Shire Horse Origin and Characteristics

The Shire horse is a draft horse and often one considered as one of the largest breeds in the world today. It is especially tall, which a Shire holding world records for height and weight at various times throughout history. The Shire is a strong breed as well, with a tremendous ability to pull weight.

Today, you will see Shire horses pulling drays to deliver ale and performing other harness work. In some regions, they are still used to pull logs out of areas where mechanized vehicles cannot enter. Despite their size, many Shires are often used for recreational riding as well. 

The breed associations for the Shire are some of the oldest in continual operation in the world today. The Shire Horse Society was formed in Britain in 1878 and the American Shire Horse Association was started in 1885. Large exports from the UK to the US occurred in the late 19th century to support agricultural development.

Like most heavy draft breeds, they feel out of popularity in the 1950s thanks to fast advances in mechanization. In the 1970s, however, the popularity of this breed began to rise and a recovery was experienced. Population levels are still listed as being at a critical state, but these beautiful horses are poised and ready to make a dramatic comeback. 

The Origin Story of the Shire Horse

Horses were used for agricultural work in Britain as early as the 12th century. Advertisements for horses at Smithfield Market, dated 1145, speak of horses that are fit for plowing, transportation, or “the dray.” Oxen were used up until the 18th century because they were either cheaper or more capable of bearing the heavy workloads.

As warfare technology began to evolve, there was a great demand to have strong horses enter the battlefield. Those horses needed to have a certain calmness to their personality because they’d be responsible for hauling gun powder, moving cannons, and even taking on cavalry work. At one point, private ownership of stallions above 15 hands was not allowed because of the need for military horses.

At the same time, some cavalry commanders found the heavy draft horses to be bulky and slow to move on the battlefield. They worked with the Dutch to bring Friesian horses to Britain to develop a larger, but nimble horse that maintained the cold-blooded temperament of a heavy draft horse.

This developed the Old English Black Horse, which would become the foundation of the Shire Horse. People who supported Robert Bakewell continued to refine the Black Horse, creating a sub-type that was referred to as the Bakewell Black. By the middle of the 17th century, the term “Shire” was being used to describe the larger Old English Black Horses that had Bakewell influences in their lineage.

By the 18th century, breeding records that tracked Shire lines began to appear. The Packington Blind Horse is another foundation horse for Shires, active during the late part of the 18th century. At this point in time, Britain used a nation-wide system of canals to transport heavy loads over a long distance. Shires could tow the barges along the canals with ease, making them a very popular horse.

At the turn of the 19th century, Shire horses were used as cart horses, especially for dock work. Their ability to pull weight made it easier to transport large deliveries throughout London and other British cities. By the time a stud book was published in 1878, there were nearly 2,400 stallions available with records that dated to 1770. At the turn of the 20th century, more than 5,000 Shires were being registered every year. 

Then mechanization came after World War II. Population levels plummeted. Large breeding studs were closed. In 1955, the British Spring Show saw fewer than 100 Shires being shown. Between 1950-1959, only 25 Shire horses were registered in the United States. Even in 1985, only 121 horses were registered in the US.

Today, there are about 200 new registrations made annually in the United States. A total population of around 1,500-2,000 horses is believed to be present globally, though the American Shire Horse Association reports that at they have about 3,000 registered Shires globally.

Characteristics of Shire Horses

Shire stallions are required to be bay, gray, or black. They may not have excessive white markings or be roan. White markings should typically be around the hooves and may be incorporated with the feathering. White markings on the face are permitted as well. In the United States, chestnut coat colors are permitted for stallions, but the color is not permitted in Britain.

Geldings and mares have the same color standards, but roan is permitted for them.

Shire stallions average a height of 17.2 hands, but must meet a minimum 17 hands high standard for the Shire Horse Society in the UK. A gelding must be a minimum of 16.2 hands, while mares have a minimum height standard of 16 hands.

Stallions can weigh up to 2,400 pounds, with the largest individuals sometimes topping 3,000 pounds. There are no set weight standards for mares. Geldings must be at least 1,870 pounds to meet their weight standard.

Shires have a head that is lean and long. Their eyes are noticeably large. The head is set onto a neck that has a slight arch to it and is longer in proportion to the body compared to other heavy draft horses. Shoulders for a Shire should be wide and deep, as should the chest, while the back is shorter than average comparable to its size, but still very muscular.

Shires should be set well up for the horse. Being “goose rumped” is often treated as a fault. The head and tail should be carried upright, presenting with ribs that are well-sprung and not flat-sided.

Feathering is common, but not required. Shire horses with Clydesdale bloodlines in their lineage tend to have the most pronounced feathering. The hair that composes the feathering should be silky, long, fine, and straight. This hair covers feet that should have open necks and be big around the top of the coronet. There should also be plenty of length in the pasterns.

Mares should conform to all stallion standards, but be smaller and more feminine in their overall appearance. A breed standard for mares is that there should be enough room for them to be able to successfully carry a foal to term. 

Shires that fall under 17 hands in height tend to be used for general work purposes. Horses that exceed 18 hands in height are often used for parades, shows, and other promotional purposes. They are an easy-going horse as a breed, with a willingness to work, and a desire to have daily contact with humans.

Their strength is the primary attribute of the breed. In 1924, a pair of Shire horses were able to pull a starting load that exceeded 45 tons. They amount of weight they pulled actually exceeded the maximum reading that the equipment could display. In bad weather with poor footing, the same pair of Shires pulled 16.5 tons.

How to Register a Shire Horse

To register a Shire horse, you will need to speak directly with your appropriate geographically-based association. The Shire Horse Society requires that all horses, except for geldings, must be DNA-tested as part of the registration process. Foals must also have passports, which require a successful registration.

The American Shire Horse Association requires a certificate of breeding as part of the registration process and all foals must be DNA-tested before the registration can be completed. . This requires a registration number from the UK, US, or Canadian Shire horse associations for the mare and the stallion that provided the parentage of the horse being registered. 

The American Shire Horse Society requires the signature of the recorded stallion’s owner or lessee at the time of service as well.

Photographs that show all the markings of the horse are required as part of the registration as well. Unusual places for white markings must be included separately from standard photo locations, such as the left or right side. Some Shires may have white markings along the jaw or under the barrel. 

Uses for the Shire Horse Today

The glory days of the Shire Horse may be over, but this breed has multiple avenues to find new success. Market gardens, small farms, and other agricultural processes that are concerned about environmental impacts have brought the Shire back into its comfort zone of working in the fields.

Timber extraction in difficult areas has increased the need for heavy draft horses like the Shire as well.

The Shire horse has also found new life in certain sporting events. They perform exceptionally well in skills tests, compete in obstacle driving, and perform well in cross-country events. There are recreational riding roles for them to fill as well.

Shires may be growing in popularity, but their survival is still far from guaranteed. It will take continued work to ensure that all the benefits this breed provides can be experienced by future generations.