Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Gentle Giants

“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.

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  1. jsfox

    I would still be a quarter horse. Sadly time and other things have turned me into a clydesdale. They like to pull beer I like to pull on a beer:)

  2. Strummerson

    I love it when we get a bit more variety around here.  These animals are beautiful and I would never have considered them today without this offering.

    My compliments!

  3. Kysen

    I live in Va Bch, so I know the Budweiser Clydesdales well…some of them reside at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. They really are magnificent beasts. I also have attended many a mid-west State Fair and watched the draft horse competitions (and the pig races, log rolling, and tractor pulls). /grin

    I grew up around horses…first learning to ride Western, then going on to show English starting at age 6. All of my siblings competed as well. I only rode for show until I was 14…and have only ridden for pleasure since. My nuclear family never owned horses, but, my extended family consists of ranchers and farmers and have ALWAYS had horses.

    Great diary, janicket!

    Made me smile.

    Horse people is good people.


  4. Strummerson

    I voted for Arabian in solidarity with the Arab struggles for democracy we’ve been witnessing in recent days…

    I’m sure this contribution to the struggles of these brave citizens will tip things in their direction, right?

  5. I like mules too, although you should get to know them before you turn your back on them. Some of them like to nip. I learned that the hard way.

    You left mustang off the list. That’s the kind of horse I’d be if I had a choice.

  6. sricki

    that Moose love information on all subjects — diaries like this one will be very much enjoyed. I do have more I’d like to say, but I’m kind of drive-by commenting right now.

    Gotta say though, I already love you for all your fantastic horse pics. 🙂

  7. Rashaverak

    Mike Oldfield: On Horseback

    From the 1975 album Ommadawn

    I like beer, and I like cheese

    I like the smell of a westerly breeze

    But what I like more than all of these

    Is to be on horseback.

    Hey and away we go

    Through the grass, across the snow

    Big brown beastie, big brown face

    I’d rather be with you than flying through space.

    I like thunder, and I like rain

    And open fires, and roaring flames.

    But if the thunder’s in my brain,

    I’d like to be on horseback.

    Some like the city, some the noise

    Some make chaos, and others, toys.

    But if I was to have the choice,

    I’d rather be on horseback.

    Hey and away we go

    Through the grass, across the snow

    Big brown beastie, big brown face

    I’d rather be with you than flying through space.

    Some find it strange to be here,

    On this small planet, and who knows where.

    But when it’s strange and full of fear,

    It’s nice to be on horseback.

    Some are short, and others tall,

    Some hit their heads against the wall.

    But it doesn’t really matter at all,

    When you happen to be on horseback.

    Hey and away we go

    Through the grass, across the snow

    Big brown beastie, big brown face

    I’d rather be with you than flying through space.

    So if you you feel a little glum,

    To Hergest Ridge you should come.

    In Summer, Winter, rain or sun,

    It’s good to be on horseback.


    Hey and away we go

    Through the grass, across the snow

    Big brown beastie, big brown face

    I’d rather be with you than flying through space.

    Hey and away we go

    Through the grass, across the snow

    Big brown beastie, big brown face

    I’d rather be with you than flying through space.

    I’d rather be on horseback!

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