The Australian Draft Horse is a domesticated working horse that evolved in Australia. It is not a purebred, but rather a combination of four distinct breeds of draft horses (the Clydesdale, Percheron, Shire, and Suffolk Punch) that were imported into Australia when the country was still a British colony. The Australian draft horse has all of the best qualities of its ancestors, and almost none of their weaknesses.
The Origins of Draft Horses
Draft horses (also known as draught horses, heavy horses, cold-blooded horses, and workhorses) have played a critical role in the development of modern civilization. The term “Draft Horse” was coined because “drafting” was the purpose for which they were used (i.e. “drafting” means to pull a heavy load).
Compared to mounts, which are horses bred for riding, draft horses are stouter, more heavily built, stronger, and have a milder temperament. The reason they are also called “cold-blooded” is not because they literally have cold blood coursing through their veins, but rather stems from the fact that they are mild tempered, and it takes a lot to cause them to become “riled” or irritated.
Draft horses in general evolved from the bulkier type of horses that were usually found in the northern hemisphere. These horses are heavier and broader than the lighter mounting horses, mainly because they needed to be, in order to survive the harsh northern climates. As early as ancient Roman times, heavy horses have been used to haul heavy loads, and for pulling plows on farms. In the middle ages, these heavy horses were the first choice when it came to picking war horses, because they could easily carry a fully armored knight into battle.
At the turn of the last century, draft horses were once again used for practical domestic work, such as plowing fields and pulling carts. During both World Wars, the larger breeds of draft horses were used for pulling military wagons through the battlefields. Because of their immense strength and their steely nerves, they made for great beasts of burden in the chaotic battlefield.
After the Second World War, the demand for draft horses started to diminish, mainly due to the development of the modern combustion engine. As a result, many draft horses were sent to the slaughterhouses, resulting in a drastic decline in the population of many breeds. Some breeds were actually brought to the brink of extinction.
Thanks to the valiant efforts of dedicated breeders, modern draft horse breeds have been saved. These days, draft horses are rarely used for heavy work. They are now mainly bred for competitions and as pleasure mounts.
The Origins of the Australian Draft Horse
One can trace the beginnings of the Australian draft (or draught) horse back to circa 1850, when the importation of horses of different European breeds into Australia was in full swing. During those early years of the English colonization of Australia, agriculture was the main industry, so one could say that the country’s growth at that time rested on the strong backs of draft horses.
In the 1850s, Van Diemen’s Land, which is now modern day Tasmania, was the pioneer when it came to breeding work horses, and the biggest contributor was the Van Diemen’s Land Company. The company was responsible for the bulk of the horses imported into Australia.
Before the introduction of draft horses, bullocks (oxen) were responsible for most of the draught work. However, they are quite slow beasts, and they are hard to train. Draft horses are faster on their feet, are more intelligent, and have much better temperaments compared to bullocks, so they quickly took over their roles. Early Scottish settlers in Australia heavily promoted the use of Clydesdales, as this was the work horse breed with they were most familiar.
In 1885, at Maryvale, Queensland, the Weinholdt Brothers established a quite notable draft horse stud. At the time most Australian states preferred to use Shire horses, because they were big and powerful. However, in Victoria, it was the Clydesdale that reigned supreme, and the folks in New South Wales, and also in the black soil country, preferred the Suffolk Punch work horses.
The Australian draft horse evolved mainly from the four most popular purebred draft horses that were imported into Australia, the Clydesdale, Suffolk, the Shire, and the Percheron, but there are also some Belgian lines thrown in for good measure. The Australian draft carries most of the characteristics of the four purebreds, making it one of the most dependable work horses ever.
During the early days of the country, the Australian draft horse was the one that opened up the countryside. Most Australian farmers had at least one Australian draft horse in their barn, and they were used to plow fields and pull their wagons. Back in the day, the Australian drafts also filled the role of the family’s main form of transportation. The dad would hitch the family’s Australian draft onto a wagon, and the rest of the family would hop on for a nice day in town.
In those days, the Australian drafts were like the family’s car and/or pet. They were that close to their horses!
From the moment of its inception as a breed, the Australian draft horse remained the most popular work horse in the country. To this day, dedicated breeders still produce top quality Australian draft horses that strictly adhere to the breeding guidelines set by the breeding society. Even breeders who are not registered with the society follow those guidelines.
In 1915, the Clydesdale Stud Book was established. Prior to its establishment, workhorse breeding was haphazard at best. Breeders bred different lines of horses, some even breeding within the same stock, without consideration of the consequences. Because of the stud book, breeders knew what they needed to look for in a horse breed. In the latter part of 1918, machines started replacing the draft horses in their respective industries.
Just like the other heavy horse breeds all over the world, the Australian draft horse dwindled in numbers because farmers had embraced the more efficient and cost-effective tractors and other farming equipment. The sad part is that during the time of transition, thousands of unwanted horses were sent to the slaughterhouses, because the demand for them had become somewhat non-existent.
However, thanks in large part to the efforts of some dedicated breeders, the Australian draft horse has made a comeback in recent years. However, these days they are primarily bred as pleasure mounts and show horses. The Australian draft horses of today are quite regal in stature, making them perfect for horse shows. They are also frequently found in work horse competitions. One can find the Australian draft horse in plowing competitions that are held in all states of Australia.
In some parts of Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania, some farmers still adhere to the old ways, and use the Australian draft horse as they were originally intended. They are still working the land the way that pioneers did several generations before. There are also some Australian drafts that can be seen being used in forestry work and in logging, as these beasts can go where bulky machinery cannot. In addition, horses do not damage the land to the extent that machine tracks do.
Characteristics of the Australian Draft Horse
Australian draft horses have an average height of between 16 to 17.2 hands, which makes them quite large horses, but still not quite as tall as one of their predecessors, the Shire. This horse breed has an average-sized head, but it does have a rather broad brow. The Australian draft horse has clear eyes, which is quite representative of their gentle nature. Their ears are always standing alert, and their necks are of medium length and girth. The stallions have a pronounced crest, and their muscular shoulders flow smoothly into their withers, chests, and backs. These animals have wide hips, hindquarters, and chests to accommodate their large, powerful muscles.
The Australian draft horse is a very sturdy and reliable breed, which is well-suited for the purposes for the purpose for which they were intended. This breed is quite hardy, which makes them really at home in the harsh climate of Australia. They also have a great deal of stamina, making them very able work horses.
Despite their large and menacing frames, the Australian draft horse is a kind-hearted, intelligent, and calm breed, which makes them easy to train and work with. In the past, there were even reports of children leading these gentle giants.
The Australian draft horse can come in all solid colors, except for white. The reason is because their pink skin (which is under the white fur) is more prone to sunburn, which is an immediate red flag, since the horse is expected to work under the intense Australian sun. However, the Australian draft horse is allowed to have white below the knees, and in some parts of the face.
Uses of the Australian Draft Horse
As mentioned earlier, the Australian draft horse was primarily bred for draft work, meaning they were beasts of burden. Their large frames, strong muscles, and exceptional stamina, made them the perfect animals for pulling rail carts, dragging logs in lumberyards, plowing fields, and for many other heavy tasks. Until they were eventually replaced by machinery, the Australian draft horse was responsible for the rapid development of Australia.
These days however, the Australian draft horse is usually only seen in horse shows, and in draft horse competitions. These competitions serve as a reminder of what these beasts are capable of doing.
Recently, there has been a resurgence in the use of draft horses in forestry. Australian draft horses are preferred because they can get to places that are too overgrown for most heavy machinery, and their hooves do not destroy the woodland floor the way that machine tracks do. The number of logs they can haul may be somewhat limited, but still exceed what could be hauled by humans alone.
The Australian Draft Horse Stud Book Society
In 1978, a group of dedicated breeders of the Australian draft horse came together to form the Australian Draught Horse Stud Book Society, and have since then become the authority when it comes to the breed. The society implements rules in order to preserve the breed. One such rule is that Australian draught horses should have minimal to no white coloration, as the pink skin underneath is not suitable for Australian working conditions.
The primary objectives of the Australian Draught Horse Stud Book Society is the promotion of responsible and ethical breeding of the Australian Draft Horse, as well as to preserve their unique identity. The society also holds field days all throughout the year, so that members and non-members alike can share and enhance their knowledge about the breed, and also to preserve the skills involved in working with draught horses in general.