The Difference with Drafts

By Vicki Schmidt
Fall, 1998

Itís a common question wherever I go. "How did you get started in drafts". I always have to laugh as I honestly say it was totally by accident. I think back to my friend with a copy of Uncle Henryís telling me I should go look at this horse. After two days of relentless prodding I finally agreed, figuring if nothing else it would stop her endless harassment.

Four years and four Shires later there's lots to reflect on. Three of the 4 horses were neglected when they came into my life. The first lesson I learned: almost everything with drafts is twice as expensive as a light horse. For example, start with dewormings: those little 1200# tubes pile up quickly when the youngest horse, a two year old, weighs in at 1700 lbs. Drafts require a stronger trailer for hauling and even if you think youíll only own just one horse, youíre better off buying at least a ¾ ton truck to start with because youíll need it to haul your team.

As for feed, unless under heavy work, the average draft doesnít need as much grain as most people think. They do chow down a fair amount of forage and I feed corn oil for any needed extra calories. I used to own a very hot-blooded thoroughbred and he ate more grain and hay to sustain himself than any of my drafts. I budget 4 bales of hay a day throughout the winter for my four drafts. In my dreams I have a team of mares and a team of geldings, in reality I have four singles. Both my mares are 13 years old, one is "hitch style", elegant, stylish, and 7 months in foal. The other mare, my newest Shire, is open this year, a "chunk style" out of Canada and a hard working logging horse. The youngest in the herd is a coming three, 17.3 gelding, still somewhat uncoordinated, but sweet and willing. The foundation of my Shires is Squire, my 8-year-old gelding and the horse that was advertised in Uncle Henryís a few years ago. Though their rations and supplements vary, they all receive the same brand of high-fat pelleted feed and daily bale of hay.

Shoeing adds a different dimension to drafts. The main reason: few farriers are willing to take these "gentle giants" on as clients. Their arguments are many. Drafts are heavier to shoe and few owners are willing to work with them. When a draft horse leans on you, it adds significance to the term "leaning"! Drafts can easily learn to behave and stand well on three feet. It just takes time and commitment from the owners. Farriers are also hesitant to add the needed inventory for drafts. They need longer nails and different shoes. Work shoes go for about $25 for a set of four, compared to $8 to $10 for average light horseshoes. If you want to show consistently and successfully in hitch and halter classes add at least another $50 a year for Scotch Bottom shoes, the only accepted draft horse shoe for the hitch and halter show rings. Scotch Bottom shoes were one of the original style work shoes. They are made with a slope to the steel, giving the horse increased surface area on the ground, thus displacing the weight of the horse over more ground. They were originally designed for working in the swampy Moores of England. The extra weight increased the horse's action which was attractive on the streets, and the shoes eventually evolved into todayís show shoes for drafts.

Harness are another fairly expensive part of draft horses, especially if youíre going to show in hitch classes. There are nylon, bioplastic and leather styles of harness to choose from, each with their own set of price tags and characteristics. For everyday working and exercising of horses most folks like nylon harness. Itís lightweight, cleans up easily, and can be quickly adjusted from horse to horse. Iíve replaced the crupper and bridles on my nylon harness with leather as I feel they are more comfortable for the horse. Nylon can get sharp edges with age and can scar a horse with repeated wear. Bioplastics are also a favorite with some people. They shine like patent leather when new, and are also lightweight and clean up easily. Due to the bioplastics softness they will scratch and fade with a few years of use and tend to look worn sooner than nylon or leather. Bios also block the sweating action of the horse, as the material is not as breathable as leather or nylon, which can be uncomfortable for the horse on hot days or days of long work.

I donít know anyone who doesnít like leather but sometimes the expense and care of leather make it impractical when compared to other materials. Leather is also heavy. Work harness is usually all one unit which can be quite the load when you lift it up onto the back of a horse thatís a foot taller than you at the withers. As more women enter the hitch world the problem of harness that weighs almost as much as they do, make nylon and bio a viable option.

Whether new or used the costs of harness vary. One should be wary of draft harness of any type that sells for less than $200. Leather can be bluegreen with mold and still be salvageable if it wonít crack when you twist or bend it. You should also check to see if itís a "compete" harness. Not including reins or a bridle is common with lower priced harness. Collars and hames may or may not be included, as these are more horse specific than the harness itself. There are also types of harness used for implements that donít require the horse to back up, such as with logging and plowing. Harness of this type wonít include a brichen, making them cheaper, but also causing confusion to folks who think they might hitch up old Duke to the cart this weekend. Add to the needed brichen, shaft loops and holdbacks and youíre out another $150 - $200.

Even used, itís rare that a show quality set of harness for a team of drafts would sell for less than $2000. At this price you may need to add your own collars, but the harness would probably include the Scotch collar housings needed for most shows. These tall decorative parts of show harness evolved with the invent of automobiles. Horses and their wagons could not be seen behind the vehicles so tall collar housings were added to allow horses and their cargos to be easily located. Show harness comes in either bioplastics or leather. The style, combined with the amount and quality of decoration, will greatly determine the price.

Almost everyone gets started with a used harness for a few hundred dollars and some sort of homemade drag or forecart. The most popular drags are rock drags, or simple exercise drags that can be used with or without a seat. These usually sell for anywhere from $100 - $300 depending on options and the quality of the product. Forecarts will have shafts, (so youíll need the harness with brichen, shaft loops and holdbacks), and start around $250 for a good used one and can cost up to $750 for a new one with a bench seat and brakes.

When working drafts there are a few differences when compared to light horses. Though some drafts are quite specialized, either by nature or design, the versatility of most drafts can be impressive. Few horses can give wagon rides one day, be ridden by their owner on a quiet trail the next day, and spend a few hours the next hauling out firewood. These same horses can dominate their halter classes, snag an occasional Grand Champion trophy, spend the show season taking home ribbons in harness classes, and still be the first choice for Juniors when it comes to showmanship classes. I own drafts like this and though a lot of time and training goes into them, I still feel like the luckiest person in the world. I earn enough money with my drafts to pay for their feed and sometimes part of their board, but I doubt Iíll ever recoup the cost of my truck and trailer. I know a lot of people who spend as much on skiing, snowmobiling, golf, or fly fishing, so in some ways drafts arenít really so expensive.

The historic nature of drafts is "steady and straight" work for hours at a time. Their weight also tends to be forward of their center of gravity, allowing for greater "push" into the collar which is transformed into "pull" through the traces, tugs, or chains. Centuries of breeding has designed this into their minds, bodies and metabolisms. Today, drafts have entered an age where greater versatility is being asked of them. Itís becoming more and more common to see drafts competing, often successfully, at hunter and dressage events. Due to their large muscle mass, more time should be allowed for warm up and cool down when training and preparing for these events. Most drafts are intelligent and willing partners with a strong desire to please their handlers. Proper and patient training is definitely required as we ask drafts to train for events their bodies may not be ideally designed for.

All breeds of drafts are considered full-grown at the age of 7, a concept hard for some trainers to accept, especially given the size of drafts as two-year-olds. Like any breed, they are subject to breakdowns if asked to work and perform beyond the limits of their age. Many drafts will perform well as two and three-year-olds, but you rarely see these same horses as successful a few years later.

Unlike lighter horses, drafts seldom live to see their 20ís. The ones that do have probably never been overfed and fat, thus enabling healthy hearts and legs for their later years. Too many drafts founder or "loose their legs" in their teens due to combinations of over or incorrect feeding, too little work and exercise, or too much work on hard surfaces with improper care. And sadly, older drafts are a tempting bonus for the slaughter market, especially when overweight and past their useful age.

Whether or not a draft is the right horse for you depends on the combination of performance, function, recreation, and friendship you desire in a horse. If your desire is for absolute performance in dressage, jumping, or such events as western pleasure, a draft is probably not for you. If you desire a horse that can perform well in a variety of unrelated events, especially if they involve driving, then a draft or draft cross might be worth the consideration. If you desire a horse for helping around the farm and also one you can ride and drive, then a draft should certainly be a top choice. Iíve also heard drafts are great for getting boyfriends or husbands interested in horses: or at least willing to help with chores!