The qualities of the Clydesdale horse are many. It has a gentle, it is powerful, it is obedient, it is quiet, it is elegant, it is bonny to look at, it has a great structure, its walk, canter, trot and gallop are amazing, it embraces partnership with its handlers and it is highly intelligent. Yet its sole reason for existence was to work in industries which were dirty, demanded great effort, and operated in all weathers.
Contribution through the centuries
From as far back as the late 1700s the Clydesdale horse has worked in forestry, road haulage, transport, municipal gardens, world wars, in city and countryside and in agriculture. Many diverse industries were set up to service their working requirements.
The saddler who made all the harness both working and show. When properly looked after a set of working harness would last 10-12 years. Harness had to be made for pulling and carting. The harness used leather, so the tanning industry made a huge contribution. The hides came from killed farm cattle, so the farmer was required as a source of supply to service the needs of his own Clydesdale’s.
Clydesdale support industries
Another sector which was required was that of the local blacksmiths. Like the saddler each local area /village would have had at least one saddler and one blacksmith. At the smiddy the horseshoes were made in the forge and on the anvil. Stock shoes were always available off the shelf at the smiddy ready to fit with minor adjustments. Each blacksmith shop would have to cater for up to two hundred horses.
New shoes every 6 weeks
Each farm Clydesdale would have required 4 new shoes every 6-8 weeks. Road haulage Clydesdales would have required new shoes every 4 weeks. The blacksmith would also manufacture horse implements to suit the local requirements and would repair any implement that was worn. He would work with the local joiner in ringing all the implement wheels.
The local joiner would manufacture carts of various types, make all the wheels required for wheeled horse vehicles including the farm gig. All these areas of employment demanded the highest level of skill and engineering. All these industries were led by people who did not have more than the basic education. They left school at 14 years old and went to be a loon within the sector and worked their way to the top of their rural trade.
Supply chain links
All these various sectors required their supply chain with salesmen, showrooms and shops. The sectors relied on the railway from the mid 1800s and the local carriers to deliver the raw materials they required.
The horse fares
There were other sectors within the economy that contributed to meeting the needs of the Clydesdale horse. Horse sales/fares where dealers would buy and sell horses and travel them from horse fare to horse fare through the season.
These fares would attract gypsies and travelling people, and vendors and caterers of every type. They also attracted fly by night folk who would look out for any opportunity to steel or defraud people out of goods or money—this still happens today.
Clydesdales as a tourist attraction
The Clydesdale horse was also a tourist commodity. Local agricultural shows were one of the few events in the calendar where local people would get a day off to attend the local show. Here the Clydesdales would play a major role as a show animal. They were shown within various age classes and categories for example the show harness class. The day before the show they would have been working in their sector as usual. They would have been thoroughly washed and groomed the night before.
The day of the Fare
Their mains and tail plated and their feathers at the foot of their legs combed and highlighted. They would have been walked to the show ground in the morning of the show and spent the whole day being pampered, displayed, discussed and admired. To win prizes at your local show elevated both the horseman and the farmer. Competition was keen but always the competition was from your own district.
Owners and horsemen status
During the time when the Royal highland show moved to different locations within Scotland each year the competition within the Clydesdale horse categories was wider than just the local horses. To win at these shows again gave greater status to the horseman and the farmer. The farmers became leading breeders and the horsemen were top of their trade. Both went home fair chuffed.
Clydesdales replaced as working horses
The Clydesdales were slowly but surely replaced from the 1930s by the tractor. The breed numbers were depleted, and tractors and the internal combustion engine had totally replaced the Clydesdales as the power source by the 1960s. Clydesdales became almost obsolete and were no longer of value to many owners.
Born again Clydesdale
However, some owners loved the Clydesdale breed and kept the blood line going. Today in 2020 the Clydesdale horse is back up at the top of the tree and can be seen in all their glory at for example the Royal highland show in Edinburgh each year.
Spectacular Clydesdales then and now
Where they are exhibited as individual horses, shown as driving in pairs, tandem or 6 -8 in hand. The present status of the Clydesdale for many tourist and spectators at the show and around Scotland is one of great admiration and affection. Their contribution to a past and present society makes them one of man’s greatest animal partners.