The Clydesdale is often seen as the sister breed to Shire horses. Clydesdales originate from Scotland where they have been bred to their present conformation. They were named after the region surrounding the River Clyde, known today as Lanarkshire. There are many parallels between Shire horses and Clydesdales. Depending on point of view and necessity, each of the two breeds have been bettered by interbreeding with the respective other and this practice is certainly still experienced today.

At the end of the 17th century, the 11th Duke of Hamilton is said to have brought six draught horses from Flanders to Strathaven, where he made them available to neighbouring farmers for breeding with their indigenous Scottish horses.

Today, the genetic origin of the Clydesdale breed is dated to the period from 1715 to 1720, when a certain John Peterson of Lochlyoch brought a Flemish stallion from England to Scotland. This considerably improved the class of local mares during the entire 18th Century.

In 1808, a nephew named Sommerville of Lampits bought a two year old filly which became famous as ‘Lampits mare’, and in 1810 he acquired the legendary stallion ‘Glancer’, also called ‘Thompson’s black horse’ after its owner James Thompson from Germission. By 1850, there were already several bloodlines in existence. At this time, the pedigree of the Clydesdales was influenced by two prominent individuals.

One was Lawrence Drew, who was the ground keeper to the Duke of Hamilton at Merryton and had recognised the importance of good working horses at an early stage. The gloryof the stud at Merryton was established mainly by the famous stallion ‘Prince of Wales’ and his descendants ‘Hiawatha’, ‘Apukwa’ and ‘Fyvie-Sensation’.

The second prominent person for the Clydesdale breed was Davie Riddell, a horse-dealer. He discovered how huge the worldwide market for workhorses was and exported the best horses to America, Australia, New Zealand and to continental Europe on a large scale. In addition, he was also a breeder himself and was the owner of ‘Darnles’, from whose lineage the famous stallions ‘Sir Everard’, ‘Baron’s Pride’, ‘Baron of Buchlyvie’ and ‘Dunure Footprint’ arose.

As had been in England with its Shire horses, so the breeding of Clydesdales was promoted by the King. Clydesdales were of great importance, particularly for the development of agriculture. In so doing, less importance was placed on the size of the horses, as had been the case for the Shires, but more on the horse’s suitability for agricultural purposes. Even today, the Clydesdales are usually slightly smaller than the Shire horses, which results in a lighter weight, greater agility and less stress on the joints.

Due to the occasional waves of emigration from Scotland, Clydesdale horses can now be found in Canada and the USA as well as in New Zealand and Australia.

As front-charges for the legendary Anheuser-Busch brewery wagons, Clydesdale draught horses found great fame in the United States. Almost as legendary is the delivery of the first Budweiser beer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House in 1933 after the repeal of the Prohibition.

In the early 20th century, The Standard Cyclopedia of Modern Agriculture defined the breed standard as follows:

The Clydesdale is a very active horse. It is not bred for action, like the hackney, but it must have action. A Clydesdale judge uses the word ‘action’ with a difference. A Hackney judge using the word means – high-stepping movement; whereas a Clydesdale judge means – high lifting of the feet – i.e. not scuffling along, but with every step, the
foot must be lifted cleanly off the ground, and the inside of every shoe be made plain to see to any person standing behind.

‘Action’ for the CIydesdale judge also means – close movement. The forelegs must be planted well beneath the shoulders, not to the outside like the legs of a bulldog, and the legs must be plumb and, so to speak, hang straight from the shoulder to the fetlock joint. There must be no openness at the knees, and no inclination to knocking of the knees together. Similarly, the hind legs must 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. ‘Sickle’ hocks are a serious imperfection, as they lead to loss of leverage.

A Clydesdale judge begins to assess the merits of a horse by examining its feet. These must be open and round, not thin and flat. The hoof heads must be wide and springy, with no suspicion of hardness that may lead to the formation of sidebone or ringbone. The pasterns must be long, and set out at an angle of 45 degrees from the hoof head towards the fetlock joint. Too long a pastern is highly objectionable, but very seldom seen.

A Clydesdale should have a nice open forehead (broad between the eyes), a flat profile (neither Roman-nosed nor ‘dished’), a wide muzzle, large nostrils, a bright, clear, intelligent eye, a big ear, and a well-arched long neck springing out of an oblique shoulder with high withers. Its back should be short and its ribs well sprung from the backbone, like the hoops of a barrel. The Clydesdale’s quarters should be long, and its thighs well packed with muscle and sinew. It should have broad, clean, sharply developed hocks, and big knees, broad to the front. The impression created by a thoroughly well-built typical Clydesdale is that of strength and activity, with a minimum of superfluous tissue. The idea is not grossness and bulk, but quality and weight.

In 1877, the Clydesdale Horse Society was founded and still exists to this day. It now brings together around 700 members and preserves the legacy of these wonderful animals.

Compared to the last century, Clydesdales are also getting bigger, heavier and taller. As a rule, they have a better action in walking and trotting than the Shire horses. As a rough estimate it can be assumed that the Clydesdales in Canada and USA are of significantly larger build than that of the current Scottish Clydesdales, however, with this comes the contra-reality that their breeding and suitability for agriculture is significantly decreased in favour of representational purpose. It remains to be seen which evolution of the breed, the Canadian-American or the Scottish one, will advance the breed the most.

A striking feature of all Clydesdales is their absolute human relatedness, which makes them an excellent partner for elders, senior equestrians, but also for children and young people. Nevertheless, due to their size and weight they are, of course, not suitable as kids horses.

Further reading: Mary Bromilow “The Clydesdale – Workhorse of The World” Argyll Publishing 2011