“Gentle giants” — that’s a phrase often used in speaking of draft horses. It’s true they’re massive; their muscular bulk makes them loom larger even when they’re no taller than many riding horses. The greatest among them are awesome, their physical presence almost overpowering up close, your own puny insignificance dwarfed by their immense height and girth, their unimaginable strength. If they wished to, they could crush you like a bug.
And yet they don’t. Though draft horses, like any other equine, can lose it, can panic and freak out or become enraged, mostly they bear patiently with the small two-legs that buzz about them, commanding their obedience and ordering their lives. Working around my own two horses, a Thoroughbred and a Morgan, I’m often struck by how easily they could defy me, muscle over me, tell me “Hell no!” and yet they do what I say, go where I tell them; and they’re nowhere near as huge and strong as a Percheron or Shire, who could demolish a human annoyance, if they chose, without breaking a sweat. But they choose obedience.
Humans are lucky drafters are so biddable (though they can take much of the credit, having bred for docility in the breeds over many centuries), and not just in terms of safe handling. For most of recorded history draft horses have pulled the plows and wagons of agriculture and transport, skidded logs out of the forest, hauled ore from the mineheads, mowed fields for the hay that fed them through the winter, dragged graders down dirt roads, and in multitudes of ways powered the people who selectively bred them to their massive greatness.
Today, though, draft horses have been shoved to the periphery of human society. The internal combustion engine put paid to their usefulness in almost every sphere. There are those who still use them for logging; folks like the Amish still use them for agriculture; but by and large, their day as the motive force for civilization is done.
Most people, if they think of them at all, think of the Budweiser Clydesdales. They’re the best known of promotional hitches, but they’re not the only ones. I’ve seen up close and personal the Hallamore Hitch, a team of eight Clydesdales who pull a gigantic antique wagon at fairs, expositions and parades across the Northeast. I’ve stood in the stands at the Topsfield Fair, mere feet from the team as they thundered past, harness jingling, wagon wheels rumbling, feathers at their fetlocks floating, and felt the floor beneath me shudder with the power of their passage. It’s at agricultural fairs and farm shows that you’ll also find an old amusement of rural America still alive and thriving: horsepulling — where a team of horses is hitched to a given weight and pull it a given distance. And of course there are still draft horses earning their living pulling wagons for hayrides or tourist carriages in places like New York City.
Outside of such venues, though, you don’t often see these gentle giants. But there’s a farm near where I live that boards horses, and in the fall of 2009 I had the privilege of photographing two massive buddies in their field.
The gelding is a Belgian, one of the more popular draft breeds; a friend of mine, in fact, for many years had a Belgian which she used for trail riding. I saw him standing out in the field, enjoying the mild autumn day.
With him was a mare, almost as large as her large protector.
What was the mare’s breeding? Her mane and forelock were as long as a Friesian’s but she didn’t look like a purebred.
They eyed me for a while, perhaps wondering what I wanted and what it might mean for them. Finally they decided to come investigate — or rather, the gelding did, and his friend followed.
All the while I was observing them the mare, shy and wary, kept the gelding between us. Or perhaps it was the Belgian who made sure to stay between his companion and any possible threat.
Was she curious? Yes. Willing to approach the stranger? No. But still…. curious.
The Belgian was tenderly attached to his lady, and offered frequent small gestures of affection.
I don’t know, will never know, the mare’s history; but at some point in her life, she was no more than a number to the human(s) who owned her and branded her number 35.
Whatever her past, her present was easy, comfortable, and happy. The eyes that watched me cautiously held no terror of the human, only a shy hesitancy.
Are draft horses’ heads big and boxy? Yes; they’re a far cry from the delicate elegance of, say, the Arabian. But they have their own majestic beauty.
And their eyes are as lovely as any equine’s, anywhere.
To conclude my tribute to the gentle giants, I can do no better than leave you with Jethro Tull’s song “Heavy Horses”:
No matter how often I listen to that song, it still brings a tear to my eye, a lump in my throat. The gentle giants, the heavy horses, they are magnificent.