Clydesdale Horse: Facts, Origin & History

Horse Breeds – the Clydesdale

Clydesdale Horse: Facts, Origin & History

In today’s urban landscape, few sounds can elicit the wonder and excitement of the clip-clopping of a horse’s feet down a city street.  If you live or work in downtown Victoria or have had the privilege to visit our historic waterfront city, you’ve undoubtedly heard this sound and seen some of the colourful horses from the Tally-Ho herd.  

Aside from their different coat colours and markings, you might think they are the same kind of horse. However, there are several unique draft breeds across the world that range in size from light to heavy types.  

Over our next series of blog posts, we’re going to take you through the unique history and features of five of these breeds – including the Clydesdale, Percheron, Belgian, Shire and Suffolk Punch – that make up the Tally-Ho herd. First up, is the iconic Clydesdale horse. 

A Brief History of the Clydesdale Horse

These days, Clydesdale horses are often synonymous with the Budweiser brand.  We’ve all seen, and likely gushed over the heartwarming Budweiser Clydesdale ads that debut each year as part of a popular sporting event in the USA, which for trademark purposes, shall remain unnamed in this blog.  But the Clydesdale horse has a rich and lengthy history that extends much further back than the brewery’s ownership, which began in the 1930s at the end of prohibition.  

The Clydesdale is a mid-18th century Scottish breed named after the valley of the River Clyde.  Brabant and Belgian Drafts, and later Flemish Stallions, were imported and bred to local mares resulting in a new crop of foals that were significantly larger than traditional local stock.  A black unnamed stallion imported from England by John Paterson of Lochlyloch was particularly pivotal to the breed and is said to be the sire of an 1806 born filly known as “Lampits Mare”.  Lampits Mare and her progeny, Glancer (also known as Thompson’s Black Horse) can be traced in the ancestry of the vast majority of Clydesdales still living today.

For years the Clydesdale horse could only be found throughout Scotland and into Northern England.  However, following the formation of the American Clydesdale Association (later renamed the Clydesdale Breeders of the USA), the breed began to earn favour in the United States and Canada.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of Clydesdale horses were exported from Scotland, with a recorded 1,617 breeding stallions leaving the country in a single year.  Over the course of approximately 60 years, export certificates were issued for over 20,000 Clydesdales, which made their way to North America, but also South America, Russia, and continental Europe as well.  Clydesdale horses also became popular in New Zealand and Australia and have even been called “the breed that built Australia”.

During the First World War, thousands of Clydesdale horses were conscripted, as was the case (though in more limited numbers) for the Second World War.  Between the two wars and in subsequent years, Clydesdale horses began to decline in numbers as farms and other traditionally horse-powered industries became more mechanized.  By 1975 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust considered them “vulnerable to extinction”.  In the years since, this iconic breed’s status has fluctuated to “at risk” and recently back to “vulnerable”, with less than 5,000 Clydesdale horses currently worldwide.  

Past and Present Uses of the Clydesdale Horse

Like many draft horses, Clydesdales were originally used for agricultural work and, in their home county of Lanarkshire in Scotland, they were specifically bred to haul coal from local mines.  As the breed became popular in regions across the world, they were also used for logging and driving, and many are still used as heavy working horses to this day.

In more recent times, Clydesdales have become riding horses and even found their way into the show ring.  With carriage services, and for festivals, they have become a favourite partly because of their show-stopping looks and white, feathery legs.

Clydesdales are also used by the British Household Cavalry as drum horses, leading parades on ceremonial and state occasions, carrying the Musical Ride Officer and two silver drums weighing 123 lbs each.    

Clydesdale Conformation and Colour

In general, draft horses (spelled ‘draught’ in the UK and derived from the Old English word dragan, meaning “to draw or haul”) are easily identifiable by their imposing stature and strong, muscular builds, and the modern-day Clydesdale is no different.  But the conformation – or physicality – of the breed has evolved significantly throughout history.  

In earlier years, the Clydesdale was a compact horse that was smaller than several other draft breeds including Belgians, Shires and Percherons.  In later years, selective breeding resulted in larger horses that were believed to be even better suited for heavy hauling and would appear more impressive in shows and parades.  Today’s Clydesdales are rarely under 17 hands high (or 68 inches from the ground to the top of their wither) and can weigh in excess of 2,000 lbs.

Typical Clydesdales have either straight or slightly convex facial profiles with broad muzzles and foreheads.  They tend to have a thick and arched medium-set neck, higher wither profiles and big sloped shoulders.  Clydesdales are often noted to have an expressive, high-stepping gait. 

As previously mentioned, Clydesdales are among the most famous of draft breeds due to their association with Budweiser Brewery.  Budweiser’s breeding program has influenced the look of the breed in North America to such a degree that many people believe Clydesdales only come in Bay colour (reddish-brown body with black mane and tail) and white markings.  However, the breed can also come in black, grey and chestnut and can sometimes come with subtle roaning (white flecked coat variation) or a more overt Sabino pattern, which is said to be a genetic colour mutation.  While breed associations support all these colours, Bay and Black Clydesdales with four white legs and facial markings are the most sought after and therefore, most plentiful.

Character Traits & Trainability of the Clydesdale Horse

Clydesdales – and most heavy draft breeds – are often referred to as “coldblooded”.   Unlike the reptilian association to the term, in the equestrian world this means that they tend to be very calm, collected and gentle in their interactions with people and their environments.  By contrast, high-flight, high-spirited thoroughbreds that have been bred for racing, would be considered “hotblooded”.

However, being coldblooded doesn’t also mean that the Clydesdale is lacking in spirit or personality.  They are known to be highly intelligent and keen to work (sometimes bordering on competitive), and they are also known to exert a not-too-subtle degree of stubbornness if they feel their trainer or handler is not setting clear and fair expectations.  Some avid Clydesdale enthusiasts will go as far as to say they have big expressive personalities that are matched only by their physicality.  

While there may be individual exceptions, the breed is very level-headed and adaptable to new environments and activities.  This, coupled with their aforementioned intelligence and eagerness to work, make them a highly trainable breed.  

Meet the Tally-Ho Clydesdale Horses

In earlier years, Scotland alone was said to have approximately 140,000 Clydesdales in towns, cities and working farms.  By 1975, their numbers in the UK had plummeted to between 500-900 animals and the breed was listed as “vulnerable to extinction”.  Thankfully, due to export to other countries, including Canada, numbers have been very slowly climbing.  However, with only 5,000 currently living worldwide, Clydesdales are still considered a threatened breed.  

Tally-Ho is honoured to play a small role in preserving this incredible draft breed.  We currently have 6 incredible Clydesdales (Clay, Jerry, Kashe, Major, Sarge and Spot) who are members of our working carriage team and serve as tremendous educational ambassadors for their breed.  If you’d like to learn more about our beloved Clydesdales, or any members of our herd, you can visit our website to sponsor a horse or book a tour to experience these majestic horses in person.