Any breed of horse that frequently measures over 18hh is in the running for fielding the biggest horses in the world. Some of the taller individuals of these heavy horse breeds can measure over 20hh. There is some debate over the largest horse ever recorded, as it depends whether the records refer to height or weight. The tallest horses on record are Shire horse Sampson, foaled in Bedfordshire in 1846, who measured 21.2½hh; while over the pond Belgian Draft gelding Big Jake was measured at just shy of 20.3hh in Wisconsin, a Guinness World Record in 2010.
Largest horse breeds
Five breeds that tend to produce the largest horses are Shire, Clydesdale, Belgian Draft, Percheron and Suffolk.
Shire horse: renowned for its height and strength, Shires have held various records for largest and tallest horse. They are a fantastic draft horse, and were traditionally used for farm work, pulling brewers’ drays and towing barges. The breed, which originated in Britain, is still used for forestry and as draft horses for a some traditional breweries as well as a leisure horse for riding.
Tallest Shire: the 19th-century giant Sampson, 21.2½hh, who was renamed Mammoth as a four-year-old.
Clydesdale: typically measures at least 17hh, but is lighter than the other large breeds due to its slighter frame. The Clydesdale is known for its height and strength, but it is also elegant, with a high-stepping showy action. Although the breed originated in Scotland, they are famous in America due to featuring in the Budweiser commercials.
Tallest Clydesdale: Digger, a 19.2hh, who was rescued as a foal and trained as a drum horse for royal parades.
Belgian Draft: holds one of the records for the world’s largest horse, although more typically they are a maximum of 17hh. The Belgian draft is particularly known for its capacity to pull great weights and have won championships in this sphere. Belgian draft horses were exported throughout Europe and to the US, where it is now known as the American Brabant and is typically slightly more compact than the European version. They can be ridden, but are particularly popular in forestry and farm work, and even pulling sledges.
Tallest Belgian Draft: Big Jake, measuring 20.2¾hh.
Percheron: perhaps a surprising inclusion in this list as this French-bred draft horse can be as small as 15.2hh. However, most are much taller and have at times held biggest-horse records. They are also among the strongest in terms of their pulling power. They were traditionally used for transport – whether artillery and soldiers during wars, or stagecoaches during peacetime – as well as for agricultural work. Nowadays, they are used for conservation and forestry work, and also as a riding and driving horse.
Tallest Percheron: Dr Le Gear was recorded in 1915 as the world’s biggest horse, standing 21hh and weighing 2,995lb (1,359kg).
Suffolk or Suffolk Punch: always chesnut (and spelt without the T), Suffolk Punches are another of Britain’s established heavy-horse breeds and originated in the East Anglian county of Suffolk. Traditionally used for farm work as well as transporting artillery in the wars, they are nowadays used for riding as well as driving. They are a little more compact than the Clydesdale and Shire, standing typically at 17hh max, although there are instances of individuals exceeding 17hh, and they are particularly powerfully built. They might not be the very tallest, but they are said to be the oldest heavy horse breed in Britain, dating back to the 16th century.
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