And yet they don't. Though draft horses, like any other equine, can rebel against their human handlers, or panic and bolt (as a team did in Iowa during a July 4th parade, with tragic results), mostly they bear patiently with the small two-legs that buzz about them, commanding their obedience and ordering their lives.
It is fortunate for humanity that they are so biddable, and not just in terms of safe handling. For most of recorded history draft horses have pulled the plows and wagons of agriculture and transport, skidded logs out of the forest, hauled ore from the mineheads, mowed fields for the hay that fed them through the winter, dragged graders down dirt roads, and in multitudes of ways powered the human milieu that selectively bred them to their massive greatness.
Today, of course, draft horses are irrelevant to the functioning of society. The internal combustion engine put paid to their usefulness in almost every sphere. There are those who still use them for logging; folks like the Amish still use them for agriculture; but by and large, their day as the motive force for civilization is done.
Most people, if they think of them at all, think of the Budweiser Clydesdales. Though the best known of promotional hitches, they're not the only ones. I've seen up close and personal the Hallamore Hitch, a team of eight Clydesdales who pull a gigantic antique wagon at fairs, expositions and parades across the Northeast. I've stood in the stands at the Topsfield Fair, mere feet from the team as they trotted past, harness jingling, wagon wheels rumbling, feathers at their fetlocks floating, and felt the floor beneath me shudder with the seismic power of their thundering hooves.
It's at agricultural fairs and farm shows that you'll also find an old amusement of rural America still alive and thriving: horsepulling -- where a team of horses is hitched to a given weight and must pull it a given distance. It's uncommonly exciting:
The contest is run one of two ways: using a dynamometer, a machine used to measure horsepower, or with weights on a stone boat or sled. A horse pull is an elimination contest, with successful teams moving on to the next round until there are only two teams left. The winner of the last round is declared champion.
Horses must stay within the boundary lines drawn in the dirt or will be disqualified from the round. Hookers are assistants whose job it is to hook the horses to the sled or the dynamometer. Once they have done this they are required to stand back and not speak to the horses or drivers. It is against the rules to slap the horses with the lines or strike them in any way.
If you've never watched a horse pull you owe yourself the experience. To witness the power of these 2000-pound animals strain against the harness and pull thousands of pounds of dead weight twenty-seven and a half feet (the official distance) is an amazing sight.
Outside of such venues, though, one doesn't often see the gentle giants of the draft world. But there's a farm near where I live that boards horses, and last fall I had the privilege of photographing two massive buddies in their field.
The gelding is a Belgian, one of the more popular draft breeds; a friend of mine, in fact, for many years had a Belgian which she used for trail riding. I saw him standing out in the field, enjoying the mild autumn day.
With him was a mare, almost as large as her large protector.
What was the mare's breeding? Her mane and forelock were as long as a Friesian's but she did not look like a purebred.
They eyed me for a while, perhaps wondering what I wanted and what it might mean for them. Finally they decided to come investigate -- or rather, the gelding did, and his friend followed.
All the while I was observing them the mare, shy and wary, kept the gelding between us. Or perhaps it was the Belgian who made sure to stay between his companion and any possible threat.
Was she curious? Yes. Willing to approach the stranger? No. But still.... curious.
The Belgian clealry was most tenderly attached to his lady, and made frequent small gestures of affection.
I do not know, will never know, the mare's history; but at some point in her life, she was no more than a number to the human(s) who owned her and branded her number 35.
Whatever her past, her present was easy, comfortable, and happy. The eyes that watched me cautiously held no terror of the human, only a shy hesitancy.
Are draft horses' heads big and boxy? Yes; they're a far cry from the delicate elegance of, say, the Arabian. But they have their own majestic beauty.
And their eyes are as lovely as any equine's, anywhere.