Breed History

The breed originated from the Irish Hobby, a small ambling horse with many similarities to the primitive Garrano and Sorraia horses of Northern Spain and Portugal. War horses brought to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman invasions were bred with this local stock and later, additional Iberian blood was incorporated as Spanish horses from the shipwrecked Armada found their way ashore near Cork and the South West of Ireland. Clydesdale, Thoroughbred and half-bred sires were used on the local Draught mares in the 19th century and early 20th century, and a sprinkling of native Connemara pony blood added to form the breed known as the Irish Draught today.

The breed was bred to be docile, yet strong. They were required not only to perform the farm work of pulling carts and ploughing, but they were also used as riding and hunt horses, and during the Great European Wars, as army artillery horses. Irish Draughts were bred to be economical to keep, surviving on grass and gorse, and on any boiled turnips, oats and bran left over from cattle feed.

The Irish government became involved with the breed at the beginning of the 20th century to promote better horses. They offered subsidies, and introduced registration for stallions in 1907 and mares in 1911. Inspections for registration also began. The stud book was opened by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1917, selecting 375 mares and 44 stallions to enter as the foundation stock. Clydesdales horses were imported from Britain to meet the demand for plough horses in the heavy soil agricultural areas and also as heavy haulage horses in Dublin and other cities. Clydes were cross-bred with the Irish Draught horses in these areas, producing an animal that was taller and coarser. However, the Clydesdale was blamed for adding a lack of stamina, and poor limb and quarter conformation to the Irish Draught and so this practice was discontinued. Infusions of Thoroughbred blood helped to breed out some of these traits, and also added more refinement, greater endurance, and better shoulder conformation.

The breed flourished for a while, but numbers subsequently dropped as a result of death losses during the Great Wars, and the mechanization of the mid-20th century. During the latter period, thousands of horses went to the slaughterhouse each week as farm horses were sold to pay for tractors. In 1976, a small group of Irish breeders banded together to form the Irish Draught Horse Society and preserve the breed. By 1979, a branch of the Society was formed in Great Britain.

Since the evolution of show jumping in Ireland, Irish Draughts have been popular for crossbreeding. They are well-known for producing upper-level eventers and show jumpers, and are exported across the globe. Today’s Irish Draught is used mainly as a foundation animal for crossing with other breeds to produce sport horses. The most popular cross is the Thoroughbred or Continental Warmblood stallion used on the purebred or part bred Irish Draught mare to produce the Irish Sport Horse (or Irish Draught Sport Horse). The Irish Draught dam passes on bone, substance, and a more sensible temperament to her crossbred offspring. The breed is also used for hunting and showing, being excellent jumpers themselves. Due to its calm good sense and strength, Irish Draught geldings are popular mounts for police forces in Britain and Ireland.

Ironically, it is the Irish Draught’s popularity as a foundation animal for the production of sport horses that has put the breed at risk a second time. Many Irish Draught mares never breed a purebred replacement for the herd. Aggressive selection for show jumping characteristics has degraded the foundation stock and inbreeding to a few popular performance bloodlines has further endangered the genetic diversity of the breed. The Irish Draught is considered an “endangered maintained” breed by the Food and Agriculture Committee of the United Nations. In 2009, the breed was upgraded to the “Watch” category on the American Livestock Breed Conservancy’s Rare Breed Conservation Priority List. The Irish Draught Horse Society of Ireland have spearheaded research into a breeding plan to improve genetic diversity, and to maintain the traditional breed traits that are the defining characteristics of the Irish Draught breed.