Draft Horses

Good Work Horse Prospects

by Glenn French
When I need a new work horse or team, I look first for conformation, partly because it's the first thing I can observe from a distance. If a horse isn't what I call square built [see “Conformation,” Holiday 2001]
I don't bother to get any closer. It doesn't matter about his feet or heart — if he's not built to pull, he can’t.

When I'm looking for a team, I check to see how well matched they are. I have certainly worked teams that were mismatched for looks, yet worked well together, but to me a matched team is one where both horses go the same and are the same conformation, size, and color. I rank the features in that order of importance. I need the same way of going, but the rest I could do without if I had to. The closer horses are to meeting all of these criteria, the more they're worth.

When I get up close, I look at the feet. If you can't keep them going sound on their feet, they're pet food. You have to assess any defectiveness in terms of how you can correct it. If you're a shoer, you could deal with some things a guy out in the boondocks with no shoer available couldn't deal with. Being a shoer, I can cut a horse more slack here than in the rest of his conformation, because I can deal with some defect, but if I don't like the looks of his feet, this is as far as I go.

If his feet pass, I check for clean straight limbs. I might check his pasterns for sidebone and ringbone. If anything is the matter with his legs, I stop here.

If his legs pass, I check for breadth of brisket and width of barrel back through the hips. I move his tail over and compare his inside and outside stifle muscles for balance. I look at how his hindquarters tie in down at the tendon above the hock. I want it tied in low and not looking like all the muscle has been hiked up high. I look at his hocks from both the back and side. I don't want any bumps, crookedness, or other signs of defectiveness. This joint is the most important one in a horse that has to pull. Obviously any joint defects would disqualify him, but this joint takes the most strain in a heavy pull.
It has to be right.

All the while I'm watching him move and observing how he reacts to all the attention. As I check his conformation and work around him, I pay attention to his personality. Although I like a friendly horse, I've had some horses that were a little hard to catch but were good horses to work.

I don't want any kickers. You have to work around them too closely to be constantly concerned about getting away without getting hurt. Any horse might kick in the right situation, but some horses are a little too prone to kicking. Over the years I've had only two I would classify in that category. I pet fooded one and traded the other to a guy who felt it wasn't a problem for him, but I told him what I thought of the horse, so he knew what he was getting. He knew I was on my way to the slaughter house with that horse.

Trainability is important, too. A horse with the determination to go ahead on a heavy load, that has what we call heart, is usually a little hard to handle because he applies it to every area of his life, including yielding control to you. This trait isn't quite so easily assessed on the spot. It takes a little time in relating to one another. A horse that goes along with things too easily probably would be satisfied to go along with a load not coming behind him. A good logging horse won't be what you would call easy to train, but he has to be trainable at some level or you aren't going to get any logs.

The only way to determine whether or not a horse has heart is to hook him onto something and see what he does. It may not be possible with young unbroke stock, or horses that are soft from standing around. I don't like to let them pull hard before they're five years old. I start four year-olds, but I try to watch what I ask of them. I would not deliberately hook a four-year-old onto something and ask him to pull for all he's worth. When I'm checking out a horse to buy, however, I like to see him set both hind feet and start, even a moderate load.

When and if I get to the point of hitching and driving my prospective new horse, I tell the owner I'm only there to observe. I ask to see the owner harness and drive the horse while I stand and watch to see how it goes. If the horse is supposed to be finished broke, I want to see him pull.

If there's anything the owner doesn't want to do with him, I ask why not. The more the horse will do, the more I'm willing to pay. Just because the owner can't or won't drive him, doesn't necessarily mean I couldn't do it, but it does affect the price.

I have two matched up horses in my barn that were fairly cheap because their former owners had trouble with them. I like them and get along well with them, but I bought them understanding that they had caused some trouble. By knowing what it was, I figured I knew what the cause was. I could have been wrong, but I was willing to pay the price and take a chance on myself.
What I don't like is a surprise due to misrepresentation. It takes only a week, if not sooner, to know what a horse's good and bad points are. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. rh horse logo
Glenn French lives in Otis, Oregon. This article originally apperared in the EVENER 2002 issue of Rural Heritage.

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