Shire Horses – Facts, Origin & History
We hope you’ve been following along on our Tally-Ho horse breeds mini-series and enjoying getting to know the unique history and characteristics of some of the world’s most beloved draft horse breeds. So far, we’ve featured the iconic Clydesdale, the majestic Percheron (the horse favoured by medieval knights) and the Belgian. Next up we have another special draft breed, the Shire.
The Origin of the Shire Horse
The Shire is a British breed of draft horse that was formally established in the mid-eighteenth century, although, like many of the draft breeds we’re profiling, the Shire’s origins are much older.
Like that of the Belgian draft horse, historians trace the Shire back to the destriers or the “Great Horse”. More specifically, the Shire is linked to the time of Henry VIII when the increasing role of gunpowder diminished the use of heavy horses in battle. Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry sought out lighter, faster mounts and the heavier drafts were relegated to draught work instead.
It was during the sixteenth century that Dutch engineers brought Friesian horses to England to drain the Fenlands – a coastal plain in the east. It’s believed that the Friesian bloodlines were introduced to domestic draft breeds, influencing what would later become known as the Shire breed.
At the onset of the seventeenth century this medieval hybrid was called the Old English Black. During this time, a man by the name of Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire, imported six Dutch (or Flanders) mares, resulting in the supposedly superior Bakewell Black horse. Eventually two different types of black draft horses evolved: the Fen or Lincolnshire type (larger, with more bone and extra hair) and the Midlands or Leicester type (known for their endurance and finer appearance).
The term “Shire Horse” was first referenced in the middle of the seventeenth century with inconsistent records beginning to appear near the end of the eighteenth century. The famous “Packington Blind Horse” from Leicestershire is commonly recognized as the foundation stallion of the modern-day Shire breed, standing at stud for 15 years – quite a feat in terms of equine life expectancy of that era.
During the nineteenth century, Shire horses were extensively used as cart horses, moving essential goods from the docks, through busy cities and further on to the countryside. As a result, the English Cart Horse Society was formed in 1878, and only six years later was renamed the Shire Horse Society due to the prevalence of the Shire horses. Between 1901 and 1914 approximately 5,000 Shire horses were registered each year with the society.
The Modern History of the Shire Horse
The first exported Shires horses reached America in 1853, with large numbers beginning to arrive in the 1880s. In 1885 the American Shire Horse Association was established as a platform to register and promote the breed domestically. Nearly 4,000 Shires were imported to the United States between 1900 and 1918 and approximately 6,700 Shires were registered with the association between 1909 and 1911 and the breed continued to flourish both in England and North America, for several years following.
At peak population, the Shire breed numbered over a million. Around the time of the second world war, increased mechanization rendered draft breeds more and more obsolete. This, combined with strict regulations on the purchase of livestock feed sadly led to the slaughter of thousands of Shire horses and the closure of several large breeding programs. The breed fell to its lowest point during the 1950s and 1960s, with only 25 horses registered in the United States.
In the 1970s, the breed began to be revived through increased public interest. In Canada, the Shire had been extinct for more than 40 years prior to imports that saw its return in the 1980s. Breed societies have been established in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, France and Germany and the first World Shire Horse Congress was held in Peterborough in 1996. The introduction of artificial insemination in 1997 further bolstered the breed.
To this day, however, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust lists the Shire as “at risk” with population numbers estimated to be under 1,500. In the United States, the Livestock Conservancy lists the breed as “critical” and the Equus Survival Trust calls it “vulnerable”. There are still reportedly fewer than 300 registered Shires in all of Canada.
Past and Present Uses of the Shire Horse
Like the Belgian Draft horse – and several other heavy breeds – the Shire originated as a war horse. However, mechanization and the evolution of the breed, very early saw the Shire gain prevalence as a cart horse.
More notably, the Shire was the breed of choice for the delivery of ale from the brewer to the public houses – England’s equivalent to North America’s Budweiser Clydesdales. A few breweries still maintain this tradition in the UK today, including Wadsworth Brewery in Wiltshire, the Hook Norton and Samuel Smith Breweries in Tadcaster and a handful of others.
The Shire’s superior hauling capacity also made it an excellent candidate for agriculture and logging. In 1924, at a British exhibition, a pair of Shires was estimated to have pulled a starting load equal to 50 tonnes (or 110,231 lbs), although the exact weight was contested as their pull was said to have exceeded the maximum reading on the dynamometer. The same pair of Shires returned to competition in a subsequent year and, in wet and slippery footing, still managed to pull a verified 18.5 tonnes (or 40,786 lbs).
In North America, the Shire horse is still used in farm work and private small-scale logging, as well as pleasure driving. Shire-Thoroughbred crosses have also gained popularity as excellent sport horses under saddle.
Shire Horse Conformation and Colour
Shires are sometimes confused with Clydesdales due to the feathers on their lower legs, a feature that is equally characteristic to the Shire breed, though finer and less voluminous than the Clydesdale’s. In terms of acceptable breed specifications with registering associations, Shire stallions may be black, bay, brown or grey, but cannot have large amounts of white marking or have coat colours that are roan. And for UK-based breeding associations, stallions may not be chestnut. The above applies for US associations, except for chestnut stallions, which are acceptable. Mares and geldings, however, are permitted to be roan in both the UK and US.
A taller draft breed than some, the Shire’s average height sits around 17 – 18 hands high, or 1.72-1.83 metres from the ground to their withers. Depending on the bloodlines, the build of the Shire can vary in heaviness, ranging from 1,700 – 2,400 lbs.
Setting it apart from the Clydesdale, Percheron and Belgian Drafts that we featured previously, the Shire breed has a long, streamline head that is set on a slightly arched neck that is long in proportion to the body. However, similar to other draft breeds, the shoulder and chest are deep and wide, the back muscular and short, and the hindquarters long and wide.
The largest and heaviest horse ever recorded in history was a Shire aptly named Mammoth, but more commonly known as Sampson. He measured an astounding 21.2 hands high (or 2.18 metres from the ground to the withers) and in his peak, weighed in at a colossal 3,360 lbs.
Character Traits & Trainability of the Shire Horse
Like so many of the cold-blooded draft breeds, Shires are known for being calm, steadfast, and loyal, which make them exceptionally versatile work horses. Shires do, however, have their limits and are not shy in communicating when those limits have been reached.
Shires seem to have a desire to understand the objective of what is being asked. While they will often respond to commands with trusted handlers, without consistency and context, Shires are known to become very stubborn.
Unlike other, hotter horse breeds that may run, or rear or strike out if they feel insecure or disrespected, Shires simply leverage their impressive size and will refuse to move. Where other training tactics may be used to coerce lighter breeds, Shires are often not phased by these methods and will stand their ground until handlers step up.
The other side of this innate stubbornness is a level of dedication and loyalty that, when earned, never wains. This relationship-centric work ethic makes the Shire a sought-after breed the world over.
Meet the Tally-Ho Shire Horses
Tally-Ho is honoured to play a small role in helping to preserve and promote this incredible (and vulnerable) draft breed. We currently have five purebred Shires in our herd, Annie, Belle, Button and Maggie – and our newest, Trace.
If you’d like to learn more about our beloved Shires, or any members of our herd, you can choose to sponsor a horse or visit our website at www.tallyhotours.com to book a tour to experience these majestic horses in person. Can’t get enough of our gentle horses? Take your very own plush horse home to love. Available in 7.5″ or 12.5″ heights, “Clyde” and “Rimsky” are available in our online gift shop. They come complete with pulling harnesses and make a wonderful keepsake!