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The Shire Horse

History of Shire Horses

History of the Shire Horse

The Shire horse as a breed has had a fascinating history, and its development had been inextricably linked with the development of the Society we know today. 


The Shire horse is a magnificent animal - tall, gentle, noble and immensely strong - loved by many. With its calm and placid nature, it might be difficult to imagine the Shire horse being useful in a war. However, it is because of war that the Shire horse came into being. 


The War Horse

Native British horses were quite small and light, like the wild ponies in areas like the

New Forest, Dartmoor and Exmoor. When knights started wearing heavy suits of

armour the horses were obviously unable to carry them. 


Heavier breeds from Europe (especially Holland, Germany and Flanders in

modern-day Belgium) were introduced to Britain and the Great Horse (also known

as the War Horse) first came into being. 


Eventually warfare changed and soldiers no longer wore heavy suits of armour, but

this did not mean that the Great Horse was no longer needed. It was soon recognised

that their great strength and placid nature would make them useful on the farm and

for pulling heavy loads. They soon took over the jobs previously done by oxen on

farms, such as ploughing. Horses were faster and more intelligent than oxen and

could also work in forestry.


The Work Horse

The Industrial Revolution saw the construction of a nationwide system of canals which enabled heavy loads to be transported long distances. The Shire was the ideal horse to use, towing the barges along the canals. They were also used to haul large wagons, drays, omnibuses and trams. 


Soon however, technology developed and the need for the horse declined. The first blow was the rise of the railway, meaning less goods were transported by barge. Then came the tractor, replacing horses on farms. Finally, more and more road vehicles were powered by engines and the Shire horse’s days soon seemed numbered. 


Shire horse numbers fell from well over a million to just a few thousand by the 1960s and the breed was in serious trouble. However, a small group of dedicated breeders came to the rescue and the Shire is seeing a resurgence in popularity both as a working animal and a riding horse.


Support for the Shire Horse 

More and more, younger people now feel the draw of working with these wonderful creatures, and the demand is there for traditional, experienced horsemen to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. 


Horses are working the fields again, albeit on a small scale. Small farms, smallholdings and market gardens are finding a place for the horse, especially those concerned with the environmental impact of their activities. Forestry and timber extraction has been one area where the use of draught horses has increased. Horses cause far less damage in areas of sensitive flora and fauna. Some local authorities, and organisations such as The Royal Parks, are once again employing heavy horses to work the land. 


Ploughing matches had all but disappeared by the 1960s, but along with those determined not to lose the breed, there were many determined not to lose the skill of the ploughman. Now, ploughing matches and agricultural shows are a popular day out across the country and many include classes for novices. 


Shire horses are also competing in more modern activities, such as skills tests, obstacle driving, cross country driving trials, and timber obstacle courses completed with a log being towed by the horse. All of these activities demonstrate the abilities of the working horse in a social, if competitive, environment. 


There are also a number of Heavy Horse Centres, working farms and rural life museums around the country, many of whom feature Shire horses working and allow the public, especially children, to get close to the horses. 


There are even one or two traditional brewers in the UK who still retain the traditional role of the brewery horse pulling the dray, primarily as a promotional tool. 


This resurgence in the popularity of the working horse of all breeds may be small compared to the past, but it is vitally important. It is preventing many of the old skills being lost, not only in horsemanship, but also harness makers, heavy horse farriers and other associated trades. 


Adapted from The Shire Horse Society

Facts About The Shire Horse

Facts About The Shire Horse

What Makes a Shire Horse?

The Shire is a draught horse, with powerful and muscular build, a dense rounded body, a broad back, strong loins, powerful hindquarters, and long legs with dense bones. The breed standard is set by the Shire Horse Society in the United Kingdom, and the American Shire Horse Association in the United States. Shire horses can be black, bay or grey. The legs should have white stockings or socks (except on grey horses). The hair down the back of the legs is called the "feather", while the hair over the feet is known as the "spats".


Shire horses average around 17.2 hands (178 cm) tall at maturity (measured at the

withers), with the breed standard being at least 17 hands, although a Shire horse was

recorded reaching over 21.2 hands (220 cm). The girth of a Shire horse varies from

6 ft (1.8 m) to 8 ft (2.4 m). Shire stallions weigh, on average, between 144 st (910 kg;

2,020 lb) and 176 st (1,120 kg; 2,460 lb).


The head should be long and lean, with a Roman nose and widely-spaced eyes. The

breed standard specifies that the eyes should be docile in expression, and they are

generally brown. The neck should be long and lean, with an arch. This leads to a short,

muscular back, with no pronounced dipping or roaching.​


Did you know?

The Shire horse holds the record for the world's biggest horse; Sampson, foaled in

1846 in Toddington Mills, Bedfordshire, England, stood 21.2 hands (i.e. 7 ft 2 in or

2.20 m at his withers) by the time he was a four-year-old, when he was re-named

Mammoth. His peak weight was estimated at over 3,300 lb (approx 1.5 tons). 


The most recent Shire to hold the record was Goliath, a dray horse for the Young & Co. brewery who held the Guinness World Record for the tallest living horse at 19.2 hands (1.98 m) until he died in July 2001.

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