Top 5 Largest Horse Breeds For Riding. All You Need To Know About Them

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

1. Shire:

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.

Uses:

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.

Uses:

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.

3. Clydesdale

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.  

Uses:

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.

Largest Horse Breed Clydesdale

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.  

Uses:

Belgians stand typically between 16-18 hands and are used for both driving and saddle-riding today.

Largest Horse Breed-Belgian Draft

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.

Uses:

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.

See more about the Dutch Draft here.

Conclusion

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!

Please share opinions in thoughts in the comments, and share the article for others to enjoy!

FAQs

What breed of horse is best for a heavy rider?

An Arabian breed is best for a heavy rider because they have a short stride which allows you to travel faster. Arabians have a longer torso and neck - which means that it's easier for you to keep your balance while riding. This breed of horse is also lighter, so it's easier for an Arab rider to stay balanced on their mount.
In comparison, Clydesdales are often used for pulling and other heavy work. Their breed is great for that - but not very streamlined or fast to ride. This breed of horse also has a short stride, which isn't to say it's bad, but you can become frustrated with the pace if you like things at a faster clip. However, Clydesdales are best suited for average to lighter riders.

How big can Shire horses get?

A Shire breed of horse can grow to be an average of 20 hands in size - which is an average of about 5 ½ feet tall. This breed can weigh up to 2,000 pounds when fully grown. Shires are called the "gentle giants" of the horse breed family because they are so large, yet gentle natured. They usually have one foal each year, sometimes two.
Even though Shires can get very large, once they are fully mature (about 4 years old), they don't grow any more. This breed of horse is most commonly used for pulling and farm work, but they can be bested in races. Shire horses have a short stride when walking or trotting, so it's best to stay off of this breed if you want something fast. At the same time they are known to rarely buck their rider off.

Are Percherons good riding horses?

Percherons are best suited for average to heavier riders. This is because this breed of horse has a higher head set - which means that your hands will be lower when you ride on one. If your hands and body don't line up properly with the placement of your mount's shoulders and withers, it can be uncomfortable and difficult to stay balanced in your seat. This breed of horse has a bigger body than other horses, so it's best suited to larger individuals who need more physical mass in order to keep their balance on the back of the animal.
But Percherons are best known for pulling carriages or farm equipment - not for racing or show jumping - and they can be bested in races by some other breeds.

How strong is a Belgian Draft Horse?

Belgian draft horses come in different heights and weights. They usually weight about 1,600 pounds when fully grown and stand at a minimum of sixteen hands tall - which is 5 ½ feet tall. These horses can best Clydesdales for strength even though they're smaller in height. Belgians best Clydesdales in pulling and carrying capacity, but not top speed or grace. Also, this breed bests Clydesdales in how far they can travel. A Belgian horse will not tire as quickly as a horse from the Clydesdale family. Belgians best Clydesdales because they put their strength into moving forward - while the larger horse puts all of its strength into resisting movement. So, if you want a horse that will carry you for a long distance but resist your commands to move faster - then look for a good Belgian horse.

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