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A History of the Sendera Draft Horse

While still relatively unknown, the Sendera Draft Horse is not a new breed. The pedigrees of the founding horses have been tracked for decades, first through the Sugarbush and Stonewall Horse Registry (SSHR) and later through the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry (SDHR). What started as one man’s idea half a century ago quickly became the work of many. After years of careful selection and thoughtful crosses, the breed can boast a consistent style and appearance, regardless of color. Sadly, that wasn’t always the case.

The Decline of Draft Horses in America

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 heavy horses 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 able to handle the hard work necessary at the time.

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 draft breeds created in the United States, such as the Conestoga Horse and the Vermont Drafter, became extinct because of this decline.

Those draft horses who remained were employed primarily in the carriage horse industry, pulling decorative carriages for weddings, sightseeing in large cities, and in areas where a motor vehicle was not practical or allowed.

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The Beginning of an Idea

One such company, 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 selectively crossing his best draft horses to create something better. 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 incorporated these spotted horses into his breeding program, crossing them to his drafts and producing a breed that he called the Sugarbush Drafter.

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

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

Mr. Smith wasn't the only one with this dream. 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 for riding, driving, and equine therapy programs. He incorporated Percherons and Appaloosas, just like Mr. Smith, but he also used Knabstruppers, Friesians, Thoroughbreds, and European warmbloods to produce the medium-sized horse he was trying to achieve.

Mr. Smith felt that these Stonewall Sport Horses were the perfect cross for his beloved breed. Combining the elegance of the lighter sport horses with the power of Mr. Smith's drafts, the resulting foals were both elegant and large, unlike any other available breed. Generation after generation, Mr. Smith culled the foals and improved on the parents, always striving for an ideal type that would take more than one man's lifetime to reach.

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.

The early use of light horses and warmbloods in these crosses produced a draft horse that was built more for riding than for pulling heavy weight. While the horses excelled at light carriage work, their conformation meant they were not well-suited to pulling competitions or heavy horse trials, unlike their European draft predecessors. By selectively breeding for specific traits from various draft breeds, Mr. Smith’s horses maintained the identifiable heft of a draft while being distinct from any existing breed.

As Mr. Smith's Sugarbush horses gained popularity and fans, other breeders began their own breeding programs, working towards a full draft horse with appaloosa-type coloration and a consistent conformation type. These programs were often based around a single mare or stallion from Mr. Smith's program and incorporated other breeds of draft horses.

In the 1960s, Mr. Muir and Mr. Smith began working together. Each of their breeding programs had traits 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. It only made sense to combine their efforts.

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

Sugarbush Harley Quinne.

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Initial Breed Tracking

In 1982, Mr. Smith officially formed the Sugarbush and Stonewall Horse Registry (SSHR), a place to track the pedigrees of both his own Sugarbush lines and Mike Muir's Stonewall Sport Horses. 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 record pedigrees and provide owners with official papers made a lot of sense. He wasn't the only one who 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 SSHR.

Unfortunately, at the same time these draft horses gained popularity, draft horses as a whole fell out of favor with American horse owners. Most drafts 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 Mr. Smith's drafts more suited for riding than the average draft horse, 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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Returning from the Brink of Extinction

After decades of hard work creating a unique type of horse and laying the foundation for a viable breed, Mr. Smith retired due to health issues. At this time, there was only one person still actively breeding Sugarbush Drafts: Heather Harmon. Mr. Smith split the combined registry into two parts, sending the Stonewall Sport Horse records back to Michael Muir and giving the responsibility of continuing his work to Ms. Harmon. In 2008, the records for every Sugarbush Draft were transferred to Texas, where Ms. Harmon began work on the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry (SDHR), a registry dedicated to the singular purpose of perfecting the heavy appaloosa-colored draft horse.

With the transfer to new ownership, Ms. Harmon 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 purebred, unrelated breeding pair was left. The breed was in serious danger of being lost to the world; without intervention, the Sugarbush Draft 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. Ms. Harmon 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: crossing out to similar breeds and registering the offspring, choosing crosses 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 Sugarbush Draft beyond recognition; 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.

To do this, Ms. Harmon had to analyze each horse in Mr. Smith's records. She carefully measured and evaluated their conformation, determining the commonalities in such things as shoulder angle, leg length, and head shape. From her hard work, Ms. Harmon was able to create an itemized breed standard that would prevent a shift away from what made the Sugarbush Draft such an amazing animal.

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

Looking toward the future, Ms. Harmon knew that plans had to be made so that the breed would never find itself in this situation again. To do this, a method of approving potential outcrosses was designed. Each horse would require pre-approval before being allowed to contribute genetic influence to the breed. While it might be a painstaking process for the staff, the end result would be the protection of the breed standard found in those original horses. In 2013, the Approved Cross program began.

Approved Crosses were selected carefully for conformation and similarity to the breed standard. These horses weren’t considered registered members of the breed, but crossing them to a Sugarbush Draft - whether one of Mr. Smith’s original lines or a Foundation-registered horse - would result in foals that could be registered with the SDHR. By allowing crosses to both the original horses and the new Sugarbush Drafts, breeders could both bring forward the original lines without inbreeding and ensure the breed’s future with new, unrelated lines.

Thanks to Ms. Harmon's hard work and dedication, the breed also began to gain traction on social media. For the first time, potential owners could easily find their next horse, and the staff of the SDHR offered many new breeders guidance in selecting the best crosses possible to maintain the desired style of horse. While Mr. Smith had been able to create the foundation stock for a fantastic breed, it took Ms. Harmon to save this breed of horses from extinction.

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The Breed's Renaissance

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

From left to right: Sugarbush O Rosamunde, SHC O Sweet Surprise, and Sugarbush KatyDid.

In 2013, the SDHR believed enough horses existed in the breed to move to the second stage of revival, which reduced the chance of losing the breed's ideal appearance to outside traits. With enough registered horses to avoid certain extinction, the Registry began encouraging breeders to test their horses for genetic diseases and to start breeding those defects out. At the same time, requirements for registration and approval were implemented to include these genetic tests. (For more information, check out the Genetic Diseases page.) With the breed no longer being critically endangered, Ms. Harmon announced her intention to step down from running the registry, leaving the care of the breed to the very capable staff of the SDHR.

Then, in 2014, the style of horse became so popular a competing registry formed. That registry used a similar name, but had very different goals from the SDHR. For the next three years, owners new to the breed struggled to decide where and how to register their animals. After much deliberation, those dedicated to the preservation of the initial body type, regardless of color, made the decision to change the name of the breed to reduce confusion.

Effective in 2018, the name was officially changed to Sendera Draft Horse Registry, Inc. (continuing as the SDHR), and is registered with the state of Texas as a non-profit corporation. What once had been the Sugarbush and Stonewall Horse Registry, then the Sugarbush Draft Horse Registry, has now embraced the name Sendera Draft Horse Registry. Since the word sendera means "path", this was the perfect choice for the next step in the Registry’s evolution.

The future is now. Foals from Sendera Draft ancestry, with the quality and type pioneered by the original Sugarbush Hitch Co. horses, are registered every year. The Approved Cross program continues to attract quality drafts and spotted horses from across the United States, to bring in new bloodlines. With the increasing demand for a riding draft horse, the Sendera Draft Horse Registry continues to forge ahead, dedicating its efforts to promoting and preserving these magnificent animals.

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