"What the draft horse is bred to do is work hard, at a slow pace. Use it's heavy muscle to move heavy things. When we break these horses to ride it's really important to remember that. (Of COURSE the draft is going to be slower than a TB... one was bred for speed the other bred for slow heavy work! It's about the mechanics)
Breeders of the draft horse have created them so that they are smart (so they can easily trained for their job) but non-reactive (dumbed down). Most would rather do too little, than too much when it comes to over-reacting to something, if you think about it, it makes sense - they are built on the same principle of other horses (with a few conformation traits that make it easier for them to do their job but rather limit them for riding)... so what you have is A LOT of weight (Muscle and the sad fact that many are overweight on top of it), on four (relatively speaking) small legs and feet. They aren't ABLE to sprint like a TB - it's simply not possible for them because their musculature and skeletal structure is not built for speed, quick turns, or quick shifts in speed. (Yes, they can run, but they will sweat up, they will be slow and they will tire quickly in comparison)
What we've done in recent times is changed the draft horse's job... but we haven't yet changed the draft horse.
We're now trying to train the draft to do something it's physically not designed to do. It's one thing to ride your draft, and try to get them to move as correctly as possible (this is for their own good)... it's entirely another thing to start comparing them to horses who were BRED to ride.(they'll never stand up to the comparison)
The draft horse's conformation - he generally has a large head with the eye positioned so that he cannot see most of his world ( this is so that when you put the blinkers on he will stay really focused on his job - rather than the outside world)... will he respond to things an Arab might see ? No, probably not, because a lot of the time he'll simply not be aware that those things were there in the first place! Asking the draft to come onto the bit as you would for riding is asking him to take a HUGE leap of faith in his handler (he can't see with his head in that position, so he has to trust his handler... if we go back to the temperament the draft breeder wants, his lack of trust will usually be shown by planting his feet and refusing to move - he'd rather do nothing than do something and get hurt)
He usually has a large ear - to better hear the world around him. Because his vision is rather limited in most cases, being able to hear his handler is a saving grace. Most drafts are trained to harness using voice over anything else.
His neck is generally short, thick and powerfully muscled - this helps him do his job - which has nothing to do with flexibility and everything to do with power.
His shoulder is often steep, with a wide open angle. This will help him do his job... but a steep shoulder slope also means a limited reach to stride - when in harness this creates that flashy "high knee" action... but it's not terribly desirable for riding.
His forelegs are designed to bear the weight of his body, but not really thick enough to bear the weight of his body at speed or to handle the stress of jumping. Everything about his legs were designed to handle the pushing action of his job.
His back and body are generally reasonably compact, with heavy muscling again. This concentrates all of his power in a small area - again, for heavy, slow work. He often has heavy muscling over his loin and croup. He's super wide in most cases to accommodate more muscle translating to more power. His heavy muscling along the spine can make it tougher for him to be flexible through the body, making bending and turns more difficult for him.
His hip and hindquarter were designed to be heavily muscled for his job, and the angles were created to get the most amount of "push". (Harness horses PUSH into harness, they don't PULL) The trade off for these angles is a reduced ability to shift gears or go fast. So you have a horse with a lot of thrusting power, but not much speed or ability to change gaits (which is why a lot of times you'll THINK your horse is pondering your cue, when really they're prepping themselves to make that move...)
The hind legs were designed for that thrusting power, but, the trade off again, is a lack of ability to collect and engage from a riding stand point. (This is from the hip/pelvis down). All four legs are in proportion to the light horse - so while the draft has heavier bone, comparatively those legs are no stronger when it comes to hard work (actually can be less so as many drafts don't have ideal leg conformation).
Internally his heart and lungs are not designed for fast work, or long riding work outs. This is why your draft will have a higher heart-rate after a hard work out then a light horse who just did the same amount of work. This is why your draft will sweat up faster than a light horse doing the same work.
In short, when you ride a draft - or a high % draft cross you really need to remember how he's designed, and consider that as part of your training program.
Then comes their mentality :
Their large size does NOT mean you have to be stronger with them than another horse. I liked the way someone put it to someone at a workshop here - "If I were talking to a little man and a 300 pound woman, would I yell louder at the woman simply because she's bigger?". The problem is that's exactly how people handle them LOUD, so they really learn to tune people out most of the time - and the people in turn call them "thick skinned".
(Another favorite quote of mine is "Yelling louder in English won't help a person speaking German understand you any better" )
People walk up to a draft and think "gentle giant"... a misnomer. They are, in truth, simply a big horse. If you were to handle them as you did a super sensitive horse (say and Arab) you'd find you probably had a super sensitive horse. A HUGE part of how our horse (any breed) responds to us is how we perceive them.
When your cues are clear and easy for the horse to understand and he trusts you, the draft is almost always willing to work. IT was one of the things they were bred for - it would be counter-productive to have a horse that size who DIDN'T want to work. Most drafts have a really good work ethic, provided they trust their handler and their job is clear.
When you put the draft in a ring (for example) with his limited vision (and MOST drafts have this because of the size, position of the eye, and the size of the bone in their face) and then ask him to go forward, try to remember where you are in the ring... if you're near a fence and ask the horse to go forward (or back up) remember that to him, he may be thinking he's going to walk into a wall... therefore go very slowly to make sure he DOESN'T. (Put your hand in front of your face - right in front of your nose... that's about the ability to see that your draft has if it has the typical roman nose!). Now, in many cases people are asking their draft to work in "frame" - there's nothing really wrong with that - but you again, need to consider that vision impairment!
A draft, to see, either needs his head high, or low to get the most range from his eyes... "on the bit" tends to create blind spots for him. Trust trust trust he must have in his rider to do this comfortably.
Then let's take a look at the work we ask these big horses to do under saddle.
These horses are designed to push themselves (and a load) forward, in a relatively straight line... and now we ask them to go in circles. (This puts more strain on their body than it does a light horse)
These horses who are designed to go at a slow steady pace, are now being asked to make transitions... up and down... and while on a circle.
Some go and take these big horses and do things they are entirely unsuitable for - like jumping. Putting MORE stress on their joints, muscles and structure again.
These horses are BIG - and many get ridden in small rings (small for light horses... so really small for big horses who lack flexibility).
Now we sit there and complain the horse doesn't respond quickly, the horse doesn't go at the same speed as a light horse, the horse is ignoring us and being stubborn.... but we rarely ask ourselves WHY that might be. We simply say "He's a draft horse" as if that explains it.
We can get a faster response from the draft horse - if we time our reward/release well (we have two drafts here who are responsive), if we keep a positive and open mind. We'll never get the draft horse to compete on a level with a light horse though. (At least not beyond basic riding and correctness - all horses can be taught to be correct enough to handle basic work... when you start needing more flexibility though the draft is at a disadvantage)
When we look at most draft crosses - we usually see a lot of the draft influence in them... so all of this holds true for many of them as well. (not all, there are some EXCELLENT high % draft crosses out there who have the conformation able to handle riding work of all sorts... but not nearly as many as those who are NOT.)
My point here is not "You should not ride your draft"... my point is that we must set our goals to suit HIM, how he's built, what he was bred for. Don't compare your big, slow horse to a TB, Arab or WB (no, the high % crosses cannot be compared to a WB... they usually carry too many draft traits).
Even an athletic draft simply won't compare to a light horse - they can be great horses, great mounts... great friends... but don't try to make him something he's not, you'll only get frustrated. Enjoy him for what he is - a horse bred to do slow, steady work and enjoy it!"