A History of the Sugarbush Draft Horse

At the turn of the 20th Century, there were over 13 million horses in the United States, over half of which were draft or part draft. Thousands of drafts were imported from Western Europe: Percherons from France, Belgians from Belgium, Shires from England, and Clydesdales from Scotland, to name a few. Once they arrived, many were bred with local horses - the predecessors of American breeds like the Appaloosa, Quarter Horse, and Morgan - to supply the demand for animals for heavy work.

These horses were employed in farming, transport, and industry until the Great Depression. As tractors, trains, and other engine-powered devices spread across the US, the need for horses - particularly heavy horses - waned. After all, a tractor takes up much less space, time, and effort than a horse; the same can be said of cars and trains. By the 1950s, the number of registered draft horses across the United States had dropped to under 2,000, and many breeders had gone out of business. Some of the draft breeds created in the United States, such as the Conestoga Horse and the Vermont Drafter, no longer exist because of this decline.

The draft horses that remained were employed primarily in the carriage horse industry, pulling decorative carriages for weddings, sight-seeing in large cities, and in areas where a motor vehicle was not practical or allowed.

The Sugarbush Hitch Co.

Photo © 2010 Everett Smith
Used with permission
Photo © 2010 Everett Smith Used with permission

Sugarbush Hitch Company carriage, with Everett Smith at the reins.

The Sugarbush Hitch Co. operated out of a small town in Ohio. The founder, Everett Smith, felt that a fancier horse - something with a little more color - would draw more attention to his business, so he began crossing his draft horses with a relatively new breed of horse, the Appaloosa. In the years between the dispersal of the Nez Perce herds and the formation of the Appaloosa Horse Club, horses with spotted coats were bred without much thought towards a cohesive breed standard, producing a wide range of looks and types; some of those early Appaloosas showed classic signs of draft influence.

Mr. Smith took the best of those draft-influenced Appaloosas and crossed them to the highest quality draft horses he could find, primarily Percherons and Belgians. He carefully culled the resulting foals, keeping those with the ideal conformation as well as color. For five decades, he took the preferred offspring and crossed them with complimentary mates to achieve a heavy horse with flashy coloration and a great mind. The early use of the Appaloosa in these crosses produced a draft horse that was built more for riding than for pulling heavy weight. While they excelled at light carriage work, they were not well-suited to pulling competitions and heavy horse trials, unlike their European draft predecessors.

Locals started calling Mr. Smith's horses the Sugarbush Draft horses, as they gained popularity and fans. Other breeders began their own Sugarbush breeding programs, working towards a full draft horse with appaloosa type coloration. These programs were often based around a single mare or stallion from Mr. Smith's program and incorporated other breeds of draft horses.

These horses are the basis of the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry, but others influenced the breed as well.

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Michael Muir and the Stonewall Sport Horse

Photo © 2013 Jennifer Questa
Used with permission
Photo © 2013 Jennifer Questa Used with permission

Stonewall Rascal, the Stonewall Sport Horse sire of Sugarbush Harley Quinne.

In California, Michael Muir began breeding a similar cross, which he called the Stonewall Sport Horse after his Stonewall Stud. Mr. Muir's goal was for a warmblood-type horse instead of a draft, something he could use both for riding, driving, and equine therapy programs. He incorporated Percherons, Belgians, and Appaloosas, just like Mr. Smith, but he also used Knabstruppers, Friesians, Thoroughbreds, and European warmbloods to achieve the medium-sized horse he was looking for.

In the 1960s, Mr. Muir and Mr. Smith began working together. Each of their breeding programs had traits that the other could use: Sugarbush Draft Horses, crossed to a lighter animal, could produce horses that looked like Stonewall Sport Horses; Stonewalls, crossed with heavier draft horses, could produce horses that looked like Sugarbush Drafts. Both programs could produce the characteristic spots and the kind of conformation Mr. Smith and Mr. Muir were looking for, and encouraging crosses between them dramatically increased the quality of the available breeding stock.

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Formation of the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry

In 1982, Mr. Smith officially formed the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry. Throughout the early years of the breed, he had kept diligent records of parentage and encouraged those who purchased his foals to do so as well. With more horses and more breeders, forming a centralized organization that could track pedigrees and provide proud owners with official papers made a lot of sense. He wasn't the only one that thought so; while the horses from Mr. Smith's Sugarbush Hitch Co. breeding program formed the foundation of the breed - and were highly sought-after - other similar breeding programs across the United States also registered with the SDHR.

Unfortunately, as the Sugarbush Draft Horse gained popularity, draft horses as a whole were falling out of favor with American horse owners. Most draft horses were not built to be a comfortable ride, and they required everything to be larger - and often more expensive - than the more common light horses. Although their Appaloosa heritage made the Sugarbush Draft more suited for riding than the average draft, they couldn't escape the draft horse reputation. Even as the quality of the breed improved, the number of registered horses declined.

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The Last of Mr. Smith's Stallions

Photo © 2010 Everett Smith
Used with permission
Photo © 2010 Everett Smith Used with permission

Sugarbush Harley Quinne.

The birth of a striking leopard colt with 7/8ths draft blood was considered the culmination of Everett Smith's breeding program. That colt was named Sugarbush Harley Quinne, and his bloodlines can be found in many Sugarbush draft horses today. Images of the young stallion brought attention back to the breed, but sadly, the number of registered horses continued to decline. Breeding for quality above all meant that few foals were produced each year, and the waning popularity of the draft horse continued to take its toll.

Sadly, Harley passed away in 2006. His only intact son, Sugarbush Harley's Classic O, was the only Sugarbush stallion in existence for several years, as Mr. Smith moved into retirement and ended his breeding program. In 2008, he passed control of the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry to one of the breed's remaining loyal fans, and sent the last of his breeding herd to Texas to be sold by the new SDHR.

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Returning from the Brink of Extinction

With the transfer to new ownership, the SDHR began a head count, using the generations of records Mr. Smith had provided. Only 12 living horses in the breed could be located, and most of these horses shared similar bloodlines. Only one pure-bred and unrelated breeding pair was left. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was in serious danger of being lost to the world: without serious intervention, the breed would be gone in a single generation.

With so few dedicated breeding farms and a tradition of breeding only for excellence, finding a solution to the lack of genetic diversity wasn't easy. The SDHR consulted with the Livestock Conservancy, the organization dedicated to preserving and promoting rare breeds of livestock in the United States. They recommended using one of three programs proven to work when restoring other endangered breeds: breeding to other breeds and registering the offspring, breeding based on calculations to determine inbreeding, or bringing in unrelated animals with the desired characteristics. Crossing to other breeds of horses without tight oversight carried the risk of altering the character of the breed; using a numeric system based on calculations to determine how closely related a pair of horses were and whether they should breed seemed impossible with only one stallion. In the end, the SDHR felt the third option, that of choosing to breed to and register horses of a similar type and unrelated bloodlines, most closely matched the needs of both the breed and the owners of the remaining horses.

From 2008 to 2013, 38 horses of exceptional conformation and close adherence to the Sugarbush Draft type were allowed to register as part of the SDHR Foundation program. These horses are formally considered Sugarbush Drafts and provided new, unrelated bloodlines that the breed badly needed.

The Approved Cross program also started in 2013. Approved Crosses are selected carefully for conformation and similarity to the Sugarbush Draft type, but the standards are not as tight as the Foundation program. Breeding a Sugarbush Draft to an Approved Cross will produce another Sugarbush Draft, allowing breeders to bring forward Mr. Smith's original lines without inbreeding. Breeding a Foundation-registered Sugarbush Draft to an Approved Cross will also produce a Sugarbush Draft, giving breeders bloodlines unrelated to Mr. Smith's to ensure the breed's future.

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Sugarbush Renaissance

Photo © 2008 Heather Harmon
Used with permission
Photo © 2008 Heather Harmon Used with permission

The last foals bred by Everett Smith. From left to right: Sugarbush O Rosamunde, SHC O Sweet Surprise, and Sugarbush KatyDid.

In 2013, the SDHR believed that enough horses existed in the breed to move to a second stage of revival. Now that there are enough horses that the Sugarbush Draft is not facing extinction within a generation, the registry is encouraging breeders to test their horses for genetic disease and breed those diseases out. (For more information, check out the Genetic Diseases page.)

Despite the appearance of a similar registry in 2014, the SDHR continues to grow. Foals from Sugarbush Draft ancestry, with the quality and type pioneered by the original Sugarbush Hitch Co. horses, are registered every year, and the Approved Cross program has continued to attract quality drafts and spotted horses from across the United States. Reviving a breed from the brink of extinction is not easy, but the members of the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry are determined to try. The Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry books now have more than 70 horses registered - a number that seems tiny when compared to other breeds, but shows how far we've come since 2008!

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