Flemish Horses & Cydesdales: Flemish Draft Horses are the Forebears of Shire Horses

Flemish Horses & Cydesdales: Flemish Draft Horses are the Forebears of Shire Horses

January 9, 2020 Off By Tammy Schneider

Bred initially as the heavy horses of Medieval knights, Flemish draft horses are large and strong, but capable of some degree of agility and grace as well. There is a little Arabian blood in the Flemish draft horse, but is a mostly cold blooded breed native to Northern Europe. Large boned powerful horses have been known to be native to Northern Europe since the time of Caesar. Belgian draft horses are a related later breed, but the Flemish breed was the peak of Medieval military breeding, also commonly referred to as the “Great Horse.” They were highly prized in the 15th Century, and were known for their black color. At the height of chivalry and jousting English Kings were known to have a preference for Black Flemish Great Horses, and they imported them in large enough numbers that they became the basis for The British “Shire” draft horse breed. When crossbows and gunpowder combined to make the armored knight obsolete these large strong impressive animals were put to work pulling wagons and ploughs.

In the late 17th Century a Scottish nobleman in the Clyde Valley imported new Flemish stock, and bred them with Shires and other local stock to produce the distinctive Clydesdale breed. The combination of these horses produced two great stallions the offspring of which were then interbred to cement this distinctive breed. Like many of their predecessors Clydesdales are known for their amiability and willingness to work. Scottish Clydesdales were of a variety of colors and included dapples and other random colorings, but they all had the large hoof and the “feather” of hair above the hoof that the breed is so well known for.

The uniform color and four white “socks” and white facial blaze of the American Clydesdale is a later breeding preference, and is American in origin. Besides being an American ideal imposed on several breeds, this adaptation results also from their use as advertising promotional tools by several companies that had a preference for a uniform appearance in their teams. In the age of mechanization when they were no longer as highly prized for their horsepower Clydesdales survived and continued to be refined because of their grace, beauty, and style.

In many places draft horse breeds which had been in decline are now in resurgence, even the Clydesdale was listed as an “at risk” breed in the mid 20th century, but organic farming, and hobby breeding have given this and other breeds new life. Besides their days of military glory these breeds also hold an important place in transportation history as the pullers of heavy wagons, barges on canals, mine rail wagons, and numerous other tasks.