Four Arab types in hand.

Driving is a thrill all of its own, quite different to riding, and one that many people enjoy, but as can be seen it has its own difficulties and is one of the most challenging disciplines a horse can be asked to carry out. Particular care has to be taken that the conformation and temperament of the horse is right for the job, and that the carriage being drawn is not too heavy for the horse. Typical injuries resulting from harness work are those to do with continuous concussive striking of the foot against hard road surfaces, including the resulting build-up of heat in both hoof and lower leg. During the days of draft, when horses often had to work on wet, hard surfaces or cobbles, sweeny was a common injury, and one from which horses rarely recovered. (1.) As with all work on hard surfaces, the hoof is prevented from ‘cutting’ in to the ground, and so is liable to be somewhat unstable on break-over. The answer is a good barefoot trim and top quality barefoot boots to prevent slipping. It's vital that the natural shock-absorbing mechanisms of the foot are assisted and supported rather than restricted in any way.

Champion Team of blacks.

Work in chains

The slower work in chains carried out, as it normally is, in the field, is less of a challenge in terms of danger, but requires the stolid temperament of the heavy working horse breeds. Fieldwork is not only physically hard but also quite monotonous and the more excitable breeds would be liable to become very bored and listless. The heavy breeds were bred for work on light, well drained, land, and are of little practical use on heavy clay soils.


Oxen were favoured for work on wetter soils and, for small-scale work such as between row harrowing the donkey has a better point of draft and is more cheaply fed. Heavy horses were bred for field work associated with the growing of grain and, on a grain farm the means of feeding them sufficient quantities to keep them in long hours of work was a viable proposition. It is difficult to see how such horses might fit into today’s agriculture and, though display teams have been put together as tourist ventures in various places, none that I have seen have stood the test of time or proved themselves to be financially viable.

At this remove from the times when thousands of horses were used for draft work, it is easy to feel nostalgic, but there are plenty of old photographs showing ‘ribby’ horses working in poor conditions, which bear eloquent witness to the fact that, for many, it was a life of tedious and thankless slavery.

Let's return to the question of size, and its effect on the breeding and treatment of the riding horse. It is a clear and self evident fact that any horse that is worked with excessive rider weight will tire more easily and be much more liable to falls, stumbles and injuries to muscles, tendons and ligaments. What is not quite so obvious is that the horse’s motivation to work willingly will suffer also, but it is equally true. It is not hard to find photographs of over-burdened horses looking surly and ill tempered, and who can blame them! We tend to use terms such as ‘under-horsed’ or the like, as if the problem were one for the rider, when ‘over-mounted’ would be more to the point and shift the focus to the half of the partnership that suffers real hardship, rather than the inconvenience a rider may feel at their mount being unable to give them a ‘good’ ride. The history behind this topic is one of interest, and is bound up with the practice of gelding. So let's take a wander through time from 1066, on into the fourteenth century, then the English ‘Wars of the Roses’, slip across the Atlantic ocean to the New World and the Indian wars, returning to the cavalry regiments of the British Army and so on to our own times.

In 1066 Duke William of Normandy (1028-87) sailed with an invasion force across the channel to England. The Saxon forces which faced him under king Harold ll (1020-66) fought on foot; their horses, or ponies as we would call them, were of small stature and used only as ‘sumpter’ or pack animals. The mail clad Norman cavalry possessed larger horses which had been bred to carry the weight of rider, arms and armour, and their charge cost Harold his kingdom, and his life. With the conquest, there flowed into England a great increase and improvement in horse size by the introduction of Flemish blood. Henry ll (1133-89) in whose reign sires appear to have been imported from the continent for the first time, endeavoured to improve the breed of English horses. (2.) King John (1167-1216) further fostered the breeding of heavy horses by the importation of one hundred stallions from Flanders and Holland. Such were the losses of horses killed in battle, in continued warfare, that on the eve of the famous Crecy campaign (1346) Edward lll (1312-77) was forced to send Sir John of Brocaz into Gascony to purchase horses for his army.

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