A draft horse, draught horse or dray horse (from the Anglo-Saxon dragan meaning to draw or haul) is a large horse bred for hard, heavy tasks such as ploughing and farm labour. There are a number of different breeds, with varying characteristics but all share common traits of strength, patience and a docile temperament which made them indispensable to generations of pre-industrial farmers. Draft horses and draft crossbreds are versatile breeds used today for a multitude of purposes, including farming, show, and other recreational uses. They are also commonly used for crossbreeding, especially to light riding breeds such as the Thoroughbred. While most draft horses are used for driving, they can be ridden and some of the lighter draft breeds are capable performers under saddle.
Draft horses may have originated with primitive ancestors such as the Forest Horse and the "draft subtype", wild subspecies that may have descendants as diverse as the large Shire horse and the small but sturdy Shetland pony. These wild prototypes were adapted by natural selection to the cold, damp climates of northern Europe.
Humans domesticated horses and needed them to perform a variety of duties. One type of horse-powered work was the hauling of heavy loads, plowing fields, and other tasks that required pulling ability. A heavy, calm, patient, well-muscled animal was desired for this work. Conversely, a light, more energetic horse was needed for riding and rapid transport. Thus, to the extent possible, a certain amount of selective breeding was used to develop different types of horses for different types of work.
While it is a common misunderstanding that the Destrier that carried the armoured knight of the Middle Ages had the size and conformation of a modern draft horse, and some of these Medieval war horses may have provided some bloodlines for some of the modern draft breeds, the reality was that the high-spirited, quick-moving Destrier was closer to the size, build, and temperament of a modern Andalusian or Friesian. There also were working farm horses of more phlegmatic temperaments used for pulling military wagons or performing ordinary farm work also provided bloodlines of the modern draft horse. Records indicate that even medieval drafts were not as large as those today. Of the modern draft breeds, the Percheron probably has the closest ties to the medieval war horse.
By the nineteenth century, horses weighing more than 1600 pounds that also moved at a quick pace were in demand. Tall stature, muscular backs, and powerful hindquarters made the draft horse a source of “horsepower” for farming, hauling freight and moving passengers, particularly before railroads came on the scene. Even in the 20th century, draft horses were used for practical work, including over half a million used during World War I to support the military effort.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of draft horses were imported from Western Europe into the United States. Percherons came from France, Belgians from Belgium, Shires from England, Clydesdales from Scotland. Many American draft registries were founded in the late 1800s. The Percheron, with 40,000 broodmares registered as of 1915, was America’s most numerous draft breed at the turn of the century. A breed developed exclusively in the U.S. was the American Cream Draft, which had a stud book established by the 1930s.
Beginning in the late 1800s, and with increasing mechanization in the 20th century, especially following World War I in the USA and after World War II in Europe, the popularity of the internal combustion engine, and particularly the tractor, reduced the need for the draft horse. Many were sold to slaughter for horsemeat and a number of breeds went into significant decline.
Today draft horses are most often seen at shows, pulling competition and they are most commonly entered in a competition called "the heavy horse trials, or as exhibition animals pulling large wagons. However, they are still seen on some smaller farms in the USA and Europe. They are particularly popular with groups such as Amish and Mennonite farmers, as well as those individuals who wish to farm with a renewable source of power. Crossbred draft horses also played a significant role in the development of a number of warmblood breeds, popular today in international FEI competition up to the Olympic Equestrian level.
Draft horses are recognizable by their tall stature and extremely muscular build. In general, they tend to have a more upright shoulder, producing more upright movement and conformation that is well-suited for pulling. They tend to have short backs with very powerful hindquarters, again best suited for the purpose of pulling. Additionally, the draft breeds usually have heavy bone, and a good deal of feathering on their lower legs. Many have a straight profile or "Roman nose" (a convex profile). Draft breeds range from approximately 16 hands high to 19hh and from 1,400 to 2,000 lbs.
Draft horses crossbred on light riding horses adds height and weight to the ensuing offspring, and may increase the power and "scope" of the animal's movement.
The Shire horse holds the record for the world's biggest horse; Sampson, foaled in 1846 in Bedfordshire, England, stood 21.2½ hands high (i.e. 7ft 2½in or approx 2.2m at his withers, and weighed approx 3,300lb or over 1.5 tonnes.
There are many other breeds.