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Is there any heavy horse breed more iconic than the English Shire Horse. Referenced in history as far back as Elizabethan times, it was called the Great Horse of England then, the name Shire horse being a more modern derivation and referring to the areas of England where the horse was perhaps most prevalent, the Shire counties in the centre of England. The north of course has its own equivalent heavy horse in the Clydesdale.
Looking back through English history, it is easy to see the requirement for a large and powerful horse that could be used to carry men into war and later for agricultural work and on into the industrial revolution. Standing in excess of 17hh, this animal was an incredible workhorse and since 1878, the Shire Horse Society has sought to support and promote the breed through its transition from a role as an agricultural animal and one supporting industry, to performing a different function following the mechanisation of farming and transport after the Second World War.
Physically the Shire horse is set apart from other breeds partly through its size but also the distinctive white feathering on the legs. Colours predominantly tend to be bay or grey and black with the bay generally darker than the Clydesdale which also has generally more white on the leg often up to the stifle and sometimes continuing on the underbelly. The Shire is totally distinct from the smaller chestnut Suffolk Punch and the predominantly grey Percherons.
Following the end of the use of the horse in agriculture and the demise of the canals where the Shire was also used to tow barges, the future of the Shire Horse has for many years lain in the hands of enthusiasts and breeders. However the horse does still have a limited working function. It is often to be seen at county shows pulling traditional agricultural vehicles and brewers’ drays. And there are still a handful of breweries that use the Shire Horse to deliver beer, particularly to locations which are difficult for vehicular access and the horses are always tremendous crowd pleasers with the public. Other heritage centres use the horses either to transport visitors around their sites or for ploughing or logging demonstrations and they can even be used to pull a wedding cart. But it is clear that the principal purpose of such a large working animal has by and large all but disappeared in the 21st century, or has it?
The Shire has often been used as a cross with the Thoroughbred to provide a sports horse that has the best of both breeds; the quality and speed of the blood horse with the Shire providing bone and power. These first crosses often produced excellent show jumpers. But now, the Shire Horse is being considered as a riding animal in its own right. Heavy horses have been used for some years by some holiday trail riding centres around the UK so if you are thinking of buying a Shire as a riding horse then perhaps this might be a good way to try before you buy. But a new society has now been launched to promote the heavy horse as a ridden animal so this includes Shires and the other heavy breeds in the UK, the Clydesdale, Suffolk Punch and Percheron.
The British Ridden Heavy Horse Society has been formed to promote all four of the heavy breeds, to help increase public awareness, to try and increase numbers as some of the breeds are on the endangered breeds list and to provide a showcase for these spectacular animals under saddle. The society is a similar model to other equine breed societies so there are opportunities to compete under saddle around the UK with a championship show at the end of the season. This is perhaps a new horizon for this fondly regarded breed but then again, when it was an animal of war, the Shire Horse was no stranger to being under saddle.
Image: Catwg Black Velvet winning the British Ridden Heavy Horse of the year. Owned by John Fletcher.
The Shire Horse Society can provide much information about the breed. As a riding horse or as a non riding purchase, a prospective owner should give consideration to the sheer size of the animal. This is a horse that would take an awful lot more feeding than your average hack or hunter and of course any equipment such as rugs and saddlery would all need to be of gigantic proportions. However the reward is a calm and docile friend - these horses are not called gentle giants for nothing. And the knowledge that every Shire horse purchased is another secure for this endangered and iconic animal.
Image source: Deighton Silver Treasure Shire Stallion owned by Paul & Yvonne Simmons