From sentimental Super Bowl spots to thrilling, synchronized wagon team demonstrations, Americans can’t get enough of their beloved Clydesdale horses. The gentle giants were almost lost to history however, before Budweiser beer reinvented them as a cultural icon.

One of the first things my mother did upon arriving in St. Louis in 1961 was to take us out to Grant’s Farm, the 281 acre estate and ancestral digs of the Busch family, to see the most recognizable Clydesdale horses in the world, the famous Budweiser Clydesdales.

The towering horses were, and still are, some of the most impressive equines anywhere.  Yet the history and lore surrounding this breed’s noble ancestry stretches much farther back than beer wagons and Super Bowl commercials.  

They are thought to be among a group of Medieval European horses known as the “Great Horses,” bred and enlisted to carry armored knights on the battlefields.  These war horses often carried up to 180 pounds when armed cap-a-pie and carrying a mailclad rider.  Equine strength took a back seat to speed and agility with the invention of the musket, and the Clydesdale horses use as war mounts came to an abrupt end.

For hundreds of years, these “Gentle Giants,” as they are fondly called today, led a humble existence in the farmlands and coal mining towns of Scotland.  The name Clydesdale comes from the Clyde Valley in Lanarkshire, Scotland (formerly known as Clydesdale), through which the Clyde River flows.  

The Clydesdale is a draft horse or heavy horse, also called Dray or Draught horses. (Dray originates from an Anglo-Saxon term meaning ‘to draw’ or ‘to haul.’ ) These sturdy work horses were used for agricultural purposes on farms, for hauling coal, and later for pulling heavy loads in urban and industrial settings.

Despite the perception of the Clydesdales horses as giants, the breed was once somewhat smaller than it is today.  In the mid 1700s, Flemish stallions were imported to Scotland and bred with local mares, issuing foals larger than the pre-existing local stock.  The 6th Duke of Hamilton and horse breeder John Paterson of Lochlyloch are credited with founding the breed, with the intention to develop a horse with large, sound feet and strong legs–a horse capable of navigating hard, cobblestone roads and for pulling carts to and from nearby coal mines. 

The Duke’s unnamed dark brown stallion and Paterson’s unnamed black stallion were two of the prominent foundation stallions, sires of foals whose pedigrees were the first that were noted and written down.  

A filly mare, born in 1806, and later named “Lampits mare” after her owner’s farm, has a lineage that can be traced back to the original black stallion.  Almost every Clydesdale horse living today has the “Lampit’s mare” listed in its family tree.

Contemporary Clydesdale horses are best known for their majestic size of over 18 hands, and for the dramatic feathering above their hooves.  This feathering, along with luxurious manes and thick coats once helped ensure survival in the harsh Scottish climate.  

Clydesdale horses have intelligent eyes, large heads, small ears, open foreheads and wide muzzles.  Their chests are deep, their withers high, and their shoulders strong with heavy bone structure. 

The horses are generally short-backed, with long quarters, big knees and feet the size of dinner plates!  The most common color is bay, though Clydesdales horses may be black, brown, chestnut or roan.  Many display the now-expected chrome: four white socks and a definitive blaze or bald face.  

These large horses, depending on their age and activity level can consume 25-50 pounds of hay and 2-10 pounds of grain each day, along with 25-30 gallons of water.  Despite their immense size and tremendous weight of up to 2,200 pounds, Clydesdale horses are both gentle and graceful, with a manner described by the Clydesdale Horse Society as a “gaiety of carriage and outlook.” 

With a beautiful, high stepping gait, these dashing equines are popular in the show ring and as carriage horses, but also merit consideration for simple pleasure riding.  When Queen Elizabeth II spotted one pulling a milk cart, she was so delighted she requested it for service as a drum carrier for the Household Cavalry Band.

Despite the breed’s current popularity and visibility today, the Clydesdale horse population dipped in 1975 to a mere eighty animals worldwide, warranting a listing in The Rare Breeds Survival Trust as vulnerable to extinction.  Although there are now an estimated 5,000 Clydesdales horses worldwide (approximately 4,000 of those are in the United States) the breed is still considered vulnerable.  Perhaps the next time a team of handsome Clydesdales horses enters the show ring with manes, tails and feathered fetlocks flying, or a charming Clydesdale horses entertains us in a sentimental Super Bowl spot, we will remember the selfless service these gentle giants have provided throughout the ages.

Fore more information on these amicable gentle giants visit:

(Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).

(Photography courtesy of Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Missouri).