Bred For Strength

Part of the Horse exhibition.

work horse
Work horse.
Juniors Bildarchiv/AGE Fotostock

Most horses are strong enough to pack or pull heavy loads. Their strength is part of their makeup. Horses have evolved by natural selection to have thick muscles, a large heart and powerful lungs.

Yet over the centuries, people have also bred some groups of horses to be even stronger. By bringing the heftiest or hardest-working horses together to mate, people have developed breeds that are especially suited for certain jobs--whether to haul fuel for industry or to pull a plow in the fields.

Draft Horse

A draft horse skeleton in the exhibition belonged to an unusually large horse raised in the United States. There are no records of its breed, but it clearly came from a line of horses that was bred over many generations to be massive and strong. Such breeds are known as draft horses because they are especially fit to draw or pull heavy loads.

The horse stands at rest, with the left leg locked at the kneecap. In a living horse, a group of ligaments called a stay apparatus helps the leg stay in place. Because of this structure, even the heaviest horse can remain standing for long hours without tiring.

Breeding Draft Horses

The largest horse breeds have roots in northern Europe. During the Middle Ages, the horses of Belgium were especially famed for their strength and size, although they were probably much smaller than today's draft breeds.

Around 500 years ago, European horse breeders began bringing the largest, strongest animals together for breeding, often crossing local mares with stallions imported from abroad. Over many generations, their descendants became larger than any horses known before.

On The Job

Today, loggers sometimes work with draft horse teams to thin small areas of forest. Unlike heavy machinery, a pair of horses can pull a log along a narrow trail without damaging trees and undergrowth nearby.

Did You Know?

  • When this horse was alive, it weighed more than a ton: about 2,370 pounds (1,075 kilograms).
  • The Clydesdale, a draft horse bred in Scotland, can eat up to 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of hay and 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of grain a day.

Shetland Pony

The Shetland pony is one of the smallest horse breeds. The skeleton in the exhibition of this particular Shetland, named Highland Chieftain, was thought to be the smallest adult pony in Great Britain when it died more than 100 years ago.

This breed has lived for centuries on the windswept Shetland Islands, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Scotland. Shetland ponies were traditionally allowed to roam freely, and they probably became smaller as they adapted to their environment. It may have been easier for short, stocky animals to survive the harsh conditions on these remote, treeless islands.

pit pony
Pit pony.
Durham Mining Museum

Pit Ponies

In the 1800s, Shetland ponies were specially bred to work in underground coal mines. Strong, hardy, and small enough to enter narrow mine shafts, these "pit ponies" were well suited for their jobs.

Pit ponies literally lived underground. They were kept in stables inside the mine, where a caretaker fed and groomed them and a blacksmith repaired their shoes. During the day, each horse worked side by side with a driver, pulling carts full of coal from the areas where miners worked to the shaft to be lifted away.

Take Me For A Ride

Most Shetland ponies are gentle and easy-going. Many continue to work at petting zoos, fairs, and carnivals, where young children with no experience may be given a chance to ride.

Did You Know?

  • People living on the Shetland Islands once used hair from their ponies' long manes and tails to make fishing line.
  • The word pony is mainly used for small horse breeds with short legs and a stocky build. But informally--especially in sports--even a lean, long-legged horse may be called a pony.