For those born at the end of the Great Depression, the value of a fine work horse was priceless. As technology swept the United States replacing living breathing horse power with something more economical, many of the millions of horses previously used were no longer necessary.
Around 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 horses. When the US calvary disbanded the herds of the Nez Perce, history holds that they crossed draft horses to the horses of the Native Americans, and dispersed the resulting offspring to be used as plow horses. Those resulting draft crossed foals were amongst the horses counted at the turn of the century.
As draft horses lost their place on the American farm, many of the remaining horses were put to use in carriage companies. They pulled decorative carriages for weddings or sight seeing in large towns. One such company, The Sugarbush Hitch Co. was operated by Everett Smith of Ohio. Mr. Smith felt that a fancier horse would draw more attention to his business, and looked at a relatively new breed of horse gaining popularity called the Appaloosa. Many of the Appaloosa horses showed classic signs of draft influence, often being quality draft crosses suitable for carriage work. We look back now, and wonder if those could have been offspring of the Nez Perce dispersal.
Having been born at the end of the Great Depression, Mr. Smith knew the value of a draft horse wasn't always based on it's pedigree, but a good pedigree never hurt, and so began breeding towards a goal. He chose the finest Percheron bloodlines available to him, and crossed those with quality Appaloosas; those showing the traits he desired. Often times the desired traits were considered flaws in their own breed, such as good bone and larger hooves. Mr. Smith selectively culled his breeding stock, always aiming for a true draft horse with excellent conformation as well as color.
As these horses gained local popularity, they became known as the Sugarbush Horses, after the carriage company which used them, and the name stuck. Many enthusiasts fell in love, and began their own breeding program, working towards a full draft horse with appaloosa type coloration. These programs were often based around either a single stallion or mare from Mr. Smith's program, and cross breeding to various breeds of draft horses, always working to maintain conformation while increasing the "heft" or draftiness of the foals. While Percheron crosses were the most popular, other draft breeds were interwoven for specific traits.
In the 1960s, Michael Muir began breeding a similar cross, which he called the Stonewall Sport Horse. Mr. Muir's goal was for a medium sized horse with eye catching color, and consistent traits. Everett Smith and Michael Muir soon began to work together. While Michael Muir desired an elegant harness type horse, Everett Smith had dreams of a pure draft horse with all the exceptional qualities shown in the breed to date. The Sugarbush Draft Horses could be crossed to light horses to achieve an ideal medium driving type horse, while the Stonewall Sport Horses, already carrying many of the desired traits could be crossed to Draft Horses to achieve a Sugarbush type horse. The expanded the available genetics, and quickly accelerated both programs; their own as well as those of other enthusiasts.
In 1982 Everett Smith realized that there was a need for a formal registry for these polka dotted draft horses, and opened the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry to outside members. Horses both from his program, and from other similar breeding programs across the country were soon registered in a central location. To the surprise of many owners, the breed had attained a loyal following who were devoted to the advancement of this unique horse. A side effect of the early use of appaloosa crosses resulted in a draft horse that was ideally built for riding more then pulling excessive weight. While these horses excel at light carriage work, their conformation differs from the traditional European breeds of draft horses used in the original crosses, such as Percherons and Belgian drafts.
Always striving to improve upon previous generations, Everett Smith's horses became the foundation of the breed, and the most sought after of the Sugarbush Draft Horses. Just as the breed was gaining popularity with draft horse lovers, draft horses in general began to fall out of favor. Many draft breeds became critically endangered at this time, including the Clydesdale.
The Sugarbush Draft Horse had always been a smaller breed, and owners had only bred for the available market. As the amount of potential owners decreased, so did the number of horses bred. The lack of bloodlines quickly spiraled downward, and many horses were sold but never had their registrations transferred, so were lost to the breed. The Sugarbush Draft Horse, though, still carried traits of those fine coursiers bred by the Native Americans so long ago. The sloped shoulder, longer neck, moderate length of back, and more upright hooves meant that the Sugarbush Draft Horse was not only good to look at, it was also comfortable to ride. And with the preponderance of draft breeding, the Sugarbush Draft Horse has a willing attitude, a strong work ethic, and a loyal personality. It is the best of both worlds and truly unlike any other breed of horse.
In the spring of 1999, 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. The decline of the draft horse was still working against the Sugarbush Drafts, and the tradition of breeding for quality above all else resulted in low numbers of foals born in years with little demand for heavy horses. Images of Sugarbush Harley Quinne brought attention back to the breed, but numbers of registered horses continued to decline.
Sadly, Harley died in 2006, leaving only a single intact colt, Sugarbush Harley's Classic O, remaining to the breed. Mr. Smith began to look towards retirement, but did not want to allow his life's work to fall into obscurity, so continued on a few more years. He continued to breed a handful of horses always striving to improve upon the amazing quality horses he had already produced.
As Mr. Smith announced his retirement in 2008, the Sugarbush Draft Horse Breed Registry's headquarters was moved to Whitesboro, Texas. The last of his breeding herd traveled with the generations of documentation he had kept, and the horses were placed for sale through Iron Ridge Sport Horses. These wonderful horses were made available to new owners and enthusiasts of the breed in the hopes that the breed would soon experience a revival.
A head count was taken in 2008, and only 12 horses remained to the breed, most of them directly related. The new staff worked diligently to educate the public about the existence of these horses. Working with the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, a Revival Program was designed and implemented. For the first time in decades, many horse lovers were hearing about this amazing breed of horse. Often being mistaken for a recent designer breed of horse, the Sugarbush Draft Horse is actually one of the few truly American breeds of Draft horse and has over 50 years of continuous recorded history.
The Revival Program was designed after many breeds that had faced extinction and come back from limited numbers of horses. The Friesian, Lipizzaner, and Cleveland Bay revivals were all studied, and the SDHR Board of Directors felt that mimicking the Cleveland Bay program would have the fewest lasting consequences. In late 2008, the SDHR Foundation Program was opened, and the start of the SDHR's revival had begun.
Many breeds of draft horse have already been lost. Among those are the Conestoga Horse, and the Vermont Drafter. Both breeds were lost to cross breeding to the general horse population. Like many breeds, the Sugarbush Draft Horse began as a crossbreed, but multiple generations of breeding like to like, and even crossing to other draft breeds has shown that the Sugarbush Draft horse is a unique breed, with characteristics that consistently pass on to future generation