The largest breed of draft horse in the world is the English Shire Horse, which originated in the central shires of England. Members of this breed have been recorded up to 23 hands high or 7.5 feet tall measured at the withers and weighing nearly 3 tons. The Shire has been known by many names, such as the Great Horse, Giant Horse of Lincolnshire, English Cart Horse, War Horse and Large Black English Horse.
The origin of the Shire breed is lost in the mists of antiquity, which is true for many breeds, but it is believed that it is a descendant of the Old English Black Horse whose ancestors were considered the 'great horses' during medieval times. During the period between the reign of Henry II in 1154 and that of Elizabeth in 1558, the British government was constantly seeking to increase the size and number of horses called the Great Horse because the weight of a horse soldier in armor was nearly 400 pounds. During the reign of King John, from 1199 to 1216, one hundred stallions of large stature were imported from Flanders, Holland, and it is from the blending of these animals with the English breeds some 800 years ago, that some strains of England's heavy horses trace back to.
But the Shire Horse's history in England is not that simple. A direct ancestry could not be determined until the mid to late 18th century and up to that point it is still sketchy. The earliest suggested ancestor was the English War Horse that was used for jousting and cavalry purposes, but although these horses had size they did not have the traditional characteristics of the Shire today. With the invention of gun powder, the War Horse was not as valuable to the army and the cavalry wanted smaller, faster horses to ride, so the Great Horse was now turned out to pasture and to work on the farms. Horses declined in numbers during this time, but farmers were still breeding the remaining animals for size. Many believe this is where the Shire was really bred from: the horses of the Flanders and the smaller black Friesians.
Eventually there was a need to organize the breed as its own, so in 1878 the English Cart Horse Society was formed. But it was not until 1880 that the first copy of the stud book was actually published with 376 entries. The Society changed its name to the Shire Horse Society (SHA) in 1884. The first Shire Horse Show was held in 1890 and the breed's popularity soared. By 1905 there were 3781 entries in the stud book.
The Shire started out in Canada and the United States at roughly the same time. The new found popularity for the Shire was not only in England, but had spread to America. There had been importing of Shires since the mid- to late 1800's. The information before 1850 is sketchy, but there was a stallion named Tamworth described as a Shire that was brought to Canada by British troops in 1836.
The creation and promotion of the English Shire registry in the U.S. was partly due to Americans wanting registered stock, and of course, they wanted to continue with keeping records once the horses arrived on American soil, as well as having the desire to improve the quality of the breed. Since it was in the best interest of the SHA to insure a quality animal in the U.S. in order to continue their exports and fill an ever-increasing demand, the British contributed funds to help organize the registry in the U.S. and in 1885, the American Shire Horse Association (ASHA) was incorporated. Therefore, there have been close ties and good relations between the Shire Horse Society in Britain and the American Shire Horse Association, much more so than with the other draft breed associations. However, in the late 1900's, with limited knowledge and a spirit of independence, some of the American breeders appeared to resent those ties, so a continued effort for unity has been an ongoing topic of concern by the leadership of both associations.
Between 1900 and 1918 almost four thousand Shire Horses were imported to the United States, but when horses were replaced by cars, this led to a decline in demand for draft horses and then following World War II, this ancient horse was almost lost when the invention of the modern farm tractor nearly made the breed extinct. The low point came in 1950's. The 1960's saw a resurgence in the draft horse business as Americans rediscovered its usefulness. The Shire breed became so popular that in 1971 the National Brewing Company of Baltimore assembled an eight horse hitch of Shires for publicity purposes and traveled to two hundred and seventy-three parades between 1971 and 1973 promoting the company and the breed.
The Shire Horse is an animal of enormous size, standing from 16.2 and up to 19 hands or more, with 17.1 being average for the breed. The tallest horse on record is a Shire that stands approximately 23 hands at 4 years old, and he's still growing. This behemoth weighs nearly 3000 pounds, but the average Shire horse tips the scale at a mere 2200 pounds, with mares and geldings being slightly less massive. The traditional Shire Horse today can be black, bay, brown, or grey in color. Any horse that is roan, chestnut or splashed with white is not considered to be a true Shire Horse.
The head of the Shire Horse is long, lean and masculine, neither too large nor too small with the nose being slightly Roman. It has a long, slightly arched neck with a good crest that is in proportion to the body and that gives the horse a commanding appearance. Geldings tend to have a thicker, masculine neck. The eyes are relatively large, wide-set and alert, with the ears being long, lean, sharp and sensitive. Shoulder should be deep, oblique, and wide enough to support a harness collar with the horse also being wide across the chest. The Shire Horse's back is short, strong and muscular and should not be either dipped or roached and the body has a substantial barrel. The tail should be set well up and both head and tail should be carried erect. The legs are long and the abundant feathering should be fine, straight and silky. Mares may be slightly smaller with a feminine, matronly appearance and should have plenty of room to carry a foal.
When in motion, the Shire should move with force, using both knees and hocks, with the latter being kept close together. A 1-ton Shire is capable of moving a 5-ton load, yet it is one of the gentlest of horses.
Today the Shire horse is flourishing all over the world. There are approximately 3000 Shires in England and 1000 in the U.S. with the Canadian population at 130 horses and the popularity of the Shire has begun to grow again. The Shire is still one of the major breeds in Great Britain and will probably remain so for many years.