Irish Draught Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Irish Draught Horse is a strong, durable horse that has athletic tendencies and a calm disposition. Their combination of temperament and strength has made them a popular horse for crossbreeding programs with warmblood horses and Thoroughbreds to produce exceptional sport horses.

This popularity has also led to the breed becoming endangered not once, but twice in its history. Demand for Irish Sport Horses, which come from a combination of Thoroughbred and Irish Draught Horse, is so high that it is an extremely profitable export business. Crossbred horses excel in showing and eventing, in addition to athletic events, and serve as police mounts and in some military parade presentations.

More than 100 years of selection has helped to keep this breed sound while maintaining a sensible temperament. Preservation programs are in place globally to help the Irish Draught population to continue growing. It is a horse that is intelligent, willing, and filled with common sense. 

What Is the History of the Irish Draught Horse?

The Irish Draught Horse has been referenced as far back as the 18th century. It is believed that the breed came about through a breeding program between old war horses and the Irish Hobby horse. Some Iberian breeds may have been included in the establishment of the Irish Draught Horse as well, with shipwrecks bringing Spanish horses to Ireland.

In the 19th century, Thoroughbred and Clydesdale horses were brought into the breeding programs for the Irish Draught as well.

That effort helped to produce a horse that could be a good all-purpose horse for the region. It was suitable under the saddle, under harness, or for drafting work. The horses were strong and powerful, but very economical to keep for local farmers. Grazing in the summer, with food supplements of leftover cattle feed, boiled turnips, or chopped gorse let virtually everyone could own a horse.

In the early 20th century, Connemara ponies were also added to the Irish Draught.

Pedigree records for the Irish Draught have only been kept since the turn of the 20th century. Stallions had records first introduced by the government of Ireland in 1907, with records for mares following 4 years later. A stud book was opened in 1917 by the Ministry of Agriculture, with a foundation stock of 44 stallions and over 350 mares.

These records were lost in a fire in 1922.

The aftermath of the global wars was not kind to the Irish Draught Horse either. Mechanization made the need for a farm horse to be minimal at best. Transportation needs were eliminated thanks to the rise of the automobile. Food shortages made it difficult for families to justify the cost of maintaining their horses.

Those that weren’t sent for slaughter were exported to use in breeding programs for other horse breeds. By 1976, the Irish Draught Horse was virtually extinct.

That would be the year that the Irish Draught Horse Society would be formed in Ireland, with another branch forming in England in 1979. The goal was to preserve the breed, though it is still at risk. The physical traits and temperament of the Irish Draught Horse make it a good complement to sport horses, which has endangered the diversity within the breed. Bloodlines with strong performance characteristics have been inbred as well, which has further jeopardized the breed.

Annual inspections of adult horses in the stud book have been introduced to guide breeders back toward a stabilized breed. A classification system with 4 tiers has also been introduced to help provide better genetic diversity. Since 2012, the representative breed societies in Ireland, England, and Canada have agreed to maintain the same breed standards and criteria for inspection so the health of the breed can be maintained.

What Are the Characteristics of the Irish Draught Horse?

Because the breed standards for the Irish Draught Horse were harmonized in 2012, there are still different expectations for this breed dependent upon its geographic location. Going forward, however, these are the characteristics to expect globally from the Irish Draught.

An ideal horse should be at least 15.2 hands high, with a maximum height of 16.3 hands high. There should be at least 9 inches of bone when measured as the circumference of the cannon bone just below the knee. The leg bones should be flat, clean, and strong. The head of the horse should not be coarse, wide at the forehead, and there should be good width along the jawline as well. The eyes should be expressive and kind, set will apart, and representative of the horse’s temperament.

The neck of the Irish Draught should be above average in length and well-conformed. The withers must have excellent definition. Each horse should have hooves that are hard, sound, and not be boxy or spongy. The chest is deep, with hindquarters that have a gentle slope to them.

This should come together to support a movement that is free, strong, and active. There should be a lightness to the gait that is rhythmic and straight. Although horses with a “finer” body style are often sought for riding purposes, heavier horses perform just as well in virtually all riding disciplines. 

Most solid coat colors are accepted with the Irish Draught Horse, though coat colors that would qualify as a separate color breed, such as palomino, are discouraged. Most horses have a black, chestnut, brown, or bay coat color. Gray and dun are possible as well. Excessive white markings are not desirable and would likely lead to a horse being excluded.

There are four classification tiers that are part of the stud book process today, replacing the pass/fail process that was used in previous generations. Each classification is a measurement summary that indicates how closely an Irish Draught Horse matches the expected standards. Here are the four classification standards.

Class 1: These horses meet breed standard criteria and have passed an official veterinarian examination that confirms the inspection findings.

Class 2: These horses have passed an official veterinarian examination, but do not meet all the current breed standards. The offspring of a horse in this category is still eligible for a Class 1 upgrade upon inspection.

Class 3: These horses have not passed an official veterinarian examination. Breeding is not recommended for promotion of the Irish Draught breed. Their offspring are not eligible for future upgrading.

Class 4: These horses have not been examined or could not meet classification standards when examined. Their offspring are ineligible for upgrading.

Some Class 4 horses could be upgraded to Class 1 or Class 2 status if they were to be examined after the classification was given. In that instance, the offspring of the horse would follow the upgraded rules to the new classification.

For example: an Irish Draught Horse is not yet examined and given a Class 4 assignment. Upon examination at a later date, it is determined that the horse meets Class 2 expectations. The assignment is then upgraded, which would qualify the offspring of the horse to be upgraded to Class 2 as well, which would make the offspring eligible for Class 1 consideration.

Existing offspring, however, may be ineligible for a classification upgrade. Foals that are born to a Class 4 mare, who upon inspection is upgraded, may be maintained with the Class 4 rating.

Health Concerns with Irish Draught Horses

Irish Draught Horses have many of the same health concerns that face the other larger, heavier coldblood breeds. Foals have a higher risk of facing a developmental orthopedic issue, such as Osteochondritis. Some may have cysts form around their joints that must be surgically removed at the earliest possible time to allow for a complete recovery.

Many foals experience an inflammation of their growth plate as well, which may be due to their rapid growth. Joint inflammation is somewhat common for juveniles as well.

The added weight that the skeletal structure of an Irish Draught Horse must support can also lead to early-onset degenerative joint diseases. Owners who still use this breed as a work horse see this condition more often than those who train their Irish Draughts to be sport-type horses. 

Some hoof problems can be seen within the breed as well. There is an increased risk of laminitis, especially if the horse doesn’t quote meet the conformation standards that are in place. The width of the heel is especially important with the Irish Draught Horse. When it is broad and large, there are fewer problems with the hoof compared to individuals that have heels that are narrower and small.

The Irish Draught Horse is extremely popular, but it is that popularity that has put the breed at-risk over the past decades. With preservation efforts firmly in place and a harmonized set of breed standards being utilized for future generations, the recovery efforts should be successful. It is difficult to find a horse that is more caring, ambitious, and courageous than the Irish Draught, which is why it can become the perfect companion.