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Norwich Bulletin - 9/6/2009

Horse History - Part Two

Those Clydesdales horses that pull the Budweiser Beer wagons are part of a breed group known as Draft Horses. Draft Horses are recognizable by size – very tall, very muscular and very big – anywhere from sixteen to nineteen hands high and weighing up to 2,000 pounds! Their very largeness seems to make them more upright and well-suited for the purpose of pulling. Beer wagons, plows, the Amish carriages – these are the types of jobs that are trusted to the heavy bones draft horse.

Draft horses most probably originated with primitive ancestors such as the Forest Horse, a wild prototype that were adapted by natural selection to the cold, damp climates of northern Europe. This wild subspecies is thought to be the ancestor of the large Shire horse, as well as the stocky and sturdy Shetland Pony. Humans domesticated horses because, quite frankly, they needed them.

A large, strong horse on a farm was worth an awful lot to the settlers. They were used for hauling heavy loads of logs and other supplies, plowing fields and aiding the human to pull up rocks and small trees to clear the land to both build their houses or level fields for farming. A heavy, patient, calm and well-muscled animal was wanted for this type of work. While the Quarter Horse was utilized for rapid transport, the Draft Horses were the “working peasants” of Europe and early America.

By the nineteenth century, Draft Horses weighed more than 1.600 pounds that could also move at a quick pace. They were our stagecoach horses, our milk truck horses, and even in the twentieth century, draft horses were used for practical work, including over half a million used during World War I to support the military effort.

Thousands of draft horses were imported from Western Europe during these times; Percherons from France, Belgians from Belguim, Shires from England and probably the most well-known draft horses,the Clydesdales from Scotland. There was also a breed that was developed exclusively in the United States known as the American Cream Draft Horse, which had a stud book established in the 1930’s.

It was during these times that the Draft Horse started losing some of its value with the invention of the internal combustion engine, and in particular the farming equipment machines, such as the tractor. It decreased the need for these strong work horses and I am embarrassed to say that the “humans’” answer to this was to sell many of these magnificent creatures for horsemeat. Once again, man misused nature’s gifts.

Today Draft horses are most often seen at exhibitions or at state fairs where they have pulling competitions. However, they are still utilized on the smaller farms throughout Europe and the United States, particularly with groups such as the Mennonite and Amish farmers, for both field work and transportation.

Going to the other side of the horse spectrum are the breeds of light horses, such as the Arab: a small, agile, highly spirited and intelligent horse. These are truly my favorite horses, having been lucky enough to own one as a teenager. Habebe (meaning sweetheart) would take your breath away – coal black, and exuding strength and loyalty to his person. Also derived from the Arab and English mares, is the Thoroughbred, which was bred strictly for its speed, for horse racing.

Then from the Thoroughbreds came the Standardbreed, used for pacing and trotting races, as well as the Tennessee Walking Horse, developed for overseeing southern plantations with a special gait which allowed the overseers to travel as fast as a trot but at a smooth and comfortable gait. And lets not forget the famous Lippizaner horses – pure white horses named after its place of origin in Yugoslavia and bred in Austria and Italy in the sixteenth century. These magnificent horses are used for advanced dressage, as practices and performed by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

We also have our ponies, small horses that combine the qualities of the bigger horses. We have the Highland, which is the strongest of British breeds and has no equal when it comes to hardiness and staying power – going all the way down to our smallest pony, the Shetland Pony. Probably the most well known (except for the name) is the Connemara, which is a large Irish breed, most often used as a polo pony.

The mule is the offspring of a female horse and a male ass and is usually sterile. It is a hardy pack animal. When you turn it around though, and use a male horse with a female ass, for some reason you get a less useful beast of burden known as a hinny. Pack mules are still used in many areas. They are born followers and do not daydream while carrying their loads. Pack mules know their job and want to do it – they are easier to keep than a pack horse. And they are so cute!

Even though we live in the modern world, more than half the world’s population are still dependent on horses for their livelihood in one way or another. Despite this, in many countries working horses are suffering because their owners have no knowledge or income to oversee the welfare of their animals.

Consequently, the working horse generally receives little or no veterinary care, are kept in poor conditions with a lack of nutritional food, and are overloaded, poorly shod, infested with parasites and working long hours in high temperatures without rest or water. A poor testament for one of the animals that helped form our great country, and actually, much of the world.

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