Great Britain's Native Draught Horse Breeds
The Shire is one of several draught horse breeds endemic to the United Kingdom. The Clydesdale, Suffolk Punch and Irish Draught are others. It is one of the largest and heaviest of the draught breeds, renowned for its endurance, strength and hardiness. The Shire is a BIG horse with stallions reaching 19 plus hands and weighing up to a tonne. Mares average around 17hh.
Shires are docile with great substance and stamina. There is an abundance of feather although the modern Shire is slightly more clean-legged. The fine silky ‘feathers’ are usually white and impart a special magic to a team of dark horses. Shires may be black, brown, bay or grey. Chestnut and roan are not permissible nor are large white patches.
The predecessor of the Shire was the medieval Great Horse, brought to England in 1066 by William the Conqueror as a war horse. These served as the original armoured tank as they were immensely strong animals, fitted with protective armour themselves and carrying a fully armoured knight. Despite their size and load, they were still agile in combat. Once gunpowder came on the scene, faster, smaller horses were needed.
In the Eastern Counties of England, local horses were crossed with animals from the Netherlands. These coarse, sluggish horses were termed ‘Black Horses’ but after great improvement by Bakewell and his followers it became known as the ‘Bakewell Black’
The name ‘Shire’ came from the Midland shires such as Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire.
In 1878, the Old English Cart Horse Society was established. Another name change occurred in 1884 when the Shire Horse Society was founded. Strict guidelines were laid down for breeders resulting in the almost complete eradication of leg problems which had plagued the Shire beforehand. Unsoundness of wind was also addressed and Shire geldings became more valuable in urban areas as they were now better able to cope with long hours on hard surfaces in urban areas.
Shires were used on the docks, in forestry work, barge towing, delivery work and of course in many agricultural capacities. In 1888, 1400 Shires were exported. America, Canada, Australia Shires and other countries all recognized the value of the Shire. In 1885, the American Shire Horse Association was founded.
With the advent of mechanization, heavy horses of all breeds fast became obsolete. By the late 1950s it was facing extinction and was only saved by the efforts of a few dedicated breeders.
The Shire has a long, lean head and convex (Roman) nose. The forehead is broad and the eyes large. The expression is kind and intelligent. Wall eyes (where the iris is colourless) are not permitted in the show ring. The nostrils are thin and wide. The neck is long and slightly arched with a shoulder wide enough to support a collar.
The back is short and the hind quarters wide and muscular. The ribs are well sprung and the chest deep and broad. The legs should be well under the body. The tail is set high with no tendency towards a sloping or goose rump. The hocks should be closer together than is desirable in a riding horse as this gives greater pulling power.
A good Shire will have a girth measuring from six to eight feet depending on the height of the horse. Measured just below the knee, the cannons should be around 11 inches. As the Shire is such a massive horse, the legs and feet should be sound and strong. The hooves are wide with thick walls. Feathering should be straight and silky.
The placid temperament of the Shire endears him to all who work with him. Once trained and used to his work, he can be controlled just by using voice commands. Shires may live to twenty or more. Their shoes often need to be custom made because of the size of their feet and harness may also be expensive and hard to come by easily.
Today’s Shire is used for show and farm work. It is also used for promotional purposes and several brewing companies keep matched teams of Shires. Good quality sport horses can be produced by crossing the Shire with hot-blooded breeds such as the Thoroughbred. The progeny of Shire stallions and Thoroughbred mares find as ready market as heavyweight hunters.