which is the vendor’s legally binding guarantee, printed in the catalogue or announced by the auctioneer. Some phrases are accepted as implying a warranty, such as the statement that a particular horse is a good worker, or ‘quiet in all gears’. A young horse will not come with a warranty as there has been no time to assess his qualities. Description of age, height or general ‘qualities’ do not constitute warranties.

If a horse does not fulfil the warranty you will only have a short time, perhaps a day, to advise the auctioneer. It is therefore important to test your new purchase as soon as you get him home. In the event of a dispute, a third party will be called in to test the horse. Should you discover evidence of disease or disability, a veterinary inspection will have to be carried out. Expenses will be paid by the losing party.

Fortunately the likelihood of a problem is small, but you will certainly be wise to attend several auctions before attempting to buy at one. An alternative may be to get your advisor, or someone else experienced with heavy horses, to buy for you. Some experienced horsemen are prepared to buy on a commission basis.

Buying from Dealers, Breeders or Private Individuals

There is no doubt that this can also be risky. Again an advisor is essential. You need to avoid the situation where the vendor has you in for lunch or a drink and before you know where you are you feel obliged to buy their horse even though you know it to be unwise.

Your decision should be entirely dependent on your view of what the horse can do and how he behaves. You will certainly want to see him carrying out ordinary work tasks, for example harrowing or carting. You and your advisor will know the amount you want to spend. Do not give this away in conversation; if you decide to buy the horse then you can begin bargaining. Vendors will sometimes be prepared to take the horse back if it does not suit you, but be sure to ring him or her promptly, rather than leaving it for weeks or months.

If you are responding to an advertisement, be cautious. Why is the horse being sold? Make sure you study the advertisement carefully to see if a warranty is implied. If it is breached, you will only be entitled to damages if it is a condition of sale (as at auctions). The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 or the Misrepresentation Act 1967 may be of help. Details of various acts can be found in local libraries; guidance is also given by Trading Standards offices of local authorities.

When you arrive to see the horse, explore the reasons for the sale with the vendor, and reassure yourself that he or she is genuine. Again try the horse out when you get him home. If there is any doubt, be prompt in contacting the vendor. If he refuses to admit an error, you will be forced to contact your solicitor, which could be expensive.

Despite their reputation, not all dealers are rogues. A reputable dealer, or a heavy horse breeder, has a living to make and needs you to return next time you are looking for a horse. He will certainly be prepared to show you what the horse can do, and will be quite content with a veterinary inspection.

Unless you are familiar with horses, a veterinary inspection is useful, but remember that it is only legal on the day. One day a horse may be fine in wind and limb and eye, the next day it could drop dead with heart failure. Such an inspection is not an MOT which is valid for 12 months.

Characteristics to Look for in a Working Horse

If you want a horse with which to do a few parades, a little bit of showing and some work, you want a nice upstanding horse.

It is not necessary to buy a horse of 18 or 19 hh – the current popularity of this height is producing horses with spindly legs and narrow chests. It is impossible to put harness on them without a step-ladder, and your implements and vehicles will be too small. Also, you will pay for size. A horse which is 16.3-17.2 hh is quite big enough. Such a horse, if well bred, will be deep-bodied, with a nice wide chest giving plenty of room for the heart and lungs. He will be capable and willing to work for you.

Types of Working Horse

There is very little to choose between geldings and mares when it comes to working. Sometimes mares can be a little temperamental, while a really honest gelding will pull his heart out for you. One or two stallions are worked in the UK, but not many, unlike the situation in France and elsewhere in Europe where stallions are worked just as much as geldings and mares. Working stallions which are quiet and have a good temperament would be good to breed from.

Whether he be black, grey or strawberry roan makes little difference. It is nicer if he is well marked; he looks smarter, but as the saying goes, no good horse is a bad colour. Colour is really a matter of personal preference – if you want a black Shire with four white legs, that is top of the range and you will pay for it. If you are content with a horse with three white legs and one brown, he will be a lot cheaper, be just as attractive with his harness on, and equally effective.

Cross-bred horses should not be ignored. They have many characteristics which may suit someone wanting to work a smallholding, for instance. A one-off cross from a stouter horse and a full pedigree well-bred mare can be a very useful animal. They seem to be tougher, and they very often have better joints than pure-breds; they may not be so handsome, but they may last longer and they can put up with rough work on the farm.

Keeping a Working Horse

Unless your horse is to be a town horse with sufficient outside work to keep him fit, you should not house him indoors constantly, and you will need some grazing. If you do not have suitable land adjourning your house, you will probably need to buy or rent a field nearby. Two or three acres is sufficient for one horse; six acres will enable you to expand to two horses if you want to.

The paddock needs to be divided into two or three plots to allow fresh grazing and time for tired land to recover. Grazing rotation also assists in eliminating parasites. Horses are gregarious creatures and some company will be welcome, whether it is your child’s pony or an arrangement with someone else to keep their horse with yours.

The quality of the grazing is important. It should contain mixed grasses and no noxious weeds. It is particularly important to remove yew, deadly nightshade, bracken, foxglove and ragwort. Acorns or chestnuts from overhead trees could be a problem.

When the grass gets short, the horse should be moved to another paddock. Cattle or sheep introduced to clean up areas the horse has spurned will do the land good. Try to rest every paddock for two-thirds of the year, which will help control worms and other parasites. To keep it in good condition, chain harrow in the spring and roll after winter grazing has poached the ground. During the summer, try to harrow when you can to spread droppings. A dose of fertiliser may be appropriate during rest periods. If you can, plough up each paddock every few years and re-seed.

Beware of spraying done by your neighbour as this can be poisonous for horses, and watch out for well-wishers feeding your horse tit-bits over the fence, especially in suburban situations.

Make sure you have a fresh supply of water to all the paddocks. A stream may be appropriate if it is really clean and does not have a sandy bottom. Shelter is important to protect the horse from the sun, wind and rain. A field shelter can be built to serve more than one paddock. Even a suitable sized open shelter can afford your horse comfort in extremes of weather.


It is an advantage if the field has a good hedge, but more often than not you will need to erect some fencing. A heavy horse weighs nearly a ton, and when he leans or rubs on something it will give easily! Post and rail looks nice, but it is expensive and can splinter. Plain wire can be dangerous: if a horse gets his foot caught it can cut like cheese wire. Barbed wire, whilst unsightly, can be effective because horses develop a respect for it. Kept really taut, it should consist of four strands, with the top wire at least as high as the top of the horse’s legs and preferably half-way up his chest, i.e. about 4 ft 6 inch high.

Electric fencing has the advantage of being flexible should you want to change the size or shape of the paddocks. It is run off the mains, and will keep a stallion in, even with mares about. It is important to keep it taut, and new developments in fencing wire are helping with this.

Gates are expensive items and frequently inadequate. Ignore them at your peril, since the consequences of an escaped heavy horse on today’s busy roads is awful to contemplate.


Stable buildings and fittings need to be adequate for a heavy horse. If your stable is suitable only for a pony, you will find it disintegrating in quite a short space of time. Stables should be dry, well ventilated and free from draughts. Suitable space is also needed for bedding, hay and feed, harness, grooming kit and medicines, which should be kept in a locked cupboard.

You may be able to adapt a suitable existing building rather than erect purpose-built new stabling. Make sure you check whether you need planning permission. Stalls are suitable for horses in regular work. Otherwise a loose-box is advisable, measuring not less than 14ft by 12ft for one animal.

Concrete is a suitable flooring material in many ways, but where heavy horses stamp, holes will eventually appear. Blue bricks are ideal since they will take considerable pressure. It is also important to ensure that the doorway is sufficiently wide, at least 4ft, and the stable has adequate headroom.

Overhead hay racks are more suitable than hay nets. They are less time-consuming to fill and in practice falling seeds rarely cause eye problems. Hay on the ground is another possibility but it can be wasteful if quantities are dropped on the floor and then trodden into the bedding.

Security is an important consideration, especially with the growth in equine-related theft. Suitable systems to protect buildings and paddocks, and methods of identifying items of harness are vital. Several commercial companies offer solutions to these problems. Plainly, the nearer your equipment is to your home, the better its security is likely to be.


The average working heavy horse should do well on ad lib hay and some 6lb rolled barley with chaff in two meals a day. There is a huge variety of horse feeds on the market today, some low energy, some high energy. Feeding ‘up’, giving oats or giving too much commercial feed is not necessary and might even be harmful to a heavy horse. The best thing to do is to chat to your local feed merchant and experienced horsemen to get some advice on what is the best feed to use in your circumstances.


It is important to make sure that your horse is used to travelling, since he will have to make journeys at some stage in his life.

A properly designed horse box is vital. Trailers are not suitable for a big horse. A livestock transport lorry with a rear gate is essential, so that when the horse is loaded he does not put his leg over the tailboard.

There should be double thickness floors, 7ft 1inch (inside measurement) head-room, and divisions between each horse. Some people carry horses crossways, but this can be dangerous because every time the lorry sways towards the kerb the horse hits his head on the side of the lorry. Carrying them lengthways is advisable.

Steady driving is vital for the comfort of the horse; take care round roundabouts and over cambers, and watch for low branches whose noise might terrify horses inside the lorry. On the other hand, there is no need to creep around in second gear.

It should not be necessary to put leg bandages on your horse, although a tail bandage may be helpful to prevent the tail rubbing.

There is nothing worse than a horse which will not load at the end of a show. Give the horse plenty of practice at home. When he loads give him something to eat and let him stand there for half an hour. Repeat this frequently until the horse feels that loading is part of life. Make sure the tailboard is not too steep, and if necessary put a rug or old carpet on it so that it does not rattle too much when he walks up it.


Heavy horse ploughing information & history


Heavy horses for forestry & logging


Harness for the working horse


Farriery for the working horse


Training your heavy horse for work.

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.