Horse Breeds & Heredity

Icon of a book Horse Breeds & Heredity

Domestic horse breeds were developed to produce horses with physical and behavioural attributes suited for certain purposes. Draft horses are suited for tasks like pulling and heavy work, while light horses are suited for activities such as riding. Breeders need to understand genetics and heredity when selecting horses for breeding programs. 

Icon of a book The Difference Between Draft & Light Horses

Domestic horse breeds were developed to produce horses with physical and behavioural attributes suited for certain purposes. The pedigree of a particular breed is often tracked by breed organizations or associations. Horse breeds are often named after the place in which they originated or the purpose they were bred for.

Selecting a horse breed involves a number of considerations. There are many different purebred breeds of horses to choose from in North America.

Horse breeds vary in size, weight, colour, conformation, and behaviour.

Breed refers to a group of horses that have common origins and specific characteristics and traits that can be passed on to their offspring.

DO YOU KNOW enough about the anatomy of horses to understand the differences between draft and light horses? If you think you need to know more, refer back to the "Body Characteristics & Functions of Horses" topic. 

Horse breeds are characterized by distinctive traits:

  • Size and weight
  • Appearance
  • Behaviour.

There are two main groups of horse breeds: heavy (or draft) and light.

Draft horses

Draft horses are also called heavy horses and are recognizable by their height and muscular build. They have a conformation that is well-suited for tasks like pulling and heavy work. They tend to have short backs with powerful hindquarters. Many have a straight profile or a “Roman nose,” which is characterized by a convex profile. Draft breeds average about 16 to 19 hands in height and from 635 to 910 kg in weight.

Draft horses were developed to carry heavy loads, pull plows and wagons and perform other farm work. Their height and strength made these horses a source of “horsepower” for farming and transportation. Some example of draft horse breeds include the Clydesdale, Belgian, Percheron and Shire.


Feeding, caring for and housing a draft horse can require a larger commitment of resources.

Most are fed a significant amount of feed and hay per day.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, thousands of draft horses were imported from Western Europe into the United States. Percherons came from France, Belgians from Belgium, Shires from England and Clydesdales from Scotland.

As mechanization increased and farm machinery, like the tractor, were invented, the use of draft horses decreased and some breeds declined. Today, draft horses are still used for agricultural activities, including driving and pulling, although much of this happens at competitions and shows. Draft horses are sometimes crossbred with light horses to produce offspring with increased height, weight and strength.

Light horses

Light horses often refer to breeds that can be used for activities such as riding, racing and “light” work, such as driving buggies. Light horses can also be classified according to their uses, including racing, working cattle, showing, jumping, hunting, pleasure riding and pulling light carriages. Light horse breeds are generally bred for companionship, leisure, or competition purposes. Some light horses can be classified according to their coat colour or special gaits.

Many modern light horse breeds can be traced back to the Arabian, the oldest breed of light horse. Arabians have small, triangular shaped heads, pointed ears, a broad forehead, a small muzzle with large, flaring nostrils and large eyes. Their backs are short and straight with a high tail carriage and a long, flat croup. This breed is well suited to endurance racing.

Other examples of light horse breeds include Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Standardbreds and Morgans. The Thoroughbred was developed primarily for speed and is used for racing, hunting, jumping, showing and pleasure. Quarter Horses have a heavily muscled, sturdy body, and are bred for running short distances. They are widely used on cattle ranches and in Western performance sports. They are also used in English riding and racing.

The Morgan is the only horse breed to originate with, and be named after, a single horse – a dark bay called Figure, owned by Justin Morgan. Used originally to pull light carriages, the Morgan is now considered a multipurpose breed and is used as a saddle horse. The Standardbred, developed from crossing Thoroughbreds with Morgans and other light horses, is often used in harness racing.

Some examples of colour breeds include the Appaloosa, Pinto and Paint. Appaloosas have white sclera around the eye, mottled skin and striped hooves. Paint and Pinto horses have natural white markings on their bodies with underlying pink skin.

Some light horse breeds are classified by their gait – how the legs move and the feet land when the horse is moving. All horses share the natural gaits of walking and galloping. Over centuries of selective breeding, some horses have inherited special gaits, such as ambling or pacing. The American Saddlebred, Tennessee Walking Horse and Peruvian Paso are some examples of gaited breeds.

Photo Credit: Farell Albert-Puurveen

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