Shire Horse Breed
Imagine 15th century England, the setting of England's Hundred Year's War. Mounted knights awaiting battle sat atop towering beast-like horses wearing protective shields and masks, intimidating horseless combatants. The echo of stomping, colossal hooves, charging through a dark forest could make any rival band or enemy tremble with fear. Grimacing in size but not in nature, the Shire horse is one of England's oldest equine breeds that was unmistakably a war horse of the middle-ages, a farmer's right hand in the 18th century and a brew master's loyal carthorse by the 19th century.
Shires have been developing for centuries in England and have been topping the charts for the world's tallest or the world's overall largest horse ever since records have been documented. In the 16th century, King Henry VII had little use, or interest, in short horses and sought to improve the quality of English horses overall. He promoted the development of taller horses by declaring all stallions must be over 15 hands and mares over 13 hands high. Although this may seem easy to surpass for today's modern Shire standards, the breed was still “in the works” and no definable lines were drawn as to what exactly defined a Shire horse. At this time, various draft breeds from mainland Europe crossed the English Channel and were imported by the King and breeders to enhance their draft bloodlines.
It was King William III and wealthy landowners at the end of the 16th century that were most interested in improving England's draft breeds as they struggled to drain the Fens with the draft horses that they had. Flemmish, or large Dutch draft horses (like the Friesian we know today) were introduced, to the draft horse stock of England at this time and greatly improved the strength of their horses and helped them in their efforts to drain the Fens. England's reputation for breeding quality cart and plow horses became well known throughout Europe afterwards and were valued highly when sold and imported.
Shire horses did not have an official registry, or name, until the English Shire Registry was created in 1878. It was at this time that the demand for quality, well-bred and registered imported draft horses to America was at its peak. This set the bar for Shire breeders on both sides of the pond and carefully recorded bloodlines for the official breed from thereon. After the turn of the 20th century, the demand for horses dramatically decreased. The introduction of trains, tractors and automobiles replaced the horse in everyday society and the Shire was not immune to the changes.
Shires almost ceased to exist in America in the 1950s and 60s but have made a steady comeback through various equine related recreational activities. Shires can be seen in medieval reenactments, carrying jousters through jousting tournaments, pulling brewery carts and wagons in parades or special events and are often seen in equine therapy programs.
The breed reaches 19 hands tall or more, but on average they stand between 17 and 18 hands tall. Their great height is reciprocated in their weight; they are easily 2,000 pounds on average, and can be more! Shires take on many of the standard draft horse characteristics such as having large hooves, heavy muscling and dense, below the knee, leg feathering but there are many ways the Shire stands and shines out of the draft horse crowd. Shires have large, long faces that many times include a blaze, stripe or snip marking. Their legs commonly have white below their knees and hocks. They do not have the broadest body compared to other draft horse breeds but have long, sloping shoulders, a deep but not dense barrel and a short croup. Shire registries allow them to be black, gray, bay, brown or chestnut, although chestnut is not preferred or common and they must stand over 16.2 hands tall.
Shires, like most draft horses are extremely docile in nature. An unruly horse weighing over 2,000 pounds would be dangerous, which caused them to be bred with a kind temperament. Under saddle as a pleasure or hunt horse, or with a cart, Shires are hardworking, sound horses and have adapted to harsh conditions. Besides their big, costly appetite, they are generally easy to take care of and their “gentle giant” attitude is easy to fall in love with.