The Clydesdale is Scotland’s only native heavy horse. With his feathered legs, huge feet and calm unflappable nature he has hauled logs, pulled hay carts and been ridden home from the fields by generations of horsemen. Without him, Scotland and the north of England would have struggled to move goods and complete farm work. The Clydesdale horse is horsepower at its most basic, as a breed he is majestic and respected.

Taking its name from the area of Lanarkshire once known as Clydesdale, the breed originated in the 1800s. Fostered by breed enthusiasts the sixth Duke of Hamilton and John Paterson of Lochlyloch, the breed came about when imported Flemish stallions were bred with the mares of the area. So successful was the breeding programme that at its height the breed numbered something in the region of 140,000 pure and cross bred horses. By the 1950s however the breed had passed its heyday thanks to the introduction of tractors on farms and the devastation caused by equine grass-sickness. Numbers of this great horse continued to drop and by the 1970s were sufficiently low that the breed was recognised by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Although numbers have stabilised today the breed is still classed as rare.

The Clydesdale gives of his best when at work and from ploughing to carting there’s none better than he is when it comes to the smallholding. On farms the Clydesdale can turn his hoof to all manner of tasks. Standing anywhere up to the 17hh mark there’s no doubt he’s a big lad and he can pull some weight too.

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His calmness is legendary, which is perhaps just as well given his power and size and it’s this ability to work in a calm manner that endears him to smallholders and crofters everywhere.

The abilities of this gentle giant have been recognised far from his homeland and the breed has been exported all over the world. Australia, Canada, North and South America and New Zealand have all benefited from his presence and as well as work on farms, his unique looks and power have seen him giving ridden quadrille displays to music at events as prestigious as the Calgary Stampede in Canada.

At home in the UK the Clydesdale has moved from being farm horse to ridden horse and many’s the show that now offers ridden show classes to this gentle giant. Clydesdales have even been seen competing in private driving classes and despite it’s huge size and weight, the breed can also jump, albeit over small obstacles.

It seems that there’s little this horse cannot do but it’s in the farming world that the Clydesdale excels. Breed enthusiasts gather each winter to show just what this magnificent breed can do. Ploughing matches where horse classes are available are a huge draw to appreciative audiences. Classes are available for single Clydesdales and pairs. Pitted against other breeds the Clydesdale makes a wonderful sight and you can only imagine just how these horses would have turned the ground over in the days of old.

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During the summer months the Clydesdale can be seen in his Scottish stronghold at country shows, the biggest of which is the Royal Highland and it’s here and at others that he can be seen pulling drays, farm carts and other vehicles. Many of these vehicles have been restored to their original condition and are resplendent, complete with their original fixtures and fittings such as hanging water buckets.

It takes real skill to handle, break and train these heavy horses and at summer shows and winter ploughing matches these skills may be observed firsthand. Keeping these skills alive is vital and encouraging novice handlers is paramount in order for this breed to survive for future generations to appreciate.

Keeping a Clydesdale or two at home on the smallholding; working or showing them and maybe even breeding them is one of the best ways enthusiasts can foster the breed. With his dinner plate feet the Clydesdale can quickly cut up and damage wet winter ground, keeping him at home would therefore require extensive grazing or stabling in order to provide the best for him. In line with other equines the Clydesdale requires the correct feeding and management regime and his care must not be taken lightly. Consideration should be given to his needs before bringing one or two onto the smallholding but if doing so his presence will be reward in itself.

This is one horse though that can quite literally pay his way on the smallholding by using his strength. Pulling a horse drawn grass rake or old fashioned binder during hay or harvest time means he will surely provide for himself and other livestock on the farm. Not withstanding he will also become companion for those livestock and will readily pal up with sheep, cattle and smaller animals just as easily as he will with his own kind.

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At rest the Clydesdale is a delight to watch and observe. Mares with foals, especially when there are several foals together, playing and frolicking or resting in the sunshine, make a beautiful sight. At one time when worked in the commercial sense of the word, the Clydesdale would have had little time at liberty in the way that today’s horses do. He would have worked six days out of seven, most probably from just after daybreak to just before dusk. In-foal mares would have worked until just prior to foaling and returned to the fields within weeks of giving birth, sometimes with foal at foot or returning to their foal after the day’s work was over.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last thirty years smallholding in Scotland. This has given me the opportunity to observe and photographically record the magnificent Clydesdale at his best, from foals to working animals. If you are as captivated as I am by this wonderful breed you can see more in my book ‘For Love of the Clydesdale Horse’ published by Old Pond www.oldpond.com. Article by Heidi M. Sands.