Hailing from medieval warhorses referred to as ‘Great Horses’ in the 1500s, and most likely originating from the Friesian with strains of Brabant infused, the Shire is one of the largest and most well-recognized draft horses in the world. Once the need for heavy battle horses declined, the ancestors of the Shire became valuable agricultural work animals. Originally brought to England in the 16th century by Dutch engineers to help drain the fens (swamplands) of East Anglia, these large horses were also used to haul goods and work at breweries.
In the 17th century, an animal known as the Old English Black Horse was crossed with Dutch and Flanders mares, developing two distinct types: the larger Fen/Lincolnshire type and the finer Leicester/Midlands type. In the middle of the century the term “Shire horse” was first used. The “Packington Blind Horse” of Leicestershire, which stood at stud from 1755-1770, is usually recognized as the foundation stallion for the Shire breed.
Once agricultural mechanization was widespread, the Shire survived thanks only to a small number of individual breeders and breweries who bred optimum heavyweight individuals to create the draft horse seen today. In 1878, the English Cart Horse Society was organized, which changed its name in 1884 to the Shire Horse Society. The breed, as do many 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 Shire is the largest British draft breed and possesses record-breaking size and power. A Shire born in 1848 named Mammoth (Sampson), reportedly stood over 21.2 hands and weighed 1,524 kgs (3,360 lb). More recently, a Shire in Australia named Luscombe Nordram was measured at a staggering 20.1 hands. Most Shires stand 16.2-18 hands and a mature stallion can weigh almost a ton.
Shires have a commanding appearance, with a long, arched neck, large, intelligent eyes, wide chest, short, strong back, massive quarters, large hooves that are wide at the heel, sturdy, correct legs, and clean joints. Fine, silky feathering adorns the lower legs. They can be black, brown, bay, or grey, with roan acceptable in mares, and white face markings common.
The Shire has a strong yet gentle character with a placid, relaxed nature.
Today, Shire horses still work on some farms, but they are also used in ploughing competitions, forestry work, and by breweries to transport beer locally. They are suited for leisure riding and driving, and are even making an appearance in the dressage ring.