The Shire horse is an iconic draft breed originally developed for heavy farm work in the rural shires of Great Britain. The Shire is one of the world’s largest horse breeds, known for its impressive size and strength.

The record for the world’s tallest horse belongs to a Shire gelding named Sampson, who stood at an astounding height of 21.25 hands and who is estimated to have weighed 3,360 lb.

Shires descend from the British Great Horses, who were ridden into battle by Medieval knights. These horses have a long history of use in agriculture, prized for their capacity for pulling heavy carts and plows.

These gentle giants also have easygoing temperaments and striking looks to complement their impressive abilities. While populations of Shire horses declined significantly after the mechanization of agriculture, they are still used for leisure and traditional activities.

This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, common health problems, and nutritional requirements of the Shire breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Shire horses.

Shire Horse History

Throughout British history, Shires and their ancestors have held indispensable roles in agriculture, logging, war, and transportation. They were extensively used for plowing fields before the advent of modern machinery and played important roles pulling heavy artillery during wars and transporting people and goods in rural communities.

As the demand for their exceptional abilities grew, these majestic horses spread across the globe. However, several conservation organizations consider this breed vulnerable to extinction today.

Shire Horse Breed Characteristics

 

Origin

Modern Shires can trace their ancestry to the English Great Horse of the Middle Ages. First brought to England after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, Flemish heavy horses heavily influenced the initial development of cold-blooded draft horses in Great Britain. [1]

Dutch engineers imported Friesian horses from Holland in the 1600s to help drain the Fens of eastern England. These horses refined the local draft breeds, and the resulting crosses became known as Old English Blacks. [2]

The Shire horse name first emerged in the 1700s to describe the draft horses used in the rural English shires of the region. Born in the mid-18th century, the black stallion Packington Blind Horse is considered the foundation sire of the Shire Breed. [3]

Historic Use

English Great Horses served as war mounts for knights wearing heavy armour in battle. The demand for heavy war horses led to legislation under Henry VIII outlawing the breeding of small horses and prohibiting the export of Great Horses from England. [1]

With the evolution of weapons and warfare tactics, favoring lighter cavalry mounts, the focus of draft horse breeding shifted primarily to the realm of agricultural work. By the conclusion of the 16th century, heavy horses were primarily used for pulling large coaches along the muddy roads of England.

The strong, wide-footed horses used for the land reclamation work involved in draining the Fens remained in the region to cultivate the new fertile land of the local shires.

Prized work horses were highly valued in English culture. Some even slept inside barns at night for protection from theft, predators, and weather hazards. Breeders also cherished Shire horses, carefully tracing and refining bloodlines through desirable lines. [1]

Demand for the new Shire horses spread throughout England, and the horses played essential roles in emerging British industries. These horses pulled heavy farm equipment in fields, towed barges along canals, worked in mills, and helped build railways. [3]

The first Shire horses crossed the Atlantic to the United States in 1853. After proving invaluable for hauling heavy artillery during World War I and II, Shires came dangerously close to extinction in the 1950s and 1960s.

Renewed public interest in the 1970s helped revive the breed as leisure horses, but the breed’s conservation status is still at risk.

Breed Registry

The English Cart Horse Society published the first studbook for Shire horses in 1878. [4] Renamed the Shire Horse Society in 1884, the society now maintains a database of thousands of horses and is the official breed registry for Shire horses in the US

The American Shire Horse Association (ASHA) is the official breed registry for Shires in North America and maintains a registry of around 3000 horses. [4]

The ASHA aims to preserve and promote the Shire breed in North America by publishing accurate pedigrees, assisting in breeding selections, and fostering historical traditions of Shire horses.

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Breed Characteristics

Shire horses are easily recognizable by their distinct appearance and characteristics. Some of these characteristics helped the horses perform heavy-duty tasks, while others contributed to the striking beauty of the breed.

Shires are sometimes confused with other popular draft horse breeds, including the Clydesdale. However, Shires are generally larger than other British breeds.

Other breed characteristics include an easygoing temperament and prominent white markings. While the Shire continues to excel in pulling competitions, these horses are also suitable mounts for pleasure riders in multiple disciplines.

Conformation

Shires are large, heavy horses and this breed generally ranges in height from 16.2 to 19 hands. The average Shire horse stands around 17.2 hands tall. Stallions should reach at least 17 hands by maturity, but some mares are slightly shorter. [3]

Shires should have long, lean heads with large eyes, a slightly Roman nose, alert ears, and a clean-cut throat latch attached to a long neck. The shoulder is deep and wide enough to support a collar comfortably.

Backs are muscular, short, and strong. The ideal Shire also has a wide chest with well-sprung ribs and muscular, straight legs with broad joints and heavy bones. The Shire’s power comes from wide, long, sweeping hindquarters with full muscling.

Other distinct features include a long, level croup and high tail carriage. Shires also have a short, straight back and well-sprung ribs. Short cannons and strong feet support soundness.

Colours

The Shire Horse Society registers Shires with the following coat colours:

  • Black
  • Bay
  • Brown
  • Grey

Purebred Shires often have white markings on their face and legs. However, excessive white markings or large areas of white hairs over the body are undesirable in the breed standard.

Shires used to have heavier leg feathers, but today breeding directions aim to produce horses with a moderate amount of fine, silky hairs on the lower legs.

Shires have black skin under their coats, except under white markings.

Temperament

Shires have a well-deserved reputation for being gentle giants. These horses were bred for centuries to be calm and reliable work partners.

They are generally brave and patient, making them suitable for timid riders. However, their size can intimidate beginners or youth riders. Training with experienced handlers helps maintain good behaviour in these big horses.

Despite their origins as war horses, modern Shires are friendly and enjoy spending time with humans. They are exceptionally tolerant of distractions and easily remain calm in hectic environments.

But like any horse, they can still become nervous or anxious. Undesirable behaviours are often the result of mishandling or improper management.

Disciplines

The Shire’s intimidating size and calm temperaments make them a popular choice for mounted police units that need reliable horses for working in cities and among crowds. You can also find Shires working in forestry and on Amish farms, but most modern owners use their Shires for leisure.

These horses have impressive pulling abilities, making Shires and their crosses ideal for driving disciplines. Once widely employed to pull beer drays, some Shire horses continue to be used in teams by breweries to uphold and preserve the tradition.

However, Shires are also capable pleasure mounts for riders that prefer larger horses. Trail riders appreciated the breed’s bravery and calm disposition. Crossbred Shires are also frequently found in English competition arenas.

Shires can also participate in breed-specific shows sanctioned by various equestrian organizations. Owners can participate in multiple disciplines, including driving, dressage, and in-hand classes.