Let’s talk about the horses in STARZ's Outlander television show and the horse breeds you would find in 18th-century Scotland. If you want to read up on the show's premise, you can read about it here.
In the episodes that took place in Scotland, Jamie and Murtagh were riding Friesian horses, Dougal’s horse looked like a Percheron draft, and I am guessing Claire’s white horse from season two was an Andalusian. It’s no surprise Outlander and many other TV shows and movies love to use tall, flashy horses. Friesians, in particular, are one of the most mesmerizing horse breeds with their black silky coats, long flowing manes and tails, and wispy leg “feathers." You can’t help but stop and admire these beautiful horses. However, if you time traveled through a stone circle and were lucky (or unlucky) enough to end up in 18th-century Scotland, you would find that the horses would not be as impressive as the ones on the show.
Friesians, Percherons, and Andalusians are among the draft and “light draft” breeds, but the only draft horse you would have found in Scotland was the Clydesdale. It may surprise some people that this breed, which is mostly known for its association with a German-American beer company, was originally from Scotland. Modern Clydesdales typically grow to be 18 hands tall and weigh about 1 ton, whereupon they eat about 25-50 pounds of hay per day. I wondered how farmers were able to support an animal with such a large appetite. But in the 18th-century, Clydesdales used to be smaller until they were bred with taller Flemish horses later on, so their smaller sizes and smaller appetites would have been more manageable. Even though Clydesdales were smaller, they still would have been giants compared to other Scottish horse breeds present in the 18th-century.
Scotland is mostly known for its robust pony breeds. While travelling through mountainous landscape and boggy moors, one would want a lightweight, sure-footed, sound steed to navigate the changing landscape. The most common breed to be found in the Scottish Highlands was the Highland Pony. Standing 13-14 hands tall, they could carry a full- grown man very comfortably. They have very sturdy feet that could manage rocky terrain without easily going lame. Like the Clydesdale, they were used for various chores around the farm from pulling plows to carrying hunted game, however, the smaller Highland Pony would have been more practical for riding on narrow and steep mountain trails. Plus, their lighter 750-850lbs bodies would not sink as far into boggy ground.
Other pony breeds developed on the Scottish Islands, such as the Eriskay Pony from the Hebrides and the Shetland Pony from the Shetland Islands. The Eriskay Pony stood 12-13 hands high and was known for its thick winter coat that would help it survive in the windy and wet climate. They were used as crofter ponies to haul light loads and to carry children.
The Shetland Pony became a hardy breed being raised in a climate that gets over 1,200 inches of rain per year and hardly gets over 50F degrees in the summer. Being only 10 hands high, the Shetland Pony was not utilized for work until the 19th-century to cart their weight in coal out from the mines. My experiences with Shetland Ponies have always been positive. They embody who the Scottish Highlanders were - strong, resilient, and brave. I worked on a horse farm one summer teaching kids how to ride, and my favorite horse was a Shetland pony named Kermit. Besides being the cutest thing to walk the earth, (yes, even cuter than my kids,) he was what horse people would call “bomb proof.” Nothing could faze him. Kermit was a the most patient, gentle pony I had ever encountered. He could keep up with the larger horses while carrying a child, and would not spook easily. One time while I was leading a trail ride, my 15-hand, usually confident horse almost ran off with me when a fawn surprised him on the trail, but little Kermit was the brave one who stood calmly as the fawn passed by.
The last breed I will mention is the Galloway Pony that became extinct in the 18th-century due to crossbreeding. This breed stood 12-14 hands high and was known to be a hardy creature that could transverse mountain trails and moors. Farmers started breeding this pony with drafts to create a stockier, more robust pony to work their farms. Modern breeds - the Dales Pony, Fell Pony, and the Highland Pony- carry this breed’s bloodlines.
It would be safe to say that most of the horses you would see in 18th-century Scotland would be medium size ponies and “small” drafts that were suitable for farm work. I can imagine seeing other breeds, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians, being brought up from England by English soldiers and aristocrats, but they would have been rare. While we love seeing the Outlander actors riding large, gorgeous Friesians around the mystical Scottish Highlands, in reality, 18th-century Scots would have likely been riding the smaller and grubbier Highland ponies.
I am Amy. I love movies, TV, and horses. I grew up with horses and taught kids how to ride during my summer breaks from school. Now I am a country girl living in a city hoping to someday move back into a rural area and own a horse again.