Few breeds of horses are as recognizable as the Clydesdale and even fewer are so closely associated with a long standing and iconic national brand. But every winter, we eagerly await the Super Bowl and its celebrated commercials, featuring this very special breed of horse. In those few seconds, the Clydesdale symbolizes the very essence of equine nobility in America.
But beyond the well-rehearsed advertisement, Clydes have managed to maintain a fairly low profile. Everybody knows them in those few polarizing moments, but what happens next? Where do these horses find a job in modern times?
Despite this limited exposure, the breed is experiencing a surge of popularity. Their versatility and even temperaments are creating a host of loyal followers across the globe, but we wanted to hear for ourselves how Clydes were being used today… and after you hear what these owners have to say, you may be considering one for your next purchase too.
Clydesdales are named for the small corner of Scotland where their breed was developed. Mares local to the region were cross bred with Flemish stallions to create a new kind of work horse.
This original breed became wildly popular with farmers, however Clydes were also favored as flashy carriage horses. Their gentle disposition made them great for crowded city streets and their endurance levels would often outshine those of heavier draft breeds like Belgians or Percherons who were better suited to pull large and heavy loads for short distances.
With the invention of the steam engine, Clydes and their fellow drafts became less necessary to daily living. Because of this, motor vehicles and tractors replaced buggies and plows and breeding necessities began to change.
While Clydes were no longer in high demand, they were still bred with enthusiasm. It could be argued that the breed received a winnowing of sorts with the invention of engine technology. In other words, they weren’t being bred as widely, so what breeding did occur was possibly happening with more thought and consideration.
Wes Lupher, 50, Wyoming Rancher
Lupher runs a small ranch in Wyoming. In fact, the ranch has been in his family since the late 1800’s. His calf/cow operation is fed by the grass and hay the family grows in order make it through the long and sometimes difficult Wyoming winters.
Using horses over machinery was a deliberate choice for Lupher. “Instead of getting myself in debt by purchasing machinery, I decided to put the horses to work. We’ve always had horses, but we used them on a limited basis. I already had a lot of the equipment I’d need for haying. In the end, I intentionally chose to work with a team instead of buying a lot of expensive farm equipment. Now, I work 240 to 300 acres of hay with them every year.”
So how does one go about finding a perfect team?
“They usually find me!” Lupher laughed. He regularly trains and sells new and seasoned drafts to people all over the country. Not by specific design, but events just sort of evolved into that process for him.
“People will call about horses with problems, but the biggest issue is lack of use. A young horse that’s jumpy or has more energy will come out of those behaviors with steady work. In fact, most horses tend to be that way. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have the time or the place to for to work with their teams the way I do. My drafts are harnessed 300+ days a year and see enough work to get through most behavioral problems.”
Lupher starts all of his new acquisitions the same, regardless of breed. Many of his techniques straddle the same lines as more common saddle horses until they arrive at harness work at which point he’ll drive them as singles and with one of his other well trained drafts. However, he insists that their most important job to simply stand. His horses, in effect, become bomb proof by working with the various aspects required for major haying processes.
Over the years, Lupher has harnessed drafts of all sizes, shapes and colors.
“I wouldn’t say I’m partial to one breed, but I like Clydes (and Shires) because of their long stride. They cover a lot of ground, but still have that cold blooded, gentle disposition. Heavy muscled horses like Belgians or Percheron’s tend to tire out on long days of lighter work. They’re better suited for big heavy loads and short lugs, so Clydes fit in perfectly with the sort of work we do here.”
Cortney McDaniel, 27, Washington – Public Safety/First Responder
McDaniel was introduced to draft horses at the age of ten. Her German born trainer said she had to ride without stirrups for a year or learn equestrian vaulting, so before she knew it, McDaniel was sitting on a gentle draft and falling in love with the super-sized horses.
The grown-up version of McDaniel was intent on vaulting again as she prepared to make a new horse purchase three years ago. “I wanted a draft or draft cross. I did a lot of research on different breeds. I had experience in riding Percherons and Belgians, but they were bred to plow and it’s in their nature to pull.”
“I started looking, just to see what was out there and I found a Clydesdale named Charlotte on Craigslist. Her owner just had a baby and didn’t have the time to ride, so she was offering a lease. I thought she was cute and big enough for vaulting, so I figured I’d give it a try and see how she did. I knew she was something special right away. After the first month of my lease, the owner decided to sell and offered me the first option. I didn’t hesitate and haven’t regretted it for one minute!”
But vaulting wasn’t in the cards for McDaniel and her new Clyde, Charlotte. “In public safety, I have odd hours, so I wasn’t able to stick with the schedule of the new vaulting team I was riding with. Meanwhile, Charlotte kept jumping out of the pasture, so I decided to try something new. I wanted to change things up and do some dressage work, but every time we’d go out on the trail or if Charlotte would see a branch laying in the outdoor arena, she’d want to jump them! I’d never done any jumping, so I figured I better find a new trainer.”
McDaniel found Jenny Holbrook, a trainer who didn’t raise her eyebrows when she explained she wanted to jump a Clydesdale.
“It was hard to find a trainer who wasn’t shocked and asking questions like, you want to Event a Clydesdale?” McDaniel laughs. “She just took us on and said if you want to do this and your horse is happy about it, then we’ll do it!”
The one thing McDaniel was reminded of right away was a draft horses’ ability to take care of their rider. “They’re always so gentle and sweet. My biggest concern had been if Charlotte would really move forward enough to jump. I didn’t want her to be slow and have to drag her around.”
Turns out, McDaniel didn’t have to worry.
“I feel like Charlotte is brave!” she explained. “I have faith she’ll go through water or over a log without issue. I have more trust in her as a horse. I thought when we started jumping, she would just want to barrel through everything and have to be pulled around the course. Of course things are different because of her size. Her stride is long and big but, when we come to a jump, she moves forward with care. It’s like she doesn’t want to knock anything over. I know smaller horses can take turns fast and sharp, they can eliminate strides too. But Charlotte’s more level headed than a lot of smaller horses. I have so much faith in her.”
At home, Charlotte has become barn favorite and the eight year old mare attracts a crowd at every horse show. “At our last show, we could barely get her off the trailer. Everyone was fawning over her. People were asking what we were doing there and I was like, We’re going to compete with you too! They are always so shocked!”
McDaniel who has become a fierce endorser of the Clydesdale breed in great part to her dear Charlotte.
“They are so intelligent. Everyone thinks they’re just these big ol’ horses, and they are, but they come with an amazing set of smarts!”
John Haney, 42, Vermont Jack of All Trades (Farm owner, Civil Engineer and Logger)
Haney may be the ideal representation of the new breed of Clyde owner. “We have 100 acres in central Vermont. I guess some would call this a hobby farm but really, it’s just the way we like to live. We do our own hay and manage a sixty acre wooded lot.”
In various parts of the country, land owner are offered a tax credit for creating forest management plans on their private wooded acreage. Current or Land Use programs require owners to outline a scheduled approach for managing their forested property through a variety of cuttings to light wood trimmings.
Haney maintains his own management plan with the use of Clydesdales and offers his services to other land owners like himself when the opportunity presents itself.
“If you’re planning to just go in and clear some land, then horses may not be the most efficient way to get the work done.” Haney explained. “There are more economical ways to do it. However, if you need to get in and work amongst the trees and actually save some of them, then there’s a smaller footprint with horses. However, this process isn’t for everybody. My costs are a slightly higher than mechanical outfits, but there are land owners who place a value on the work I provide with my Clydesdales.”
Haney’s process actually began in 2009 when he and his wife purchased two Clyde yearlings.
“I wasn’t familiar with using draft horses!” He laughed. “I’d been around horses most of my life. My sister rode when we were young, but I wasn’t so much into that aspect of things. As I grew up, I started working on horse farms but, it wasn’t until we got into the draft horses that I really started to interact with them.”
Haney choose Clydes over other draft horses because of a Clyde/Thoroughbred cross his wife had been riding. “That horse was awesome and that’s what made me choose Clydesdales. Their temperament and size really appealed to me. I knew I wanted to spend a lot of time with these horses and logging has afforded me the ability to do that.”
Working in the forest was a way for Haney to interact with his new horses. “To drive horses in the woods and to log with them is its own beast. The skills a person needs to control the horses in that environment and the way his horses have to move and work in those tight spaces, well it requires a unique relationship. I don’t think you can take any well-broke team that’s spent time pulling wagons or farm equipment into the woods. You can’t take just any animal in there and expect to work with them. They have to deal with unleveled ground and steep grades. Logging is something so completely unique that I don’t expect every team could do this kind of work.”
Haney may also be exceptional himself, in the simple fact that we were unable to immediately find any other logger using Clydes in the Northeast. Logging teams are predominately made up of Belgians and Percherons, but even he admits to a predisposition to approaching things differently. So much so that he created his own sort of training process to go along with his new logging endeavor.
Without practical experience in working drafts, Haney made the effort to get training from an intensive three day driving clinic with a family who specializes in such work. He attended multiple events hosted by the Draft Animal Power Network and engaged other seasoned veterans who had years of experience working with drafts.
“While all these things work together to help prepare you,” Haney explained with a chuckle, “Working under the supervision of someone and then doing it on your own at home, is much different!”
However, he did understand the key ingredients needed for success: time and patience. “I gathered info early on and formulated how I wanted to work with my horses. I wouldn’t say my method has been the right way or wrong way, but this is how I wanted to do it. And this is what’s worked best for us.”
“I’ve worked with some pretty decent trainers over the years and some basic truths about training and horses are universal. It doesn’t matter about size. But I will say this: Clydes are really calm. There’s not much that ruffles their feathers!”
Clydes have become a favorite for their biddable nature and even temperament and Clyde owners are known for their fierce loyalty to the breed. While the horses themselves have proven to be as willing as their owners, they are no longer limited to pulling wagons full of beer or royalty. Despite their size, or maybe because of their stature, they are the lovable and curious horses of our childhood dreams.
Draft Horse and Clydesdale Resources
- DAPnet – The Draft Animal Power Network is based in New England but offers extensive information for owners, breeders and sellers. They regularly assist with disseminating information on clinics, shows and auctions for those who want to learn more about various breeds of drafts visit www.draftanimalpower.org
- Clydesdale Breeders of the USA – The Go-To organization for Clyde owners here in the United States. They offer information on breeding, registration and they facilitate the National Clydesdale Sale. www.clydesusa.com
- Draft Horse Friends (Facebook) – while most public groups on Facebook have a tendency to be a breeding ground for internet trolls, this page is great. We’ve rarely seen such a lively page with so many people willing to help each other with information and encouragement. The page isn’t reserved for owners/breeders but is open to anyone who has a genuine interest in the larger breeds.