The Shire horse is an English draught horse breed developed for its size by horse breeders in the English countryside, or the ‘shires’. Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire and Lincolnshire all had Great Horse bloodlines which they crossed with equally large Brabants and Friesians to make Shire horses.
Since the dawn of animal husbandry, English livestock farmers selected their biggest stallions for breeding. The practice dates back to periods well before Henry VIII put laws in place to protect their ‘Great Horse’, a legendary breed specifically developed for warfare. But military fashion changed with the invention of gunpowder and massive warhorses or destriers were suddenly no longer popular, as English cavalry favoured lighter, faster mounts. Fortunately for this horse breed, agriculture also changed and the big Shires became the British farmers’ favourite plough horses.
Shire horses returned to the battlefield in World War 1, utilized to haul artillery pieces, but after the war they fell out of favour as mechanization negated their peacetime purposes. Once tractors became widespread, the Shire horse’s role in society was limited. The breed survived, thanks in part to a small number of compassionate individuals and English breweries who selectively bred conforming animals to preserve the Shire ‘type’.
Draught beer, which today refers to beer served in a barrel or keg, originated from the Old English word dragan which means to carry or pull. This developed into a series of related words including drag, draw, and draught and from this we also get the ‘draught horse’ or draft horse or heavy horse.
The English Cart Horse Society was organized in 1878, but changed its name to the Shire Horse Society in 1884. The Society published a stud book in 1878 containing 2,381 stallions with records dating back to 1770. In 1996 the first World Shire Horse Congress was held in Peterborough, England. This horse breed, like most modern draft horse breeds, remains on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s ‘At Risk’ list, and is also listed as ‘Critical’ by Heritage Livestock Canada.
The history of the Shire horse breed
The story of the Shire horse begins in 1620 when Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch-born British engineer, was contracted by Parliament to drain the fens (bogs) in eastern England. He was a land-reclamation expert with knowledge gleaned from Holland of how to make wind-powered pumps and use canals to recover hundreds of acres of lowlands. But digging canals is hard work and dredging earth requires big horses. The project sparked demand across Europe and Brabants and Friesians were brought across the channel in large numbers where they inevitably bred with England’s own ‘Great Horses’.
The land reclamation projects carried on for many decades, with horse breeders always selecting the best specimens for reproduction. Notable figures like Robert Bakewell, of Dishley Grange in Leicestershire produced a superb horse that history records as the “Bakewell Black”.
The term “Shire horses” was first used in the middle 1700s to describe the big draught horses that were the champions in each of their individual counties.
The “Packington Blind Horse” of Leicestershire, which stood at stud from 1755-1770, is the individual animal most often recognized as the foundation stallion for the Shire breed, but he wasn’t alone in contemporary adoration as there were other draft horses celebrated in contemporary books and print. A Shire born in 1848 named Mammoth (Sampson) reportedly stood over 21.2 hands and weighed 1,524 kgs (3,360 lb). He is considered the largest horse that ever lived and is much revered in bloodlines.
Richard Cromwell, The Protector must have been fond of his cousin, Gregory Cromwell, for he left him a ‘great horse’ in his last will and testament.
How do you recognize a Shire horse?
Shires are typically black, bay, or grey (with roan acceptable in mares), and horses with white face markings are common. Shire horses have large, intelligent eyes and long, arched necks. They have wide chests and short, strong backs and their massive hind quarters are loaded with muscles. These horses have extra large hooves and their ankles are wider than other breeds. Fine, silky feathering adorns their lower legs.
Shires have at various times held world records both for the largest horse and for the tallest horse. One specimen in Australia named Luscombe Nordram measured-in at 20.1 hands! Most Shires stand 16.2-18 hands and a mature stallion can weigh almost a ton.
How do you register a Shire horse?
The Canadian Shire Horse Association encourages, develops and regulates the breeding of purebred Shire horses in Canada. This is accomplished by keeping a record of the breeding and origins of the Shire horses in Canada and by collecting, preserving and publishing data and documents relating to the same. The CSHA has established Standards of Breeding, and a system of Registration to protect and assist Breeders engaged in the propagation and breeding of purebred Shire horses and in compliance with the Animal Pedigree Act as set out by the Government of Canada, Department of Agriculture. To ensure a high standard is maintained, all Shires, except geldings, must have a DNA Parentage Verification prior to being registered with the CSHA.
As part of a long-term project to improve the breed, the Canadian Shire Horse Association has adopted some of the same principals as the Shire Horse Society in the UK and has a breed standard policy. Stud colt foals (stallions) are notified with the CSHA as a foal. When the horse turns two years old, he will be examined by a veterinarian to ensure that he complies with the breed standard, and must pass a veterinarian stallion inspection as prescribed by the CSHA before being registered as a stallion.
Are Shires bigger than Clydesdales?
Yes, Shire horses are bigger than Clydesdales. A comparison of Shires and Clydesdales side-by-side would reveal that the Shire horse is not only bigger, but also bulkier. They’re a hand taller; the height of a Shire horse measures in excess of 17 hands, while Clydesdales usually measure just under 17 hands.
One famous Shire horse was the majestic Goliath, who died in 2001. This beautiful black horse was renowned for his good character and was the star of an exhibition team owned by an English brewery. Measuring more than 19.1 hands high, he was the tallest horse in Great Britain at the time.
Did Shires always have white silky feathered legs?
No. It’s a commonly-accepted fact that between the 1920s and 1994, the Shire horse breed changed in conformation. Because their numbers dropped so low after the Second World War, declining to just a couple of thousand stallions in the United States in the 1950s, Clydesdale horses were commonly interbred and this changed their conformation, notably the feathering on the lower legs from a mass of coarse hair to the lighter coloured, silkier feathering now associated with modern Shires.
What are Shire horses used for today?
Shires are powerful draught horses perfect for hauling heavy loads. The Shire has a great capacity for pulling weight because they’ve been bred for that task specifically since the land reclamation projects of the 1620s and even earlier as ploughmen’s beasts of burden. They were often employed to tow barges on England’s canal system before the barges became gas-powered.
Shires are frequently encountered giving wagon rides at fall fairs and maple syrup festivals. They’re an environmentally-friendly alternative to tractors on small farms and still used in logging operations, especially in places where it’s difficult to operate machinery.
Are Shire Horses good for kids?
Yes. Shire horses are gentle giants. They do not spook easily and are suitable for all types of riders. Their patient temperament makes them ideal for trainers and good riding school horses.
Despite having fearsome destriers deep in their ancestry, Shires are considered among the friendliest and calmest horse breeds, eager to please their owners. They can be very popular working with children as their calm disposition makes them good school horses. Shires show tolerance for other animals and stay calm even with loud voices, children, cars and other distractions in their peripheral vision.
What do Shire horses eat?
Shire horses eat the same diet as any other horse, but do require about 20% more food and water to maintain proper body weight. Shire horses should be fed good-quality hay and ideally be able to graze on good pasture in the spring, summer and fall. These nutrients will help keep the horse healthy all year long. During the winter months, hay should be dispensed from a hay net rack because feeding from the floor can encourage dust-related health problems. Some of their favourite treats include chopped oats, carrots, and apples.
Are Shire horses expensive?
Generally speaking, registered Shire horses are hard to buy because they’re hard to find. Researching reputable horse breeders and emailing them is usually the best way to secure an authentic Shire, although it’s highly recommended that you spend time with the horse you select before bringing it home.
Shire horses vary in cost from $5,000 to $25,000 depending on their age and their level of training. When choosing a horse, it’s important to understand its temperament and get a sense of its health and history.
What health issues are common in Shire horses?
Like other draft breeds, Shires can suffer from Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), a disease that results in an abnormal accumulation of glycogen (sugar) in the muscles. Affected horses seem lazy due to the effort it takes on the part of the rider or handler to encourage them to go and to keep them going. Signs of PSSM can appear as a training or behavioural issue. Clinical signs may include reluctance to move, sweating, and muscle tremors, also known as “tying-up”. Tying up is characterized by muscle stiffness and pain, sweating, blowing, trembling, reluctance to move, and often discolored urine (brown) that’s triggered by exercise.
The shire’s heavily feathered legs require a great deal of upkeep to keep clean. Because of this feathering, shires can suffer from the bacterial infection known as ‘mud fever,’ or ‘scratches.’ While topical treatment or antibiotics can help, keeping your shire out of wet areas reduces the odds of this dermatological disease appearing in their lower legs.