Is the market for today's Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire falling away?
Without question top hitch horse prospects of these four breeds capture the big dollars. Tall, stretchy horses, geldings or mares that will hitch, enjoy this fast market. These potential hitch horses must have headset, length of neck and stretch. It is important these potential hitch horses exhibit desire, stand on lots of leg and lift high in front. Correct conformation seems less important, for the harness worn by hitch horses masks traits long considered undesirable. Few individuals are ever shown on halter. A growing school of horsemen feel buyers are rewarding flash, style and headset; while giving less consideration to soundness, conformation and structural correctness. This said, today's exhibition hitches capture the public eye. They are a powerful advertisement for each of the listed draft horse breeds. However, there is cause for concern.
Hitch horses command a fast, albeit limited, trade in numbers. Today most horsemen breed for this lucrative trade. Yet, the number of Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons and Shires in exhibition hitches is a small percentage of each breed's annual foal crop. What future do hitch-type draft horses have, if exhibition hitches or teams of parade horses can only employ but a limited number?
Horse loggers will often buy hitch-type draft horses. Sadly, relatively few loggers employ draft horses today, regardless of their type. Horsemen engaged in the sport of pulling seldom buy hitch-type draft horses. They are not thick enough, rugged enough or correct enough, to participate in this sport. Horsemen who want farm or ranch teams, or a team for recreational purposes, seldom buy hitch-type draft horses. They are too tall and too inconvenient to harness, let alone house and handle.
Experience has taught successful Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron or Shire breeders that the taller, high-headed, long-legged females, with few exceptions, are less fertile. Few are known for the excellence of their progeny. All too often, these are the type of mares seen in a female six-horse hitch. Their foals, few as they are, often fail to become hitch horses like themselves. Such mares exhibit few of the feminine traits found in the successful broodmare. Many are little more than female geldings.
Today, the market for Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire draft horses of more moderate size is growing. This market has manifest itself several ways. Breeders report a growing number of enquiries from potential buyers searching for well-broke draft horses that are more traditional in type. These buyers have little interest in purchasing draft horses that stand 18 hh or more. This demand is also evident at public auctions, for Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons and Shires that are more moderate in size, often outsell their larger counterpart. This was evident at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in January. Farm teams realized a fast trade. The top price for a Belgian female was $7,900; top price for a Percheron female was $7,000. The high-priced farm team won a last bid of $13,400. Demand for smaller crossbred horses that combine light and draft horse blood, is also growing. While such horses will never outsell star hitch horse prospects, the percentage of hitch-type draft horses considered stars will always remain small. What future have the many other draft horses of hitch-type?
Are today's horsemen going too far, breeding hitch-type draft horses only? Sixty years ago horsemen went too far breeding general purpose-type draft horses only. It is time for heavy horse breeders to reflect on their breeding programs. Single trait selection has destroyed many livestock breeds. The future of the Belgian, Clydesdale, Percheron and Shire is at a crossroads. At least this is how I see it!