The Clydesdale is yet another breed of horse whose precise ancestry has been lost over time. We know that it hails from the Clyde Valley of Scotland, but little else becomes clear until the mid-1700s. Then three stallions came to the forefront as the founders of the breed.
The first stallion was a Flemish horse imported by the Duke of Hamilton. The duke welcomed his tenants to breed their mares to his stallion at any time, which made the bloodline very influential in the area. The second stallion belonged to horse breeder John Paterson and was also from Flanders. Its descendants dominated local fairs for a time. The third stallion was a rather mysterious horse named Blaze. Little is known about his background, but he may have had coaching ancestry.
This combination—big horses of Flanders, a touch of coach horse, and the stocky native ponies of Scotland that were crossed to the three stallions—quickly proved to be a winning method of producing a strong workhorse. Originally called the “Clyde Man’s Horse,” the new breed that evolved won admiration everywhere it went. It could work on the farm pulling heavy implements, but it was equally at home in the city hauling coal and other heavy loads.
By 1830, breeders were making serious efforts to improve the Clydesdale in size, looks, and pulling power. Horse shows were held to identify the best stallions, which were then required under the show rules to travel through the region and produce offspring that would carry the breed forward. The improvement process was further aided later in the century by breeders Lawrence Drew and David Riddell. These two men believed that the Clydesdale and the Shire shared a common ancestry and freely crossbred the two, thus increasing the size of the former.
The Clydesdale first came to America in the 1870s, where its flashy looks proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Merchants and salesmen loved the attention the horses could attract to a wagon, but farmers did not appreciate the flowing feathering around the hooves that required thorough cleaning in muddy fields. Therefore, while the breed became well established, it did not become resoundingly popular.
World War I dealt a heavy blow to the Clydesdale worldwide, as horses were drafted into service hauling artillery. Mechanization eliminated the need for workhorses in America after the war, reducing the breed’s numbers still further. Only a few Clydesdales remained on family farms and ranches.
Incidentally, the breed owes its survival and present popularity to the famous horses purchased by the Busch family of St. Louis in 1933. Their flashy eight-horse hitch proved to be excellent advertising for their company, but it eventually became obvious that finding replacements would not be easy. The Busch family founded their own stud farm in 1953 with stallions imported from Scotland. By allowing other Clydesdale breeders free access to the services of these stallions, the farm started a rebuilding process. Along the way, the breed changed somewhat, as well, becoming taller and more stylish, but also sound and impeccably docile.
The Clydesdale population has reached an all-time high in recent years. There are an estimated 5,000 horses worldwide, over half of which reside in the North America.
The Clydesdale has become a favorite draft horse on farms and ranches of all types. It has earned its keep logging, plowing, and cutting hay, but it excels at other types of draft work, as well. It is an excellent choice for parade hitches due to its impressive appearance.
But Clydesdales are good for more than hauling heavy loads. They are steady mounts for larger riders, making them a candidate for therapeutic riding and even trail riding. They are also sometimes crossbred with Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses to produce a stronger, heavier riding horse.
The Clydesdale is among the most trustworthy of horses, being calm, gentle, and willing. It has a proud, brave spirit, but it could never be called fiery. Its tractability makes it easy to train.
Most Clydesdales have been carefully bred for soundness and good health, but it is always important to purchase horses from a reputable source. Some breeders have emphasized the breed’s looks over its health.
All Clydesdales have feathered legs, which must be groomed carefully. Built-up mud in the feathering can lead to infection.
Two problems which Clydesdales share with other draft breeds are chronic progressive lymphedema and polysaccharide storage myopathy. The first is a disorder of the lymphatic system, eventually leading to death. The second is a metabolic problem in which accumulation of excess carbohydrates in the muscles causes tremors. Fortunately, symptoms can be avoided with a high-fat, low-starch diet.
- Relatively low cost to purchase.
- Safety around children and people inexperienced with horses.
- Hardiness, particularly in cold weather.
- Impressive strength.
- Space requirements.
- Hefty appetite.
- Need for special high-fat diet for optimal health and performance.
- High-maintenance feathering on legs.
- Reduced fertility.
- Difficult births.