The Aristocrat of the heavy horse world, the much loved Shire Horse – a majestic, tall, noble, gentle and immensely strong animal – has had a fascinating breed history
While the breed’s origins before the time of written stud records lay in the mist of history it is believed that their ancestors were the Great Horse that carried knights in heavy suits of armour during medieval battles and, when warfare changed, they were used for pulling heavy loads. These animals had to be strong to cope with the appalling nature of medieval roads, although they were considerably shorter in height than the Shire we know today.
The agricultural revolution in Britain in the 18th century with changes in the technology of farming implements made the horse the animal of choice on the farm, replacing the oxen. At the same time, selective breeding was used for the first time in history to produce uniformity of type, character and appearance for domestic livestock, and horses of a height and stature recognisable as a modern Shire were evolving as a breed.
The second half of the 18th century saw the construction of a nationwide system of canals which enabled heavy loads to be transported long distances. The Shire horse was ideal to use as a barge horse, pulling the barges along the canals. Possessing all the essential qualities of a good draught horse – strength, stamina and good temperament – the Shire became an indispensable and integral part of the daily life of Britain prior to mechanisation, and could be found in the country being used to till the land, to pull farm wagons, or to haul timber, while in the cities many could be seen in the shafts of railway vans, coal carts and brewer’s drays.
In 1878 the Shire Horse Society was formed in England in order to promote the breed, to assist in its improvement and to record the pedigrees of Shires in their Studbook. Around that time the potential of the Shire Horse also attracted the interest of farmers and hauliers in other countries and horses were exported world-wide, with the top six export markets being the United States, Canada, Argentina, Germany, Russia and Australia.
From the 1920s onwards the use of motorised transport rose rapidly, tractors replaced horses on farms and lorries replaced horse drawn wagons. Finally more and more road vehicles were powered by engines and together with the losses due to the two world wars the Shire horse’s days seemed numbered. Shire horse numbers fell from well over a million to just a few thousand by the 1960s and the breed was in serious trouble. A small group of dedicated breeders came to the rescue, and helped the Shire breed survive its darkest times. The 1980s saw a renewed interest in the breed in Britain and overseas and once again Shires were, and still are being exported all over the world including Australia.
In Australia, Shires along with other heavy horse breeds played a major role in the development of industry until mechanisation took over in the 20th century, especially with large teams working on wharves and railways, and in agriculture helping develop our farming country. As pit horses they moved coal from the coal seams underground to the surface in Australian coal mines, where horses continued working into the 1980s.
All over Europe, heavy horses including Shires are working the fields again, albeit on a small scale. Small farms, small holdings and market gardens are finding a place for the horse – especially those concerned with the environmental impact of their activities. Forestry and timber extraction has been one area that the use of draught horses has increased; horses’ hooves are far less damaging in areas of sensitive flora and fauna. Horse owners can also find work harrowing sports grounds and river beds, where the horse causes far less damage than the tractor.
The rise in traditional leisure activities has also seen heavy horses pulling ‘gypsy style’ caravans and canal barges for holiday makers. The traditional role of the brewery horse pulling the dray has been retained by some of Britain’s traditional brewers, primarily as a promotional tool. A few local authorities use heavy horses for jobs such as park maintenance and promotion. Shire Horses have also become very popular pulling wagons for weddings or local carnivals.
Agricultural shows and ploughing matches are the most visible face of working horses in Australia, and an ideal opportunity for the public to interact with both horses and their owners. Ploughing matches had all-but disappeared by the 1960s, but along with those determined not to lose the breed, there were many determined not to lose the skill of the ploughman.
Shire Horses today are also competing in more modern activities, such as skills tests, obstacle driving and riding, cross country trials and timber ‘snigging’ (an obstacle course completed with a log being towed by the horse!). All of these activities demonstrate the abilities of the Shire Horse in a social, if competitive, environment.
This resurgence in the popularity of the working horse of all breeds maybe small compared to the past, but it is vitally important. It is preventing many of the old skills being lost, not only in horsemanship, but also harness makers, heavy horse farriers and other associated trades.