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The Shire horse is one of the largest, most stunning horse breeds in the world, known for its incredible strength. Originally from Britain, these wonderful draft horses were bred for hundreds of years to be the ultimate work horse.
The first Shire horses appeared around the 18th century. At this time, their primary role was working on farms, towing barges, and pulling carriages.
Today, these gentle giants are used for forestry work, driving, and even riding. They are most often bay, black, or grey in color, with beautiful silky feathering on the legs.
Here are 9 interesting facts about Shire horses you probably didn’t know!
The Tallest and Heaviest Horse Ever was a Shire
Born in 1846 in England, Sampson the Shire horse stood 21.2 ½ hands tall and weighed 3,360 pounds (1,524 kg). To give some perspective of his height, he stood over seven feet tall at the withers, a truly impressive feat.
Sampson (a.k.a. Mammoth) became the largest horse on record due to his massive height and weight. However, he wasn’t the only Shire that made history with its sheer size. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, a Shire named Goliath was the tallest horse of his time, standing 19 hands at the withers.
While most Shires won’t come close to these heights, they still measure taller than the average horse. A Shire stallion averages 17.2 hands at the withers and weighs around 850 – 1100 kg (1870 – 2430 lb). Mares are slightly smaller but still have to reach a minimum height of 16 hands.
A Pair of Shire Horses Once Pulled 50 Tons of Weight
Shires horses are famous for being one of the strongest horse breeds in the world. At a 1924 exhibition in England, a pair of Shires pulled approximately 50 tons, equivalent to 100,000 pounds, which is a truly astounding feat. As the load exceeded the maximum reading on the scale (45 tons), the exact weight pulled remains unknown.
At the same exhibition, a single Shire horse-pulled 29 tons, which is the equivalent of 58,000 pounds. Included in our strongest horse breeds list, Shires continue to dominate pulling contests around the world, thanks to its impressive size and musculature.
Also read: How Much Weight Can a Horse Pull?
Shires are the Descendants of Mediaval War Horses
The origins of the modern Shire horse go back nearly a thousand years. It was during the reign of Henry II in 12th century England that selective breeding for heavy cavalry horses began.
As a knight in heavy armor could weigh up to 400 pounds (181 kg), these horses had to be large and strong. A calm temperament was also essential for the horses to withstand the tumult of a battle.
The earliest direct ancestor of the Shire breed was “the Great Horse,” a type of medieval war horse. However, following the invention of gunpowder, heavy horses were no longer advantageous in battle. The great warhorses transitioned into working in agriculture and transporting heavy goods.
The 17th century gave rise to the Old English Black Horse, a cross between the Great Horse and the Friesian. This powerful draft animal was ideal for various types of heavy work. Towards the end of the 18th century, the founding stallion of the Shire horse was born, called the Packington Blind Horse.
Clydesdales Were Used to Improve the Shire Breed
During the mid-1900s, Clydesdales were bred with Shire horses in an effort to improve the breed. Not only did breeding Clydesdales into the Shire breed help increase their numbers, but it also changed the appearance of their feathering to a more silky texture.
Ironically, Shire horses were also used to improve the conformation of Clydesdales during the 19th century. Due to Shire influence, Clydesdales increased in height and size, eventually developing into the breed we see today.
The Shire Horse Was An Inspiration for a Disney Character
The fabulous appearance of Shire horses makes them ideal for the movie industry. In the 2012 animated film Brave, Merida owned a black Shire horse named Angus. Throughout the movie, Merida and Angus share a very close bond.
In addition to Brave, Angus and Merida were featured in the live-action hit TV series Once Upon a Time. On the show, Angus was played by a Shire horse, just as his character portrays.
Shires Are Considered an Endangered Breed
Prior to the mid-20th century, there were millions of Shire horses powering agriculture and transport all over the world. However, as with other draft breeds, the mechanization of these sectors drastically reduced the Shire population.
The breed reached its most critical point in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1955 National Shire Horse Spring Show in Britain featured less than a hundred horses, which was previously unheard of. What’s more, between 1950 and 1959, no more than 25 Shire horses were registered in the United States.
Luckily, numbers began to rise from 1970, as several breed societies have committed to saving the Shire horses. They began promoting the breed as a fine riding horse and encouraged people to think beyond their draft abilities.
Despite conservation efforts, the breed is still considered to be endangered to this day. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust in Britain lists the Shire as “at-risk”, meaning that fewer than 1,500 horses remain in the country. Furthermore, the RBST also reported that 240 Shire foals were registered in the UK in 2017.
Approximately half of the world’s Shire population resides in the United States. At present, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers the Shire horse “critical”, while the Equus Survival Trust classes them as “vulnerable”. Hopefully, this majestic breed will survive for future generations to see.
Also read: 10 Endangered Horse Breeds
Some Breweries Still use Shire horses to Deliver Beer
A traditional purpose of Shire horses was to deliver ale from breweries to pubs and private houses. In 1893, around 3,000 horses were used by breweries in London only. These were commonly known as “dray horses” and were frequently of Shire breeding.
While the prime years of dray horses are now gone, certain breweries in the UK still use Shire horse teams for publicity. Examples are the Hook Norton Brewery, the Samuel Smith Brewery, the Wadworth Brewery, the Thwaites Brewery and the Robinsons Brewery. Others, like the Tetley brewery in Leeds, have recently canceled their Shire horse deliveries.
There are Shire Horse Races
Though you may not think of a Shire as a race horse, it has become a tradition to race these magnificent horses. Lingfield Park in Surrey, England has played host to these fun races since 2013.
Watching these gentle giants galloping down the course is certainly something else! Unlike Thoroughbred races, the popular Lingfield Shire horse race is only two furlongs (402 meters) long. All draft horses come from a nearby stable called Hurst Green Shires, where they offer trail rides and lessons on these majestic creatures.
“The reason we first started this in 2013 was to highlight the versatility of the shire as it remains an endangered breed. Our shires absolutely love to come to Lingfield and show off on the day! For those who haven’t seen them, the sight and sound of them galloping down the track is quite something!” said Jax Gardiner, owner of Hurst Green Shires on lingfield.co.uk.
Here’s a video of a Shire horse race at Lingfield Park:
Shires and Shire Crosses do Well in Ridden Sports
Shire horses are more versatile than you might think. They not only make great hobby and trail horses, but can also excel at lower-level dressage.
Shires are sometimes crossed with Thoroughbreds and warmbloods to increase their athleticism. According to Horse and Hound, British Olympic dressage rider Carol Parsons trained two Shire/Thoroughbred crosses to grand prix level and rode them successfully on national dressage competitions.
The British Show Horse Association even organizes ridden classes for heavy horses, such as the Shire. What’s more, British dressage has recently set up Draft Horse Championships, where riders can compete on their heavy horses in intro to elementary level.
If the popularity of Shire horses continues to increase, there is no doubt we’ll be seeing more of this precious breed. As the RBST said on their website, Shire horses still very much have a role to play in today’s society: “These large horses have an essential role to play today, including in the army, policing, equine therapy and commercial logging“. Fingers crossed they will be with us for a long time!