The versatility of a particular horse, especially a draft, has always been a valuable asset. At no time in history was this as important as it was in the early years of America's history.
Between the years of 1820 and 1870, "new and improved" farm equipment created larger and more productive farms. With this came the demand for larger and stronger horses. Though the new steel plows, reapers, mowers, seeders, and double width harrows demanded less manpower, the new equipment led to an increased demand for larger horses to power the implements. This agricultural revolution allowed farms that averaged 100 acres in 1790 to double in size. Advances such as this complimented advances in steam and rail transportation, thus fueling new markets for agricultural products for growing cities in both Europe and America. In 1839 the increasing need for draft horses resulted in the first importation of European stock to America. After the Civil war ended in 1865 there were massive efforts towards domestic breeding and increased importation. By the turn of the century, American had over 27,000 purebred draft horses, whose average size had increased to between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds.
In 1910, it is estimated that over 3 million, of the nations 13,500,000 horses in the United States were used in nonfarm capacities. One of the most important uses of urban horses at this time were the fire horses. These horses, primarily draft crosses, were bred for superb for strength, bravery, and speed. When the fire bell sounded, stall doors automatically opened. Suspended harness and hinged collars enabled a good crew to have the horses ready to go in just a few minutes. New York City purchased its first fire horse in 1832 and by 1906 the City employed nearly 1500 horses in its fire battalions.
Perhaps one of the most romantic and prominent uses of the draft horse in early America was that of the circus horse. This monumental role of the draft horse was essential as it announced and advertised the coming show. From town to town, the draft horse was used almost exclusively to haul the stock wagons, performers, baggage, animals, and equipment. The dappled grey Percherons, made famous by the Ringling Brothers Circus, is still the trademark of circus horses. In the early 1900's over 1400 horses, mostly drafts, were used daily by the Circuses of Branum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers. These "baggage stock teams" disappeared by 1938 as the circus became machanized and the horses were replaced with more modern equipment.
By the 1920's the internal combustion engine had sealed the fate for most of America's urban horses. Many were shipped to abattoirs or were exported to Europe and provided one of the most tragic chapters in the history of the draft horse: that of the modern warhorse. In 1914 only 20,000 horses were left in Britain and the United State was asked to supply the Allied forces with fresh mounts. Over the next two years, over one million draft horses were exported from America to Europe to assist in the conflicts of WW1. Draft horses hauled artillery to the front and packed supplies and ammunition. In this war alone, it is estimated that over six million horses provided both calvary and not calvary services. Sadly, a vast majority of these were killed in battle as tanks and motorized artillery began to signal the end for the calvary and foot soldiers. Tangles of barbed wire strung across battlefields combined with machine gun fire had a chilling and lasting affect on both man and his equine counterpart.
In 1917 American Expeditionary Forces entered the war and took with them an additional 182,000 horses. Many thousands of these were wounded and over 60,000 of them killed on the battlefields. In one year of the war, British veterinary hospitals treated 120,000 warhorses for wounds and disease. British veterinary hospitals in France alone recorded treating 2,564,549 horses and mules for war inflicted injuries. Posters and publications proclaiming "Help the Horse to Save the Soldier" were common. Equine ambulances, first used on the Western Front, were the origin of today's motorized horse van. As for our America's Expeditionary contribution: of the initial 182,000 horses, only 200 returned home after the war.
WWII provided the warhorse a more ironic twist of fate. In 1939 when the German Panzer divisions invaded Poland they virtually crushed the mounted soldiers of the Polish army. The German tanks quickly eliminated the Polish soldiers and their horses and this battle was thought to symbolize the very end of the mounted soldier. A few years later, in 1943, the mounted calvery and their brave horses would return to prevail over the Germans. This time it was the mounted Cossacks who descended on the German tanks, frozen in their tracks on the steppes of the Ukraine. These horses, descendants of the ancient Scythians "ponies", along with their riders were the first to master calvery. According to history "the Cossacks swept over the frozen plain firing machine guns and throwing grenades into the German tanks with deadly force". The Cossacks then fled on their swift horses, much to the astonishment of the Germans who had no time to react, and due to the winter's frigid temperatures had no ability to fight back.
By 1920, the number of registered draft horses in America had dropped to 95,000 and by 1945 to a mere 2000. In pockets of American, primarily in the most rural of economies, in Amish areas, and remote logging camps, the draft horse still played an important role; but for all essential purposes the draft horse had disappeared from the American scene. Some breeds, especially the Shire and Clydesdale were placed on endangered and watch lists due to extremely low worldwide numbers.
Though rarely credited as an event of the 1960's, this is the decade that marked the beginning of the renaissance for the draft horse business in America. Percherons and Belgians, whose numbers have always dominated, today make up 95% of the draft horses in the United States. New registrations of drafts from all breeds are almost 5000 a year, while imports, primarily from England and Canada, number in the hundreds. Drafts are returning to our forests and fields everyday as working stock. Competitions for drafts at fairs are becoming more popular, as are drafts for carriage work in urban areas. Recreational uses of drafts for wagon rides and sleigh rides are providing added economic opportunities as our smaller farms become more diversified and the public seeks ways to reconnect with their agrian heritage.
Historical information for this article was compiled from a variety of documents made public by the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington Kentucky.