All horse breeds have their own unique and wonderful characteristics and history; but few are as synonymous with British history and heritage as the famous Shire. The Shire horse has played an integral role in the development of a nation for sure, with roots thought to go back to the Middle Ages.
Keep reading to learn all about the beloved Shire horse breed...
A Rich History
The Shire horse is thought to have descended from "the Great Horse," a warhorse hundreds of years ago. This horse is often depicted in rolling fields in the countryside, predominantly used in agriculture and for pulling heavy carts. By the late 18th century, the famous stallion called the Packington Blind Horse was a stud in Leicestershire, now recognised as the founding sire of the Shire horse that we know today.
The Shire Horse Society has records going back to 1701. But as the industrial revolution made the role of the Shire redundant, many of the equines ceased to be in demand by farms and workers. In the 1970’s, people who know and love the breed began to campaign to save the breed from eventual extinction. Although the Shire horse still has a long way to go, the society began to promote the Shire horse for its willing attitude as a riding mount and also as a carthorse.
A Willing and Brave Riding Horse
Today, the Shire horse not only has a reputation as a willing and brave mount, but also as a sturdy and strong working horse, still used by some breweries to transport barrels. It was estimated that in 1893, 3000 horses were used by London brewers, many of which were Shires. These large horses have a vital role to play in society, including as police horses, army horses, therapy horses, working horses, as well as general riding horses.
Many horse owners are put off by the size and sheer strength of the Shire; at around 17hh to 18hh, the largest horse in the world is a Shire that stands at just under 21hh. If that’s not impressive enough, a shire standing at 21.2hh is recorded to have stood at one point from 1848 called Mammoth – a fitting name!
The Shire horse is fairly similar in appearance to the Clydesdale horse, a Scottish draft horse. The Shire horse in appearance is tall and broad, with an arched neck, a powerful hind and a pronounced shoulder. They have thick and strong legs with heavy feathers and generally bay, black or grey in colour with large, noble heads. The Shire breed is known to be calm and loving in nature with a great temperament, and you won’t catch this horse spooking at a lone plastic bag in the wind.
The Shire Horse in the Modern Era
Shire horses are generally very eager to please, have a trainable attitude and can be forward going in their paces. However, because of the breeding development of many sports horses over the years and the import of breeds such as Warmbloods, they don’t stand much of a chance in the competition ring. That said, many people show Shire horses and it’s wonderful to see the breed recognised for their beautiful and majestic features.
Many Shires have been bred with Thoroughbred horses to produce talented sports horses and hunters. For example, Carol Parsons two Shire cross TB horses competed at Grand Prix level, showing that the breed has a great deal to offer when mixed with speed and athleticism. Shire horses are even often depicted in media and films – in the popular Disney film, Brave, Merida rides a Shire horse called Angus who accompanies her on journey.
These gentle giants are loved all over the world. In fact, the United States owns at least half of the Shire horses in the world.
The first Shire horses made the journey from England to the America in 1853, with many more that followed. In 1885, the American Shire Horse Association was founded to protect and promote the breed and many Shires were registered in the US, becoming a popular breed. Unfortunately as with many other countries, there was little use for these stunning horses in the post-war era, which resulted in the demise of the breed up until the 1970s, when the breed began to be revived.
Another great selling point of this breed is their natural hardiness; unlike the Arab or the Thoroughbred, Shire horses will happily live out and are very sturdy horses. Shire horses are a great pleasure to own and many people love showing, riding and generally caring Shire horses. As a general riding horse, they can gallop and jump with the best of them and look spectacular under saddle. The downside? They eat a lot, you might need a ladder to get on and you can expect to buy everything a few sizes up!
Now that you've learned about the beloved Shire horse, learn about the endangered Black Forest Horse of Germany here on iHeartHorses.com.
This article was authored by Anna Wilson