What is a Shire?
Shires are the English breed of heavy horse and the largest horse in the world. They are friendly and quiet to handle, and extremely rare with only around 300 in Australia. Most stand above 17 hands high (1.73 metres) at the top of the shoulder. They are usually black or brown (sometimes grey) with white markings on their legs and face. They are related to the Clydesdale, and like them Shires feature long silky hair, known as ‘feather’, on their lower legs.
History of the Shire Horse
The Shire Horse was developed in England and is one of the oldest draught horse breeds, dating back to the days of the Roman Conquest. The name “Shire” was first applied by King Henry VIII to the horse early in the 16th century.
Shires were used from the 15th century as the war horse that the English knights rode into battle, large enough to carry their metal armour, sword and lance. When the era of the knights passed, Shires were put to work in harness pulling carts over rough roads and ploughs on the farm. The Shire became the largest and most powerful draught horse in Britain. It was, and still is, used by brewers in cities in teams to pull beer wagons, weight-pulling and ploughing competitions.
Over time, the Shire has been known by different names: the Great Horse; the War-Horse; the Cart Horse; the Old England Black Horse; and the Lincolnshire Giant.
Like all draught breeds, Shires were improved by crossing with other heavy horses. There are records dating back nearly 1000 years and during this time the breed was influenced by the introduction of outside blood from the north German Flemish horses (Belgian), the horses of Flanders and the Dutch Friesian amongst others.
The Shire has always been a versatile horse. In 1805 George Culley wrote about them:
“All mares are served, the male produce supplying the army, London, the south and south west. The largest go to the capital for dray horses, the next supply farmers for their wagons, ploughs etc, and the rest mount our cavalry, or are trained for carriages, while a few of the very choicest are very properly preserved for stallions.”
Culley G and Bailey J ‘Agriculture of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoorland’, Frank Graham facsimile (1805, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne)
The English Shire Stud Book was established in 1878 and from this date the breed has been shaped, improved and given vigour with the introduction of new blood through an official grading registry.
The Shire has always been a riding horse, right from the time of the knights. So it is not surprising that the modern Shire is an athletic heavy horse, with good presence and movement, suitable for both riding and driving.
Shire horses are not branded, but DNA-tested to verify their breeding then sketched and microchipped for identification purposes.
Points of a Shire
The Shire is a horse of great size: a mature stallion should stand between 17.2 and 18.2 hands and weigh up to 1,000 kilos. Mares and geldings are slightly less massive. They are a spectacular breed and should have an impressive front, with a neck that rises up out of deep shoulders. They have large, wide-set and expressive eyes, and a ‘Roman’ nose is common. The body has a substantial barrel and the movement should be active and flashy. Their legs are long with straight, silky feather about the backs of the legs and top of the feet. They are usually black, bay or grey. Visit our Showing page to see images of the modern Shire. You can also see pictures of our mares, stallions and youngstock.
The Shire Horse Society Australia (SHSA) promotes Shires in Australia and provides services to members and those interested in owning a Shire. The SHSA was established in 1978 by Shire enthusiast Grahame West, and incorporated in September 2004.
If you love this wonderful breed of horse then the SHSA is the place for you to gain friends with a common interest, any info you may need, support with your horse if you are just starting out and much accumulated wisdom and knowledge regarding the Shire.
International societies include the British Shire Horse Society; American Shire Horse Association; The Canadian Shire Horse Association; and Shires at the Rare Breeds Conservation Society of New Zealand.