Clydesdale Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Clydesdale horse might be a heavy draft horse and not bred for action, but it is a breed that prefers to be active. They prefer to be busy and in either a social or open environment. If a Clydesdale is not allowed to explore, then they like to interact with other people or horses. Should neither option be available, boredom tends to set in and the size of this breed means that unintended trouble can be caused.

Clydesdales are highly intelligent horses that offer a stylish appearance and a certain elegance that is superior to other breeds. They have a high-stepping action that is attractive to the high, especially with the feathering that is around the hoof. 
Despite their size, Clydesdales tend to be easy keepers. They do have high feed demands, however, that can be difficult to maintain for some. The average Clydesdale will eat about 60 pounds of hay every day and up to 10 pounds of grain. Performance horses tend to eat a little more than this. For that reason, when mechanization came to most industries in the 1940s and 1950s, the cost of keeping a Clydesdale didn’t make much sense.

Clydesdale horses have one of the largest hooves of any equine breed. A single horseshoe that would work for this breed would be about the size of a dinner plate and typically weighs 5 pounds. To compare with other breeds, a Thoroughbred horseshoe is about 25% the size of a Clydesdale horseshoe.

About 600 new registrations are filed every year for this breed in the United States and a similar number of international registriations occur as well. 

Origins of the Clydesdale

The Clydesdale horse is a relatively new edition to the equine world. Developed from Flemish stallions that were brought to Scotland, farmers immediately recognized that the foals they were getting from their mares were larger than normal. This may have happened as early as the 15th century, though documentation of this horse didn’t begin until the 19th century.

Local records indicate that there was a system of stallion hiring that was used as early as 1837 to help establish the Clydesdale breed. Shows would be held regionally to determine which stallions were the best. The owner of that stallion would then be awarded a monetary prize, but then be required to take their stallion to designated regions for breeding. 

This process allowed the Clydesdale horse to move from Scotland into Northern England. Because of its size and strength, it became a popular horse for agricultural work. It also performed well in the harness. This led to the Clydesdale Horse Society forming in 1877.

Word of these horses traveled quickly into the Americas, where US farmers immediately saw the advantage of owning a heavy draft horse. Many were imported in the late 19th century and a complementary American Clydesdale Society was formed in 1879.

As the world entered the 20th century, tens of thousands of Clydesdales were exported or transcripted into military service. By 1949, the number of stallions in the UK were barely above 200. By 1975, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust had classified the breed as being vulnerable to extinction.

Clydesdales may have been threatened in the UK, but the exported stallions of the past established a strong population in Australia and New Zealand. In the 20th century, more than 25,000 Clydesdales would be registered with the region’s society and efforts in the Americas, most famously with the Budweiser brand, help to re-establish the breed’s popularity.

Characteristics to Expect with the Clydesdale

The characteristics of the average Clydesdale have changed dramatically over the centuries. In the early 20th century, the Clydesdale was more compact and shorter than the other heavy draft breeds. Efforts since 1940 in breeding programs have been to have the Clydesdale become taller and heavier, giving it a more impressive appearance. Most Clydesdales will stand between 16-18 hands high, but some stallions can be up to 20 hands high.

The average Clydesdale will weigh about 1 ton. Some stallions have been known to reach 3,000 pounds. 

Clydesdale horses have a sloped shoulder, high withers, and an arched neck. They are still compact and strong, but with a length that indicates power and movement quality. The hooves and legs often receive the most attention by the breeding society’s today because the carriage of the horse is just as important as its physical conformation.

The forehead should be nice and open, with a broadness between the eyes that is noticeable. The muzzle is also wide, while the pasterns are long and set at a 45-degree nagle. 

Clydesdales have feathering from the knee down and this trait is due to the mingling of Shire bloodlines in the early 20th century. Shires were bred to Clydesdales to help create more consistency within the breed, while Clydesdales were bred to Shires to help that breed have stronger legs and a better muscular profile.

Sometimes the feathering can be very thick and this can lead to a skin condition that is like mange. Clydesdales tend to have pink skin that is sensitive to sunlight, so sunburns around the face during the summer months is somewhat common as well.

Most Clydesdales have a bay coat, but chestnut, black, and grey are somewhat common as well. Most horses will have white markings on their face, feet, and legs. Some spotting on the lower belly is permitted as well. Color and markings tend to be the emphasis of breeding programs, so Clydesdales are one of the few breeds where the soundness of the horse can be secondary to the actual coat color and texture that is present.

Clydesdale horses in the United States have been heavily influenced by the Budweiser breeding program. Many American Clydesdales tend to be bay with white markings because that is the brand emphasis for Budweiser. It is also why American Clydesdales tend to be taller than international Clydesdales.


Interesting Facts About the Clydesdale Horse

  • One of the largest horses in history was a Clydesdale. Named Poe, he was measured at 20.2 hands high and weighed over 3,000 pounds.
  • It is easy to own a Clydesdale, despite their general rarity. Most Clydesdales sell for less than $10,000, though champion horses can sell for six figures. Purchasing the rights to a foal can be just $1,000.
  • There is a strange breed conformation standard for Clydesdales. The tarsal joint of the hind leg is set inward for this breed, which can create a knock-kneed appearance. In most breeds, this would be considered a fault.
  • Their feathering and thick coat can be an advantage to the breed, but there are times when it is a disadvantage as well. Clydesdales that are exposed to wet environments on a regular basis have a higher than average risk of experiencing rain rot and other skin conditions.
  • Clydesdales can pull up to 4 times their weight over short distances.
  • Owning a Clydesdale horse means using a stall size that is twice the size of a standard horse stall. Clydesdale stalls need to be at least 24x24 feet instead of the standard 12x12 feet at minimum – and this applies only if the horse is turned out every day. 
  • The average Clydesdale foal will weigh almost 200 pounds when it is born. A mare needs to produce up to 100 pounds of milk each day during this weanling period.
  • After birth, a Clydesdale foal can gain an average of 4 pounds per day.

How the Clydesdale Horse Has Been Used

Because of their size, the Clydesdale horse has been used for agricultural and industrial work. In the 19th century, these horses were often used for hauling heavy coal loads to Glasgow. Farmers preferred the horse because it could plow through the tough lands of Scotland and Northern England. They were also quite popular for carriage services and parade needs because of their formal look and overall size.

Clydesdales are classified as a coldblooded horse, so their temperament is calm, willing, and gentle. This made them a useful war horse, especially in the trench warfare of World War I. The wars in Europe over the 18th and 19th centuries also saw Clydesdales being used in cavalry regiments on a frequent basis because of their consistency and lack of flight.

In Europe, Clydesdale horses are often used as drum horses to lead parades or other ceremonial occasions. They are also used as a brand image for Budweiser, who has maintained their own herd of Clydesdales since the end of the Prohibition era. 

Clydesdales are often added to breeding programs for other horse breeds. A common modern use is to cross a Clydesdale with a Thoroughbred to create a sporting horse that has a temperament that is calmer, but still has the spirit to compete.

The Clydesdale horse may be one of the more famous heavy draft breeds and that could help this breed survive in the coming years. With a total global population of about 5,000, Clydesdales are not threatened with extinction, but more work does need to be done to guarantee their survival.