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As the Shire horse was the agricultural engine of the southern, shire counties, the Clydesdale was its northern counterpart. The Clydesdale originated in Lanarkshire in the eighteenth century, it is a relatively new breed therefore compared to some. The old name for Lanarkshire was in fact Clydesdale, hence the breed title.
In the nineteenth century and during the industrial revolution, the road network in the north of England, which had been rudimentary in the extreme, was improved as the mining industry began to exert its dominance over the landscape. As the roads improved so there was a requirement for a larger powerful horse that could haul heavy loads rather than the smaller pack animals of the pre industrial age. Flemish draught breeds were used, imported into the Clyde Valley to introduce power and strength and in 1877, the Clydesdale breed society was formed. The first volume of the stud book listed 1,000 stallions.
The Clydesdale is very easy to spot and truly distinct from the Shire which is about the only other heavy breed with which it can be confused. The Shires tend to be darker in body colour, or can be grey, which is a colour never found in the Clydesdale breed. Whilst both breeds share white legs and feathering, the Clydesdale has white usually further up the leg than the Shire, often above the knee and hock and sometimes extended onto the body. It also possible to see a roan coat colour. The Clydesdale has a straight profile to the head whereas the Shire outline is more roman. A popular cross after the war, with lighter horses such as the Thoroughbred, the breeding can always be spotted by the presence often of a white face and extensive white on the legs. Of the three main heavy horse breeds in the UK, the Clydesdale is deemed to be the lightest of frame and most active mover.
Like the Shire, the Clydesdale fell out of favour after the Second World War as both agriculture and haulage turned to mechanisation. And like the Shire, the breed has been revived by a small core of ardent enthusiasts and breeders. A society called the British Ridden Heavy Horse Society has been formed to promote all four of the heavy breeds. Their remit is to support all of the four draught breeds as saddle horses so they can now be seen in classes other than in breed classes and pulling agricultural trade vehicles at shows. This is another route to help support low breed numbers. The Ridden Heavy Horse Society would be a good starting point if you are considering the Clydesdale as a ridden animal, a chance to talk to and exchange ideas with Clydesdale owners and riders.
Picture courtesy of Sara Stasi via Flickr Creative Commons.
The Clydesdale Horse Society describes the breed as “having a flamboyant style, a flashy spirited bearing and a high-stepping action that makes him a singularly elegant animal among draught horses.” With this in mind, perhaps anyone seeking a heavy horse to ride might do well to consider the Clydesdale as its lighter action and lesser proportions than the Shire may mean that it offers a better ride. However, from a conformation perspective, there has for many years been a tendency to breed Clydesdales with cow hocks; this means that the horse’s hocks are pointing inwards. This is because the desired result was a horse with an action where the inside of every shoe was visible to anyone walking behind. Cow hocks are generally not considered to be a desirable conformational feature but they have long been a breed characteristic of the Clydesdale. This has caused some controversy in recent times, is this a traditional breed characteristic that should be supported or the perpetuation of an undesirable conformational defect?
Clydesdales have been a popular choice of some of the northern trail riding centres for many years so putting them under saddle is not a new idea. There is a group called Cumbrian Heavy Horses who are long standing and well respected and who have been offering the ridden Clydesdale experience for several years in the fantastic scenery that this region has to offer. Racing them however may be a new concept and there has recently been Clydesdale racing at Exeter racecourse, a real charm offensive for the breed proving more than anything else, how this often overlooked heavy horse can have a viable future under saddle.