Meet the beautiful Shire horse! This English draft horse is known as a gentle giant and is used for riding and driving work.
The Shire Horse has the distinct privilege of being the world’s largest horse. Shires are English draft horses, originally used for agricultural work in the shires, or counties, throughout the country. Strength and endurance were key breed characteristics. Working in the fields, providing transport, and wartime efforts were massive efforts that called for massive horsepower.
Demands on the Shire Horse were great even when they were no longer needed for war since most of England’s fighting was done in other locations. Cities, ports, railways, and rural towns along the rough roads of the country all required strong horses to transport goods. Farm work was also a mainstay for these horses, and they needed to be able to handle the wet, boggy areas and the rocky, mountainous regions of the country. The Shire was the horse of choice for all these pursuits. They soon replaced oxen and were also put to work in England’s forests.
History of the Shire Horse
The breed dates to the 1200s. Agriculture, hauling heavy wagons, and war were the uses for its predecessor. Moreover, these animals were referred to as the Great Horse for their size and strength. They carried knights, who weighed about 400 pounds in their full armor and with tack. In the 1200s, Flemish stallions were bred to Great Horses. Finally, Friesians were crossed with Great Horses in the 1500s; both refined the breed.
Large black horses became prevalent in Lincolnshire, a county in the East Midlands of England, along the North Sea. The name of these horses was the Lincolnshire Black or Heavy Black. They became popular throughout England in the 1700s. People started referring to them as the Cart Horse or the Old English Breed. Groups of breeders started standardizing the horses in the late 1700s and 1800s and established their breed society in 1878. The horses adopted the name Shire in 1884. The United States and other countries also imported Shires.
Like so many breeds of horses, and especially draft horses, their numbers dwindled after World War II. Mechanization replaced the need for horses and people stopped breeding and using them. The Shire breed had critically low numbers of horses in the 1960s. Fortunately, the breed had enthusiasts that saved them from extinction and helped rebuild numbers through breeding programs.
Colors include bay, black, brown, and gray, and occasionally other colors as well.
The average height is 17.2 hands high, and they weigh around 2,000 pounds. Shires have a convex head, long ears, and an arched neck. Their shoulder and hip are long, and their body is deep, but their legs are short. They also have feathering on their legs, below the knees, and hocks.
Shires are the largest of the horse breeds, and this dates to their history and uses. Working in the fields and transporting goods required large horses.
Sampson is the largest horse in history. He was a Shire Horse born in 1846 in Bedfordshire, England. Sampson measured 21.2 hands tall and weighed over 3,300 pounds. They renamed him Mammoth.
Temperament was an important breed characteristic from the beginning for Shire horses. They needed to be docile because they were often in precarious situations. Shires have a well-earned reputation as gentle giants. Precarious situations they faced included the docks of ship ports, railway yards, rough roads, cities, and other locations. Horses needed to remain calm in any situation and not destroy the large wagons full of goods that they were pulling. There were 19,000 horses in London, many of them Shires and other draft breeds, in the late 1800s. Combined with the numbers of horses needed by the rest of the country, it’s easy to understand why they were in such demand and the docile temperament was necessary.
The Shire Horse Today
At their peak, there were over a million Shire Horses in England. Then, the number fell to a few thousand. The Shire has made a comeback from the brink of extinction. Many equestrian disciplines feature Shires. They participate in jousting and medieval tournaments, a true tip of the hat to their history. In England, the Whitbread Brewery’s hitch of gray Shires is as famous as the Budweiser Clydesdales are in the United States. A few other breweries use Shires as well.
Horse shows, work in agricultural fields, pleasure driving horses, riding mounts, and companions for owners are all current uses for Shires. Horse show classes include in-hand halter classes, farm classes, hitch classes, pleasure classes, and riding classes under saddle. In fact, English, Western, and dressage are all saddle disciplines the breed participates in.
About 3,000 registered Shires are located throughout the world, and the dedication of their breeders and owners helps the Shire Horse thrive. There are breed associations or societies in Canada, the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Australia, and Sweden.
The Shire is interwoven in the history of England and modern civilization. In the same way, the efforts of millions of horses built the world as we know it today, and these gentle and noble creatures are a reminder of that history, a symbol of strength, and a source of enjoyment.