Name of breed: Shire
Country of origin: England
Breed origin: The Shire is a breed of draught horse that originated in England in the 17th century. During the 16th century, Dutch engineers brought Friesian horses with them when they came to England, and these horses probably had the most significant influence on what became known as the Shire breed.
The term ‘Shire horse’ was first used in the mid-17th century, and incomplete records begin to appear near the end of the 18th century. The ‘Packington Blind Horse’ from Leicestershire is one of the best-known horses of the era, with direct descendants being recorded from 1770 to 1832. This horse is usually recognised as the foundation stallion for the Shire breed.
In 1878 the English Cart Horse Society was formed, and in 1884 changed its name to the Shire Horse Society. The Shire was a popular draught horse for many years, both in England and the US. However, around the time of World War II, increasing mechanisation and strict regulations on the purchase of livestock feed reduced the need for and ability to keep draft horses. Thousands of Shires were slaughted and several large breeding studs closed.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the breed began to be revived again through increased public interest. Breed societies have since been established in the US, Canada and throughout Europe. The Clydesdale was used for crossbreeding in the 50s and 60s, which changed the conformation of the Shire, most notably the feathering on the lower legs which changed from a mass of coarse hair into the silky feathering associated with modern Shires.
The National Shire Horse Spring Show is still held annually and is the largest Shire show in the UK.
Distinguishing features: Shire stallions come in a variety of colours, predominantly black, bay or grey. The UK registry does not allow registration of a chestnut, but the colour is allowed by the US registry. These horses are known to be very tall, with stallions required to stand at least 17 hands high to be eligible for registration. The head of a Shire is long and lean, with large eyes set on a neck that is slightly arched and long in proportion to the body. The shoulder is deep and wide, the back muscular and short. Not too much feathering occurs on the legs, and the hair is fine, straight and silky. Smaller Shires (under 17hh) are generally preferred for working horses, while taller Shires, especially those over 18.2hh are used for showing. The breed is known for its easy-going temperament.
The Shire has an enormous capacity for pulling weight, and at various times Shires have held the world records for both the largest overall horse and tallest horse. The largest horse in recorded history was a Shire aptly named Mammoth, born in 1848. He stood at 21.2 ¼ hands high, and his peak weight was estimated at 1,524 kg. Also one for the history books was a gelding named Goliath, who at 19 hands high was a Guinness Book of World Records record holder for the world’s tallest horse until his death in 2001.
Modern day Shire Horse: Originally the staple breed of horse used to pull carts to deliver ale from the brewery to the public houses, a few breweries still maintain this tradition in the UK today, including the Wadworth Brewery, the Hook Norton Brewery, the Samuel Smith Brewery and Thwaites Brewery.
The Shire horse is also used for forestry work and leisure riding today.
Image credits: feature image by Charos Pix on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) (cropped; colours & contrast enhanced from original), preview image by Jessica Stammer Fotografie via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0) (cropped from original).