The Industrial Revolution proved to be responsible for both the rise and collapse of the heavy horse in America. Demand for draft animals was spurred on by the growing transportation, construction and agricultural needs of the nation. The last half of the 19th century made draft horse breeding both essential and profitable. Massive importations from Europe took place. The period also ushered in the development of the present day breeds of heavy horses. The number of horses and mules in The United States peaked in 1920, at about 26 million. The groundwork for today's agriculture had been laid.
The horse lost the battle of the streets to the automotive industry rather quickly. As for the battle of the agricultural fields, it fought very tenaciously, but eventually yielded in most cases to greatly improved tractor power. By 1950, it was indeed, on thin ice. “Get big or get out” was heard across the nation and many did just that. It appeared to many that the draft horse was destined for the museum, a relic of days gone by.
Since that time, the draft breeds have not only stabilized their numbers, but once more enjoy a thriving trade. The fact that the old order Amish decided in the ’20s to reject tractor power in the fields was a considerable factor, as were the dedicated breeders that had produced these splendid breeds.
The present trade for heavy horses is made up of several niche markets. Their power and beauty have more than a little to do with this resurgence. The multiple hitch, once used to pull plows and combines, now finds itself hitched to a beer wagon in a parade or a big fifth wheel wagon at a fair. Equine competitions are reaching and exceeding levels not seen since the 1930s. On the small farms of the Amish, it plays its traditional role as the tractor that burns home grown fuel and raises its own replacements. On western cattle ranches, teams are still used to feed cattle, and in some cases, elk. In the logging industry, increasing environmental concerns have bolstered horses and mules to the machine of choice where selective logging, rather than clear cutting, is the order of the day. The flourishing tourism industry has prompted the return of horse drawn trolleys and carriages. They are again commonplace in historic areas and on many big city streets. They are doing an amazing number of things... some traditional, others less so. The uses for draft animals are limited mostly by the imagination of people. It is, once more, a viable and growing business.
Romance (and history) have it that all of our draft breeds descended from the age of knights in armor. They needed heavy, powerful mounts and the Great Horse of Flanders (a common ancestor to several breeds) provided the genetic material. The knights, encased in heavy armor on horseback, became the tanks of their time. They were later rendered obsolete by gunpowder, another element of the industrial revolution.
Be it for whatever reason – public appeal, versatility, practicality or economy – what was once regarded as an artifact of history has today become a tool of choice for many. The breed registries in this country confirm that it is growing. Any genome that has survived first gunpowder and then industrialization, can survive darn near anything. And survive is what the draft horse industry has done.