Shire Horse

  • HEIGHT: 16.2–19 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: England
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Tallest of the draft breeds and heaviest after the Brabant; heavy feathering on the legs
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Farmwork, logging, pulling carriages or wagons

The Shire originated in the central regions, known as the Midlands, of England, particularly in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Staffordshire. Some think the breed can trace its history all the way back to the days of the Roman conquest. Certainly by the year 1068, people in the area were using heavy cobs as pack animals. If these early cobs cannot definitively be credited as the ancestors of the breed, most Shire historians accept that today’s Shires descend in some part from the roughly 15.2-hand, heavy cob type used by the armies of King Henry II in the twelfth century. This was the era of knights in armor, and as a fully armored knight often weighed three to four hundred pounds, he required a horse of great strength and exceptionally calm temperament.

Between 1199 and 1216, records show that “a hundred stallions of large stature” were imported to England from the lowlands of Flanders, Holland, and the banks of the Elbe. The blending of these horses with the local cob mares, sometimes known as the English breed, clearly gave rise to the big, heavy draft horses produced in England in later centuries.

A MARK OF ROYAL FAVOR

Shires descend in some part from the heavy cob type used by the armies of King Henry II (1154–1189). He and succeeding kings made laws to increase the population of Great Horses. Edward III (1327–1377) made it illegal to sell a draft horse to a Scottish person or export one to Scotland, in order to maintain the supremacy of England’s horses and to have the advantage in war. Henry VII (1485–1509) made it illegal to export a Great Horse anywhere.

Henry VIII (1509–1547) first applied the name Shire to the animal, and, to maintain adequate numbers of big strong horses for the military, prohibited in 1535 the breeding of horses under 15 hands. He also required landowners to maintain specific numbers of broodmares.

Another likely ancestor of the Shire is the English War Horse, or Great Horse, used for jousting and cavalry, though these large horses had few characteristics of the modern Shire. Knights probably selected any horse that was big and quiet enough to be used for their purposes, and the term English War Horse may describe what the horses did rather than a true breed.

In the sixteenth century, the dawning of the age of gunpowder quickly ended the days of knights in armor. The cavalry needed much smaller, faster horses, so the Great Horses began to work on farms and as cart horses. The total number of horses declined at this time, but farmers who realized the working worth of the horses continued to breed for size. Many historians think this is actually where the Shire as we know it began, developed from various crosses of large Flemish horses, smaller black Friesians, and the Almaine, a German draft horse useful for cart work.

The very early Shires, also known as English Cart Horses, were thick and powerful, with tufts of hair on their knees and on their upper lip. The heavy hair on the Shire’s legs (feathering) and feet (spats) acquired importance and began to be selected for in the first half of the seventeenth century, when Dutch contractors were brought to England to drain the Fens, a large marshy, swamp. The Dutch brought draft horses with them but also used many of the local Shires. The Dutch horses all had heavy leg feathering, which was essential for working in the heavy muck. The hair served to drain water off the legs, away from the skin and the pasterns, where it otherwise could have collected and harbored fungal infections. Work in the mud also required horses with huge, well-formed, wide hooves, open at the heels, traits that remain in the Shire.

The Shire is the tallest of the draft breeds, and this foal could grow to be as tall as 19 hands.

Improvement in quality began in earnest with Robert Bakewell (1726–1795), the most famous livestock breeder in England at the time. He used inbreeding and linebreeding to establish the characteristics of the breed. The earliest recorded Shire stallion, known as the Packington Blind Horse, was born in 1755. Lincolnshire Lad, foaled 1865, was the greatest sire of his time, surpassed only by his son Lincolnshire Lad II, foaled 1872, who sired the great show winner Harold in 1881.

During the 1800s in England, the Shire became a working national treasure. Big Shire geldings moved countless heavy loads of goods from the docks along badly paved, uneven city streets. There was a great demand, decade after decade, for massive, tractable horses of great strength. The English Cart Horse Society was formed in 1878, and in 1880 the English Cart Horse studbook was established. In 1884 the organization became known as the Shire Horse Society.

The heavy feathering characteristic of this breed was developed to protect the legs from the wet, mucky conditions of its native English countryside.

Coming to America

Shires were imported to the United States from the mid-1800s. The American Shire Horse Association (ASHA) was formed in 1885, and the Canadian Shire Association (CSHA) was formed in 1888. Between 1900 and 1918, almost four thousand Shires were imported to the United States. As mechanization came to farms, numbers of Shires and other draft horses quickly declined. However, over the past several decades, draft horses have enjoyed a comeback, and the Shire has been rediscovered. In the United States today, the Shire, while not numerous, is often considered the Rolls Royce of draft horses. They are used for farmwork, logging, pulling wedding carriages, and showing. Because of their size, beauty, and excellent movement, they are often crossed on Thoroughbreds or other light horse breeds to produce hunters and jumpers. In Canada, Shires have an active following of fanciers. Shires are seen at all the largest shows and fairs.

Shires are still used in North America and in Great Britain for farmwork, logging, and as impressive carriage horses.

Breed Characteristics

Shires, the tallest of the modern draft breeds, are known for their enormous strength. In England in 1924, a single Shire named Vulcan, in a weight class of 1,708 to 2,100 pounds, registered a pull equal to 29 tons measured on a dynamometer. A pair of Shires, hooked one in front of the other, easily pulled a starting load equal to 50 tons, which was as much as the dynamometer could measure. According to witnesses, the front horse of this pair started the load by himself, and the second horse hit the collar and began to pull only after the load was moving.

Conformation

Shires range from 16.2 to 19 hands, averaging about 17.1, and weigh 1,500 to 2,200 pounds. The head is long and lean, with a broad forehead and a slightly Roman nose. The eyes are large, prominent, and docile, the ears sharp and sensitive. The long neck is slightly arched, muscular, and upright, and its deep sloping shoulders give the horse a commanding appearance. The chest is broad and muscular. The girth is deep and in proportion to the rest of the body. The back is short, strong, and muscular, with a sloping croup.

Strong front legs with broad joints are set well beneath the body. The long and sweeping quarters are wide, muscular, and well let down. The hocks are clean, broad, deep, and wide, set at the correct angle for leverage. The cannons are relatively short. The legs are well feathered with fine silky hair below the knees and the hocks. The feet are large and soundly made, moderately deep and wide at the heels.

Color

Accepted colors are black, brown, bay, gray, and chestnut. Although many horses have blazes and socks or stockings, excessive white markings and roaning are undesirable.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Shire Horse Association (formed in 1885):

• The Canadian Shire Association (CSHA) was formed in 1888. It ceased operation in 1941 when numbers fell to near zero, but re-formed in 1989 as the breed began to reappear in Canada.

• There are about 3,000 Shires in England, 1,000 in the United States, and 140 in Canada.

• The American association registers between 175 and 200 new horses a year; the Canadian association adds 20 to 30.

• Shires are found throughout North America, but heaviest concentrations are in the West and Midwest.