The Shire horse is believed to be the largest horse breed today. Some records indicate that during the 16th century, King Henry VIII dubbed the first Shire horse. Other people argue that the term Shire horse was first applied to the breed in the mid-17th century, although the breed is first indicated in records towards the end of the 18th century.
An ancestor to the Shire horse was often the choice of medieval knights due to the strength of the breed. The large horses were easily able to carry a knight and his heavy armor. The horses were known to be as brave as the knights they carried into battle.
It is also believed that Friesian horses brought over by Dutch engineers in the 16th century had some noteworthy bearing on the Shire breed. The “Packington Blind Horse” from Leicestershire, which was studded from 1755 to 1770, is recognized as the foundation stallion for the Shire breed. The breed is considered a draught horse by British criteria or spelled draft in America.
Ancestors of the breed were the choice for pulling loaded wagons and coaches across the countryside towards the end of the 16th century long before roads were commonplace. The horses were used for over 250 years for plowing agriculture due to their strength. British commerce depended on the breed to work on docks, mills, and railways. The Shire was called into battle during World War I and World War II. The horses could easily maneuver heavy artillery under the challenging environments presented by war.
The Shire stallion may be black, bay or gray in color and may not have large expanses of white markings. The US registry allows chestnut colored Shire stallions, while the UK does not consider this color eligible for registration. The shoulders and chest on Shire horses are wide with a short muscular back and long wide hindquarters. Shires have large eyes and a long lean head. The neck is arched and long in comparison to the body of the horse. To be placed on the registry, the Shire stallion must stand at least 17 hands but may reach 18.2 hands or taller. Mares and geldings are generally smaller at 16 hands or slightly taller.
The numbers began to dwindle after the 1950’s when the horses were no longer necessary for agriculture, commerce or war. Breweries began to utilize the horses for promotional purposes. The breweries coupled with the determination of a handful of breeders have kept the Shire from becoming extinct. Currently, approximately 250 horses compete each year in the National Shire Horse Spring Show. The Shire breed is still considered to be at critical levels with a population of less than 2,000 globally.
The picture is courtesy of Shire Horse by Captain Roger Fento at Flickr’s Creative Commons.