There’s a reason we use the phrase “work horse” in to describe strong, industrious people. We’ve long relied on horses for the strength and power we lack for certain tasks. Whether they were clearing forests, ploughing fields, or transporting people and things, horses have more than pulled their weight (ha) in world history.
Horses can typically pull about 1/10 of their body weight in “dead weight,” such as a plow or fallen log. If you add wheels to the load (e.g. put a log on a cart), an average horse can then pull 1.5 times its body weight over a longer distance. For shorter distances, this number may go up considerably—six times the horse’s body weight, or even more, depending on the breed.
What influences the numbers
Many conditions can factor into the amount of weight an individual horse can pull. Here are a few basic considerations:
- What type of load is being pulled? (e.g. dead weight vs. on wheels)
- What type of surface is the horse working on? For example, a paved road is easier to pull a load over than a gravel road. A gravel road is easier than a grassy or muddy field.
- What’s the terrain like? (e.g. flat, gentle hills, or mountainous)
- What’s the weather like? Hot humid conditions are harder on horses than a cool, dry climate.
- Is the horse working for a short or long time? Horses can work harder for a short period of time, but their load capacity diminishes over a longer day.
- What is the horses’ temperament? Some horses are simply more willing to work than others.
- What is the horse’s body type and level of fitness? Physically fit horses with broader shoulders and big strong legs can pull more than finely-boned or out of shape horses.
Teamwork makes dreamwork
Many hands make light work, and many hooves make pulling easier!
That’s right: pairing horses increases load capability, or how much weight they can pull together.
If one horse can pull a cart weighing 6,000 lbs, two horses should be able to pull 12,000 lbs, right?
If those horses are working together, they can actually pull 18,000 lbs — three times the load one horse working alone can pull.
It’s a great plug for the value of teamwork1, and it’s the reason you’ll often see more than one horses pulling heavy loads.
Bred for it (or not)
Horses can be broadly divided into two body type categories; riding horses and draft horses.
- Riding horses: These horses are built lighter and leaner and are typically faster and more agile. They also tend to be smaller than draft horses and subsequently cost less to feed.
- Draft horses: These horses were bred for heavier tasks like plowing fields and pulling heavy loads. Draft breeds may be referred to as “cold blooded.” This term simply references their temperament—calm, quiet, and gentle giants.
High-spirited or high-strung lighter breeds like Arabians or Thoroughbreds are on the other end of the spectrum, or “hot blooded.”
Crossing a draft breed with a lighter horse, such as a Thoroughbred, yields a warmblood. Warmbloods make excellent sport horses (think three-day eventing).
When it comes to pulling heavy loads, draft breeds truly excel. A typical draft horse weighs 1,600 lbs or more2. This is quite a bit larger than the average riding horse, which weighs in around 1,000 lbs.
One of the first draft horse breeds that comes to mind in the United States is the Clydesdale, made popular by Anheuser-Busch, known as the home of the Budweiser Clydesdales.
Who doesn’t love those Super Bowl commercials?
A few additional popular draft breeds include the Belgian, Percheron, Suffolk Punch, and Shire. Several of them even made our list of the tallest horse breeds!
Prepare to be wowed
Author Donna Campbell Smith wrote “The Book of Draft Horses: The Gentle Giants That Built the World.” In her book, she discussed a pair of Shire draft horses that pulled 50 tons, or 100,000 pounds, in 1924. Other sources indicated 45 tons; regardless, it is a lot of weight3.
Heavy horse pull competitions involve teams of horses dragging weights across an arena floor. The record at the Calgary Stampede heavy horse pull was set in 2012; a pair of horses weighing 5,475 lbs pulled 13,400 lbs of dead weight4.
Can all horses pull a cart?
Any breed of horse, from miniatures to drafts, can be trained to pull a cart. Some breeds, however, are better bred and designed for this purpose.
Draft breeds were bred specifically to pull things, from plows and carts to carriages and even train cars. Their size and strength makes them perfectly suited to the task.
Standardbreds are another common breed found in harnesses and often seen in competitions. Shetland and Welsh ponies also are common driving horses.
Anywhere from one to eight horses may be needed to pull a cart, depending on its weight and size (and the size and strength of the horses or ponies).
What kind of horses pull buggies?
While any breed can learn to pull a buggy, the horses that are best suited to the job will have broad backs, thick necks, and be steady on their feet. Horses with amiable temperaments are also preferable.
Draft breeds are commonly seen pulling buggies, including Shires, Belgians, Percherons, and Clydesdales. Standardbreds are often used when there’s a need for speed.
Welsh cobs are a popular choice because they look good with a two-seater buggy. Hackneys are the way to go if elegance is what you’re after. The Cleveland Bay, which is a light draft breed, is perfect for pulling buggies and riding.
Watching horses pull incredibly heavy loads is awe-inspiring, and it’s undeniable that these powerful animals are made for it!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
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