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About the breed

Breed history

The Clydesdale Horse is the pride of Scotland and is a native breed which was founded in Lanarkshire. Clydesdale being the old name for the district. The history of the breed dates back from the middle of the 18th century when the native horses of Lanarkshire were graded up in an effort to greater weight and substance by the use of Flemish stallions.

Clydesdale Samson

At its peak, Scotland had around 140,000 farm horses plus an unknown number in towns and cities, most of which were Clydesdales in whole or part. The top year came in 1911, when 1,617 stallions were exported. Three years later Clydesdale horses were conscripted by the army to serve in The First World War. It is known that between 1850 and 1880 a large number of the best stallions and a few good quality mares were annually exported mainly to Australia and New Zealand. It was, however, after the foundation of the Stud Book that exports began to be numbered in hundreds and during the period 1884 to 1945, 20,183 export certificates for stallions, mares and fillies were issued by the Society, the importing countries being not only the Dominions, but America, South America, Russia, Italy and Austria.

In some parts of the world, the downturn in the fortunes of the breed came soon after the Great War. In Australia, in the 1920's the tractor took over and in many cases the field gates were left open and the horses were allowed to run free. The Clydesdale had its part to play in England too. In 1946 over 200 Clydesdale stallions were licensed and working in England. By 1949 however, this was down to 80.

The conditions prevailing in Britain during the Second World War necessitated the agricultural industry being brought to its highest pitch of productivity, and this could only be attained by the extensive use of the tractor and sadly, horses were replaced by mechanical power. During the 1960's and early 1970's, breed numbers dwindled and in 1975, the Clydesdale was categorized by the Rare Breed Survival Trust as “vulnerable”. Over the years and with the increase in breed numbers, it is now categorized as “at risk”.


The Clydesdale and It's QualitiesHeavenly Benedictine of Arclid aka Samson at home at Little Big Ranch


Male or female, a Clydesdale should look handsome, weighty and powerful, but with a gaiety of carriage and outlook, so that the impression is given of quality and weight, rather than grossness and bulk.


"No feet no horse” is an old saying, but it applies with particular force in the Clydesdale show ring. The judge expects to see feet ‘open and round like a masons mallet'. The hoof heads must be wide and springy, with no suspicion of hardness such as may lead to the formation of side-bone or ring bone. The feather on the legs is a beauty point in the breed. British judges put more stress on the silkiness of the hair than judges across the Atlantic do. Pasterns must be long and set at an angle of 45 degrees from the hoof head to the fetlock joint. The fore legs must be planted well under the shoulders, plumb and hang straight from the shoulder to the fetlock joint. There must be no openness at the knees, nor any tendency to knock-knees. The hind legs must also be planted closely together, with the points of the hocks turned inwards rather than outwards. The thighs must come well down to the hocks and the shanks from the hock-joint to the fetlock joint must be plumb and straight.The colours most common are bay and brown with white markings, but blacks, greys , roans and chestnuts are occasionally seen. The white markings are characteristic and it is the exception to see a bay or brown Clydesdale without a white face and considerable white on the feet and legs.

A Clydesdale should have a nice open forehead, broad between the eyes, a flat profile, wide muzzle, large nostrils, a bright clear intelligent eye, big ears and a well arched long neck springing out of an oblique shoulder with high withers. The back should be short and strong, carrying on towards the rump and this must be associated with lots of spring and depth of rib, like hoops of a barrel. The horse's quarters should not only be long, but well muscled, this is a draught horse after all.


At rest, a judge can see if the horse is well balanced and correct. At the walk and trot towards and away from him, the judge can assess it for better or worse. There must be “action”, when viewed from behind, the foot at every step is lifted clear of the ground. The action, too, must be close and true. The final decision is based on soundness, size and action, not by some kind of points system, but by a general assessment of the whole animal as it is presented in the ring. Presentation may not make a poor animal into a trophy winner, but a good person at the halter can bring out the best in a horse, to the pleasure of onlookers and the satisfaction of the owner.

The Clydesdale Breed Today

Heavenly Benedictine of Arclid aka Samson at home at Little Big RanchThe popularity of the Clydesdale in the 1990's is growing continually. Although there are only approximately 700 registered brood mares in the United Kingdom and about 100 registered stallions, more and more people are using Clydesdales not just for showing and driving, but for farm work, horse logging and riding. People with a love of the Clydesdale are not only rediscovering the uses of the breed, but with the skills needed for working these animals, including harness making and shoeing, traditions which began a hundred years and more ago being kept alive.

Useful though Clydesdales can be, most of them are kept for pleasure. Their grace and vigour are refreshing in this mechanical age. Those who show their horses can rarely hope to recover any substantial part of their outlay but they admit this cheerfully.

The show season is a busy time and Clydesdale entries over the years continue to increase. The Royal Highland Show in June is the showpiece of the Clydesdale year, where the top award, the Cawdor Cup, goes to the best female. The Male Cawdor Cup is awarded at the National Stallion Show in the spring of each year. The Clydesdale draws in amazing crowds, regardless of the size of the show.

It is not just in the summer that shows take place. Foal shows are held throughout the winter months, giving enthusiasts an interesting picture of what new talent is coming forward.

The Modern Clydesdale

The Clydesdale of the 1900's is only markedly different from that of the 1800's in that it has more white hair in evidence. the horse has been 'engineered' by breeders who have injected various new blood lines into the breed from time to time.

It is to be admitted that the Clydesdale and Shire breeds (the Shire being the English counties equivalent of the Clydesdale) have been inter-related to the mutual advantage of both breeds, although today when you see a good example of either breed, it is very clear which is which. Clydesdale breeders used the Shire breed to inject a bit more size and to give the white leg hair that you see today. Once this had been perfected, the Shire breed came back to the Clydesdale to fine down and make their leg feathering more silky and to get rid of skin problems on the lower leg that the Shire had developed.

Heavenly Benedictine of Arclid aka Samson at home at Little Big RanchAs more white was introduced to the breed, genetics not being an exact science, the white hair occasionally strayed onto the Clydesdales' body, giving an animal of a roan colour. The purists frowned upon these animals, believing that only a good solid colour was correct. However most people today believe that a good horse cannot be a bad colour, so roan horses and horses with white areas on the body are acceptable.

The horses of today are also bigger than their original counterparts, 17 hands high and above is not at all uncommon. These are not big ungainly ugly animals, the Clydesdale is a horse of quality with a fine head, intelligent eye, excellent paces and a fluidity of movement. They have the most wonderful, willing temperament and they truly do epitomise the phrase 'gentle giant'.

The Clydesdale is a Rare Breed, classified as 'at risk' by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. However having the reached rock bottom in the 60's and 70's, there are more people breeding these wonderful animals today and numbers are remaining steady, if not increasing slightly.

The majority of Clydesdales throughout the world today are kept for breeding and showing, they do not have to work for their living any more. Increasingly the PR power of these lovely animals has been recognised and people are now using the horses to pull drays and carts which can be used as advertising vehicles for a variety of businesses. Breweries and whisky companies were the first to latch on to this and now you see their names emblazoned across the carts. City Councils such as the ones in Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow, keep Clydesdales for work within the cities and parks departments and for use as 'publicity tools'. Clydesdale horses have also joined the 'wedding industry', getting dressed up in their finery to pull the bride in a cart to the church, making a memorable day even more so.

The Clydesdale is also playing a significant role in the 'green' world. It has long been recognised that timber extraction and logging in environmentally sensitive areas can do untold damage to delicate ecosystems. The solution has been to return to the horse for the 'horse power', so minimising any damage whilst carrying out necessary maintenance and extraction.

Increasingly today, Clydesdales are being ridden just like any other breed of horse. They can be seen occasionally on the dressage arena, taking part in endurance rides, carrying a minister in Kintyre on his rounds, or simply being enjoyed as a gentle hack. Cross bred Clydesdales can also be found at the top of all the equestrian fields, as hunters, three day and one day eventers, show jumpers and so on. They seem to have an inbuilt spring and impetus that makes them good jumpers and they do possess the quality of movement that is so necessary.


This text is a summary from information at The Clydesdale Horse Society's webpage. Read more at www.clydesdalehorsesociety.com

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