Shire horses make an impression. A draft horse from England, their sheer size – both in height and mass – is something to behold.
Shire horses are the largest horse breed. They can surpass all other draft-horse breeds in both size and weight. The world’s largest horse, Samson, was a shire and stood 21.2 hands tall, towering over an average horse that stands only 15 hands tall.
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Characteristics of the Shire Horse
Shire horses are naturally a tall breed, averaging over 17 hands tall and often over 2,000 pounds! They have a large, strong build – often called “hefty”, “solid” or “stocky” – and boast a thick, silky coat and longer hairs on their legs called feathers.
Shire horses look similar to another well-known draft breed, the Clydesdale. However, Shire horses have a longer and more narrow head than Clydesdales, with a long and arching neck. They have large, well set eyes, wide but thin nostrils and long, slender ears.
Shire horses have a relatively short back (one that does not dip) and strong, powerful shoulders and chest. Though muscular, their hindquarters are leaner than a Clydesdale’s legs. Their hooves, as expected, are quite massive.
Overall, Shire horses are large and powerful, yet elegant and majestic.
Typically, the Shire horse coat is either black, bay or gray – or sometimes even chestnut, though the UK standards exclude that particular coat color. American standards, on the other hand, preclude roans and Shire horses with an excessive amount of white markings from being fully registered.
Personality and Temperament
Shire horses are the living embodiment of the “gentle giant.” Though their sheer size and height may be imposing, they are easy-going, even tempered horses and do not spook easily. If riding a Shire horse, expect a calm, cool head and a chill, friendly attitude.
Though mounting a Shire horse from the ground may prove a challenge to many shorter riders, once that obstacle is surmounted, the Shire horse provides a smooth and easy ride.
While their size may be intimidating, Shire horses are actually excellent horses for children, as they tolerate a lot. Loud noises, unintended kicks, sudden changes, other animals running up, etc. don’t normally bother a Shire horse.
Shire horses are so even keeled that they are safe for young riders – historically, they carried armored knights into chaotic battles, so they are genetically engineered for keeping their wits about them. Plus, Shire horses are easy to train and eager to please.
Care and Grooming
Thanks to the Shire horse’s unique coat and beautiful feathering, grooming can be a bit of a delicate issue. Those long hairs on the legs absolutely require regular brushing and thorough cleaning, as they are susceptible to a bacterial infection known as mud fever or scratches, which causes painful, crusty scabbing on the skin.
It is important to keep those areas of thick hair dry and unmatted to avoid infection setting in. If signs are seen, treating swiftly with antibiotics is essential. And, to keep those hairs in line, it is worthwhile to invest in detangling spray to make it easier to comb out any knots.
Shire horses also require the same regular grooming as any other horse – brushing and currying of the coat, picking of the hooves, shedding of the coat, brushing of the mane and tail, etc. What may prove more challenging, though, is their height and size.
In order to properly groom a Shire horse’s backs and haunches, a step stool may be needed!
Also, Shire horses can be on the more expensive side to keep. Thanks to their larger size, they will not fit standard horses’ equipment. Larger, draft size saddles, blankets, bridles, halters, etc. are needed and, since they use more material, they cost more.
The Shire horse’s larger size also means a larger appetite, so they will eat more than regular sized horses.
When it comes to diet, some vets recommend a higher fat feed, as Shires commonly contract a condition causing cramping in their hindquarters, and higher fat content in their feed can help prevent that.
It also is simply more expensive to purchase a Shire. Shire horses are selectively bred and are a bit of a rarity, so come with a more premium price tag.
History of the Shire Horse
Origins of the Breed
The Shire horse can trace its origins to England, descending from what is noted by historians as the English “great horse”, bred for strength, courage and an innate trainability.
Their first specific use was carrying knights into battle. As war was such a chaotic scene and as the armor of knights itself could weigh hundreds of pounds, Shire horses needed to be both unflinching and extremely strong.
England, in the middle ages, was constantly in search of improving that “great horse” to increase herds in number and individual horses in size. The reign of Henry II (1154) was thought to kickstart this obsession, leading to the breeding of the Shire horse.
In the early 1200s, with the reign of King John, horses from Flanders and Elbe were imported to England to breed with native stock, thus creating the first draft horses.
In the 1500s, laws were actually passed to encourage the breeding of strong horses. In 1535 and 1541, the breeding of horses under 15 hands high was actually made illegal, as well as exporting any horses from England, so that the focus was kept on breeding bigger and stronger Shire horses in England alone.
Then, after the time of knights passed, Shire horses were still noted for their strength and their affability. Throughout the 1700s, they were refined by breeders to be the perfect farm animals and draft horses by breeding English stallions to mares from Holland.
Shire horses proved invaluable to a booming commercial and agricultural society.
These big horses were responsible for moving freight from docks to towns, even when road conditions were poor. They could pull enormously heavy cargo and were always eager to please.
After years of demand in England, the first Shire horse was shipped to the United States in 1853, where it was appreciated but never quite as popular as back in the UK. In 1878, the Shire Horse Society was established in England.
In response to an overwhelming American demand for registered Shire stock, the American Shire Horse Association was founded in 1885.
Evolution of the Breed
For original Shire horses, two regions in England, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire and Yorkshire and Lancashire, had the greatest impact on breeding and distributing the Shire horse. Between these two breeding regions, there were some slight differences.
Shires bred in their original home counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire had bigger bones and thicker hair. Shires from Yorkshire and Lancashire were finer and lighter, more elegant, and bred for endurance.
As technology advanced and lifestyles and needs changed, Shire horse breeding had to adapt to reflect that. No longer needed for pulling plows or heading cavalry charges, draft horses such as the Shire, have been refined by breeders for modern interests.
Clydesdale influences can be seen in Shire horses, with an eye to breeding them taller and thickening the feathering at the legs – focusing on aesthetic qualities for the show ring rather than pure strength for pulling heavy loads or farm work.
One thing, though, that remains unchanged is the pleasant temperament of the Shire horse. Over the many centuries of breeding, the Shire still remains generally calm, gentle and hardworking.
Notable Shire Horses
Already known for their size, it was in fact a Shire horse that held the world record for tallest horse in the world. Aptly named Goliath, he was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as standing over 19 hands high!
Though not officially recorded by Guinness, it is believed that the largest horse ever was a Shire horse born in 1848 named (also appropriately) Mammoth, who was 21.2 hands high and weighed over 3,300 pounds.
While draft horse saddlery and blankets are already made large, Goliath and Mammoth also required custom-made equipment. Both are recorded, still, as maintaining that docile Shire horse personality.
Disciplines and Uses for Shire Horses Today
Originally, Shire horses were bred for war. Their sturdy nature made them choice mounts for carrying knights wearing heavy loads of armor. They were also handy for pulling large equipment into battle.
During peacetime, these strong horses were sought after by farmers and carriage drivers to pull plows and transportation. One notable historical job included pulling wagons of ale from the breweries to the pubs in town, and, later, huge coal wagons over rough and worn roads.
Today’s Shire horses are often still employed in pulling wagons on tours or in remote areas, with some still being employed by logging operations or on small farms. Shires make environmentally friendly alternatives to machinery.
However, Shires are more commonly found today as pleasure horses, either in driving competitions or as large, gentle riding mounts.
Shire horses are the true gentle giants.
One of the more massive breeds out there – even by draft standards – Shires nonetheless possess a calm spirit and a loving heart. They are excellent pleasure horses for riders of all ages and maintain that battle-ready cool head when it comes to modern spooks and encounters.
If there is one word used to sum up their temperament and appearance alike, it most likely would be “majestic.”