Largest breeds of horses are frequently referred to as the gentle giants of the horse world. Of these gentle giants, a few stand out being the most giant. While there are certainly exceptions, most equine experts agree that the largest horse breed include the Shire, the Percheron, the Clydesdale, the Belgian Draft, and the Dutch Draft.
These gentle giants can serve many purposes for equine enthusiasts, and it is important that we, as horse people, understand their value and place in our community.
Top 5 Largest Horse Breed For Riding
Traditionally, the largest horse breed is the Shire. The Shire originated in Europe, tracing its roots back to older English and Dutch breeds. It is named for the countryside “shires” where the breed originated. These horses were used primarily for plowing and farming before the Industrial Revolution and have since decreased in popularity now that their immense strength is no longer needed in agriculture.
Shires typically stand at least 16 hands tall and are traditionally preferred to be solid colors, although some white markings are possible. Possibly the most famous Shire horse was Mammoth, a gelding that stood 21.2 hands, and is the tallest horse ever recorded.
Today, the shire is used in commercial and competitive carriage driving. Shires can be seen pulling carts of tourists around cities or pulling with a team at a horse show.
2. Largest Horse Breed-Percheron
Another famous gentle giant is the Percheron, which originated in France. The Percheron was named from “Le Perche,” the small French province where the breed was originally found. In the 1800’s, when the Percheron was first discovered, the breed was used primarily for war.
The Percheron’s brave, steady, and loyal personality made it the ideal mount for soldiers of the time. The breed stands between 16 and 18 hands today, similar to many other draft breeds, and comes in nearly all solid colors. Belgians today are used for driving as well as riding. They have made appearances as trail horses, dressage horses, and pleasure horses for riders seeking a steady, smooth mount.
A notable aspect of Percheron breeding is the Percheron sport horses, which are Percherons crossed with lighter breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and warmbloods. I can speak to the value of this breed, as my first event horse was a Percheron/Thoroughbred. “Foxy” was everything that you could want in an event horse; she was brave, strong, willing, and tolerant. She was big enough to give a new event rider security in the saddle, but light on her feet enough to clear the fences with ease.
These Percheron crosses are definitely popular in dressage and eventing, and they can also be seen in foxhunting, which is what Foxy competes in today.
Of course, when you and I think of Clydesdales, the first thing that comes to mind is the famous Budweiser Clydesdales (as well as the tear-jerking Superbowl commercials that accompany them). But, there’s more to the Clydesdale than being an icon for a famous beer company. The Clydesdale is originally from Scotland, where it was named after the River Clyde, and the old district of Clydesdale in Lanarkshire. Similar to the Shire and the Percheron, the Clydesdale was used for both agriculture and war in the 1800’s. Since then, the breed’s popularity has declined, but it has found a niche that neither the Percheron nor the Shire have.
The Clydesdale is famous for its flashy feathers (long hair starting below the knee and extending to the hoof) and unique white markings. Because of these characteristics, Clydesdales are often used in parades and exhibits, and Clydesdale breed showing is also gaining popularity.
Clydesdales traditionally maintain a bay coat color but will sometimes be marked with sabino pinto markings on their legs and barrels. This, in conjunction with their white, brown, and black feathers creates a beautiful and unique horse which has intrigued draft horse enthusiasts around the world.
4. Largest Horse Breed-Belgian Draft
Another of the largest breeds of horses is the Belgian, also called the Brabant. As can be guessed, the Belgian originated in Belgium and was also used primarily for war and agriculture in its past. The Belgian is often confused with the Percheron, but the Belgian has a distinguishing factor that sets it apart. This is its famous “blonde” coloring, which, in more technical terms, is called sorrel. Belgians have a Chesnut coat (ranging in hues) with a very light, blonde-like mane and tail. Belgians often frequently carry the “mealy gene,” which causes their noses to be significantly lighter than normal. To you and I, their nose would look similar to that of a mule or donkey, with a much lighter gray or tan coloring than the average horse.
Belgians stand typically between 16-18 hands and are used for both driving and saddle-riding today.
5. Largest Horse Breed-Dutch Draft
The last of the gentle giants to make the top five largest breeds is the Dutch Draft. Unfortunately, there are not many Dutch Draft horses left in existence today. Unlike breeds such as the Clydesdale, the Dutch Draft has struggled to find a niche in the modern world. They were first bred in Holland in the 1800’s, and were, as expected, used for agriculture and for war.
The Dutch Drafts that remain today are primarily still used for agricultural purposes, such as logging and plowing. Most other draft breeds have found a way to thrive in the era of the machine, so there is hope yet for the Dutch Draft to find a new career.
Each breed of gentle giants brings something unique to the equine community. The Shire, Percheron, Clydesdale, Belgian, and Dutch Draft have all survived the test of time and have established themselves as the largest horse breeds in existence today. I hope you all enjoyed this article, and I hope it helped you understand and appreciate the importance of draft breeds in the equine community today!
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