The Shire Horse is the most numerous and largest of the heavy horses found in this country. For hundreds of years, the Shire Horse has been working with man in close harmony. The Shire Horse is the tallest of the modern draught breeds and can be black, brown, bay or grey in colouring. Its distinctive feature is long, silky hair, commonly white, on the lower part of its legs. A stallion may stand to 18 hand high or even more, and weigh a ton.
The medieval “Great Horse” came to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror and served in war as a living armoured tank until firearms made it obsolete. As a draught horse, one variety, boosted by importations from the Netherlands, emerged in the Eastern Counties during the 17th century as the “Black Horse” – dull in colour, gross and sluggish. Vastly improved in the Midlands by the disciples of Robert Bakewell (1725 – 1795) it became popularly known as the “Bakewell Black”.
By 1878, when the pedigree society was founded, black was a misnomer and the title “English Cart Horse” was adopted, but changed to “Shire” six years later. Meanwhile, the smaller Clydesdale in Scotland had been converted into a true heavy horse by using English stallions.
The pedigree movement enhanced the export of stallions, notably to the United States where the American Shire Horse Association was founded in 1885. At home, ruthless veterinary examination at the London Shire Show virtually eliminated the old unsoundness of wind and limb. The working life of town geldings increased steadily and their value spectacularly. In the Great Depression, good Shire foals were dubbed “the rent-payers”.
After the First World War, numbers declined, but slowly. There were motor-lorries and tractors, but these were inefficient and beyond the means of many in the prolonged Depression. In contrast, the Second World War heralded the abrupt end of the Horse Age.
The last quarter-century has seen the regeneration of the Shire Horse. In their heyday, there was a heavy horse population of well over a million animals, but by the late 1950s and early 1960s this had dwindled to a few thousand. Today the Shire Horse Society processes about 500 registrations annually.
The use of Shires in the modern age is more widespread than would be imagined. They are more cost-effective than vans, particularly in the inner-city areas on routes of 10 to 12 miles per day. They are ideal for pulling vehicles in this situation and are therefore used for beer and bread deliveries, street cleaning and rubbish collection. The Society is aware of promising results from a feasibility study to re-introduce Shire horse-power on canals both for commerce and leisure. Shire horses continue to be used in agriculture and timber operations to complement mechanisation.
The Shire horse is well known for its substance and bone, and widely used in the breeding of the heavier hunter types by crosses and second-crosses on thoroughbred mares. Although not normally recognised as a riding horse, it was originally used for this purpose by the knights in armour purely to carry the large weight. Naturally powerful hind-quarters are supported on excellent long legs with dense bones.
The Shire has virtues which now have a special importance. It is favourable to the environment and to conservation. It is conducive to cheerfulness in a population now largely divorced from the natural world. It provides great job satisfaction for many people. The Shire has served man at work and at war. As a proud symbol of our heritage, it now faces a new dawn of challenge and achievement.
The Gentle Giant