The Irish Draught horse is the national horse breed of Ireland which developed primarily for farm use. Today, they are especially popular for crossing with Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, producing the popular Irish Sport Horses (also called Irish Draught Sport Horses) which excel at the highest levels of eventing and show jumping.
The breed originated from the Irish Hobby, a small ambling horse with many similarities to the primitive Garrano and Sorraia horses of Northern Spain and Portugal. War horses brought to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman invasions were bred with this local stock and later, additional Iberian blood was incorporated as Spanish horses from the shipwrecked Armadas found their way ashore near Cork and the South West of Ireland. Clydesdale, Thoroughbred and half-bred sires were used on the local Draught mares in the 1800s and early 1900s, and a sprinkling of native Connemara pony blood added to form the breed known as the Irish Draught today.
The breed was bred to be docile, yet strong. They were required not only to perform the farm work of pulling carts and ploughing, but they were also used as riding and hunt horses, and during the Great European Wars, as army artillery horses. Irish Draughts were bred to be economical to keep, surviving on grass and gorse, and on any boiled turnips, oats and bran left over from cattle feed.
The Irish government became involved with the breed at the beginning of the 20th century to promote better horses. They introduced registration and offered subsidies for stallions in 1907 and mares in 1911. Inspections for registration also began. The stud book was opened by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1917, selecting 375 mares and 44 stallions to enter as the foundation stock. Clydesdales horses were imported from Britain to meet the demand for plow horses in the heavy soil agricultural areas and also as heavy haulage horses in Dublin and other cities. Clydes were cross-bred with the Irish Draught horses in these areas, producing an animal that was taller and coarser. However, the Clydesdale was blamed for adding a lack of stamina, and poor limb and quarter horse conformation to the Irish Draught and so this practice was discontinued. Infusions of Thoroughbred blood helped to breed out some of these traits, and also added more refinement, greater endurance, and better shoulder conformation.
The breed flourished for a while, but numbers subsequently dropped as a result of death losses during the Great Wars, and the mechanization of the mid-1900s. During the latter period, thousands of horses went to the slaughterhouse each week as farm horses were sold to pay for tractors. In 1976, a small group of Irish breeders banded together to form the Irish Draught Horse Society and preserve the breed. By 1979, a branch of the Society was formed in Great Britain. The Bord na gCapall (in Gaelic, "Irish Horse Board") was formed in 1976 specifically to promote the non-Thoroughbred horse industry, but later became defunct, and was replaced in 1993 by the Irish Horse Board (IHB). The IHB administers both the Irish Sport Horse Studbook and foal registry, maintains the Irish Draught Studbook, and the Irish Draught Marebook on behalf of the Irish Draught Horse Society.
Since the evolution of showjumping in Ireland, Irish Draughts have been popular for crossbreeding. They are well-known for producing upper-level eventers and show jumpers, and are exported across the globe. Today's Irish Draught is used mainly as a foundation animal for crossing with other breeds to produce sport horses. The most popular cross is the Thoroughbred or Continental Warmblood stallion used on the purebred or partbred Irish Draught mare to produce the Irish Sport Horse (or Irish Draught Sport Horse). The Irish Draught dam passes on bone, substance, and a more sensible temperament to her crossbred offspring. The breed is also used for hunting and showing, being excellent jumpers themselves. Due to its calm good sense and strength, Irish Draught geldings are popular mounts for police forces in Britain and Ireland.
Height Stallions: 15.3 h.h. to 16.3 h.h. approx. Mares: 15.1 h.h. to 16.1 h.h. approx.
WEIGHT around 750kg for stallions Bone Good, strong, clean bone.
Head Good, bold eyes, set well-apart, long, well-set ears, wide of forehead. Head should be generous and pleasant, not coarse or hatchet-headed, though a slight Roman nose is permissible. The jaw bones should have enough room to take the gullet and allow ease of breathing
Shoulders, Neck and Front Shoulders should be clean-cut and not loaded, withers well-defined, not coarse; the neck set in high and carried proudly. The chest should not be too broad and beefy, the forearms should be long and muscular, not caught in at the elbow; the knee large and generous, set near the ground; the cannon bone straight and short, with plenty of flat, clean bone, never back of the knee (calf kneed), i.e. not sloping forward from knee to fetlock. The legs should be clean and hard, with a little hair permissible at the back of the fetlock as necessary protection; the pastern strong and in proportion, not short and upright nor too long and weak. The hoof should be generous and sound, not boxy or contracted and there should be plenty of room at the heel.
Back, Hindquarters, Body & Hind Legs The back to be powerful, the girth very deep, the loins must not be weak but the mares must have enough room to carry the foal. The croup to buttocks to be long and sloping, not short and rounded or flat topped; hips not wide and plain; thighs strong and powerful and at least as wide from the back view as the hips; the second thighs long and well developed; the hock near the ground and generous, points not too close together or wide apart but straight, they should not be out behind the horse but should be in line from the back and the quarters to the heel to the ground, they should not be over bent or in any way weak. The cannon bone, etc, as for the foreleg short and strong.
Action Smooth and free but without exaggeration and not heavy or ponderous. Walk and trot to be straight and true with good flexion in the hocks and freedom of the shoulders.