FAQ About Draft Horses

Can you ride them?

Yes!  Draft horses make excellent trail horses.  Some have excelled in arena showing disciplines including jumping and dressage.  In general, they are quiet, mellow, easy going and steady mounts.

How big a rider can they carry?

We recommend the weight of rider and saddle be less than 20% the weight of the horse, and less than 15% if the rider is inexperienced.  For a very beginning 250 lb rider with a 20 lb saddle (270 lbs total), that means an 1800 lb horse… that’s a good sized (but not extraordinarily large) draft.  An experienced 250 lb rider should be fine on a 1400 lb draft horse.  Heavier riders should look for drafts with a short back and heavier bone to make carrying the weight of the rider easier on them.

What if they are trained to drive, but not to ride?

We’ve found that draft horses who’ve been driven, but never ridden, adapt quite readily to riding. Most are more than willing, they just don’t know what’s expected.  A few sessions with a trainer, or some basic riding training at home (if you have the skills) is all it takes.  They have often been trained to go and stop on voice commands, so using those as you first start riding helps them learn what’s expected of a saddle horse.  Once they catch on, they make lovely, careful steady saddle horses.  Some have been taught to never canter in harness, so they may walk and trot, but have to learn it’s ok to run.

Do they need a special diet? 

Draft horses do best on a diet of plentiful good quality grass hay, with some alfalfa if they need extra protein to build muscle or put on weight.  For extra calories, fat is the best option (oil, rice bran, BOSS or high-fat low-carb pelleted rations).  We discourage feeding grain, corn, sweet feeds or high carb, high starch, or high sugar feeds to drafts.  Some drafts can have metabolic, muscle, joint, and foot issues when maintained on high carb diets.  In addition, some of the smaller, easy-keeper breeds are prone to get too fat, so maintaining them on a high-fiber, lower calorie diet is key to keeping them healthy.

It is most important that the horses have easy access to clean water at an appropriate temperature.  How much water does a horse consume in a day?  The average horse will drink 5 to 10 gallons of fresh water per day.  That amount will increase if the day is hot.  On very cold days, it may be necessary to warm the drinking water to encourage the horse to drink.

How much do they eat?

Do they need any special environment? Drafts need the same environment that light horses do.  Some can be hard on fencing, so an electric wire may be a good addition to your fence line.  Like light horses, they need shelter, an open space to move in, and the company of other horses.

Despite their large size, draft horses have a lower energy requirement than light horses, which may be due to their slower metabolism and a calm demeanor that reduces many calorie-burning activities.  That said, they’re often bigger and heavier than light horses, so plan accordingly.  It is typically easy to maintain condition on draft horses. Overweight animals will have fat deposits on the neck, over the back, and in the hindquarters, particularly around the tailhead.

A common nutritional problem encountered in these easy-keeping drafts is under-supplementation of key nutrients in their diets. If they are on a low-grain or forage-only diet, they are likely receiving inadequate quantities of vitamins, minerals, and possibly protein. However, feeding a commercial feed at the recommended rate for the horse’s weight can easily result in obesity.

A low-intake feed or balancer pellet is one option for these horses. These feeds are formulated without high-calorie ingredients, yet supply all of the protein, vitamins, and minerals needed to compensate for nutritional inadequacies of the forage.

If the horse already has enough protein in its diet, feeding a well-formulated vitamin and mineral supplement might be an alternative. If the animal is fed low-quality forage and has no access to pasture, protein deficiency may be an issue.

When working in the harness all day, each horse will eat about 10 – 15 pounds of grain and about 30 pounds of grass or hay a day.  If the horse has access to good forage, such as alfalfa, the grain requirements may be less.  Idle horses need much less food.

Do they make good Hubby Horses?

Of all the horses you can get, we think drafts make the best hubby horses.  Teen age and older drafts that have retired from farm work are steady calm mounts who are not bothered by much of anything.   Their bigger size and sturdy frame also makes them idea for tall or big guys who feel too big on a regular sized horse. Of course, you’ll want to choose one with the right personality for your riding style.

Are drafts prone to any special health issues? 

Drafts are generally sturdy and easy to keep healthy but there are some unique issues.  Draft horses are generally more sensitive to drugs, so make sure your vet is familiar with how drafts respond before medicating them.  Breeds with feathers are sometime subject to scratches (a fungal infection of the skin) if their feathers aren’t maintained and kept clean and dry.  EPSM (PSSM) is a metabolic issue that is more common in drafts than light horses, but can generally be controlled by adjusting their diet to remove carbs and increase fat. Hoof maintenance is important to guard against the formation of canker, and to keep hooves healthy and intact when supporting their greater weight. And there are some genetic diseases specific to draft breeds.  On the whole, keeping a draft horse healthy is not too much different from keeping a light horse healthy… love and proper care, and keeping a watchful eye for issues so you can catch them early makes all the difference.

How long do they live?

Some drafts have been worked long and hard through their early years.  That wear and tear on their bodies can sometimes mean they live shorter lives.  We’ve found that it’s not unusual, with proper feed and care, for drafts to live in to their mid or late twenties, with some doing well into their early thirties.

What kind of personalities do they have?

On the whole, we’ve found them to be sweeter, calmer, and more affectionate than many light horses.  They are curious but mellow.  Many will follow you around like puppies once they’ve formed a bond with you. They are tolerant of all different kinds of people and often quite curious and gentle with children.  Overall, most of them make fabulous family horses.

Are there any handling issues with drafts?

Some drafts have figured out how really big they are and can be pushy on the ground.  In general, they respect a kind but firm leader, and respond readily to correction if they get too pushy.  Since many of them come from working farms, they may not have had much social handling.  Once they figure out that you bring treats and scratches, and that you insist on proper ground manners, they are easy to handle. Some drafts have only had their feet done in shoeing stocks and may not be trained to pick up their feet.  That can often be retrained, but a few will always require stocks to have their feet trimmed.

What about housing them, any special issues?

Draft horses can be hard on fencing.  They are bred to push a collar with their chest and shoulders, and most have learned to work hard in that collar… so pushing open a gate, or moving a panel on a round pen is no big challenge to them.  They do readily respect a hot-wire, so if your draft is not impressed with your fencing, adding a hot wire to the top usually resolves it.  We have seen a few, especially Haflingers (one of the little draft breeds) that will pop over fences between pastures so you’ll want to make sure your fence has adequate height.  And if you intend to keep your draft stalled during part of the day or night, you should have a stallion or foaling sized box stall – the regular stalls are generally too small for a big draft horse to be comfortable.  Draft horses do not do well if they are stalled all the time, and those that are used to working hard all day may develop circulatory issues and edema if they don’t walk enough, so we don’t recomend keeping a draft primarily in a stall.  All-day pasture turnout, or a stall with a BIG run may be fine, but 24/7 pasture board with a run-in shed or a stall for extreme weather is the best idea.

Anything I need to know about rescue drafts?

Many rescue draft horses have been treated like farm equipment.  They may not know the finer points of being a family horse.  Some don’t understand treats, or the pleasure of having a person scratch their itches.  Some may be distrustful at first, especially if they make a mistake, and may worry they’ll be struck for misbehaving.  We’ve found with a kind hand and a little patience, even the most uncertain of these horses come around to appreciating the attention a person can bring them. Rescue drafts sometimes have health issues – they may have been exposed to strangles, or had poor hoof care, or be thin from overwork, lack of food, or untreated parasites.  It’s not unusual for them to have teeth that need floating, and hooves that need trimming.  Many times, they will be underweight.  Most of these issues are easily corrected with a vet, a farrier, an equine dentist, plentiful high-quality feed, and time.