When you think of the word “shire” you may imagine a green valley, filled with Tolkien’s Hobbits. If you are not familiar with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings stories, you may just be picturing a lovely green valley in the heart of some forgotten part of England. In both instances, you would be right.
However, when someone mentions “shire horse” you might picture a big heavy cart horse in the movies or stories, or a draft horse used for plowing a field in rural Britannia. It’s a slightly different reference, but one which draws to mind a magnificent animal of a potentially magical nature and historical significance. There’s a lot to unbox here in regards to the shire horse breed, its origins, and its offspring over the centuries, so let’s dive right in.
History of the English Shire Horse
No one quite knows for certain how horses came to Britain. People can only speculate that they arrived more than a millennia ago on ships with invading marauders. At any rate, the shire horses origin story changes based on who you ask. Horses were originally owned and bred by kings, and one king, in particular, would not take a draught horse into service unless it was bigger than 15hh, or greater than sixty inches at the withers. Understandably, this king was known to be rather large and robust himself, and he required a strong mount to carry the burden of his weight.
The first mention of this heavy horse pops up in the mid-eighteenth century, although these horses existed before they were recorded on paper. Heavier, stronger horses were often used in battle to pull cannons and artillery weapons, something that continued well into the first world war and beyond. However, the shire breed slowly evolved and became the great horse it is now.
It also influenced multiple other working horse breeds, creating direct bloodlines with other breeds of draft horses. Some might even argue that the British breed, Shire horse is the grandfather to all other European draft horses, although that is not entirely true or provable. What is known and provable is that the shire horse is responsible for how the Scottish Clydesdale and the French Percheron came into being.
The Scottish Clydesdale and the Shire Horse
This Scottish draft horse was a somewhat smaller draft horse that was a light horse before it was bred with a shire. To get the iconic bay color of the Clydesdales most people recognize, an original Scottish horse was crossed with a bay shire horse. In order to continue producing the bay color and bay markings, each of the new Clydesdales that showed promise as good breeding stock was again crossed with a bay shire horse.
Bay is the most common color for shires, although they can be gray, white, black, black and white, roan, or dappled. Ergo, very careful and selective breeding through the centuries created the Budweiser Clydesdales so many people know and love today. However, this breed of work horse is considered every bit as endangered as its shire cousins. The reason for that is that these big, heavy horses are no longer required for farm work or military purposes, and therefore breeding has dropped off significantly.
The French Percheron and the Shire
The French draft horse is very much like its English cousin. No one knows for sure exactly where the breed really started; only that it came from the Western province of Perche, for which this breed is named. Oddly enough, the first mention of the breed is in the mid-eighteenth century, similar to the shire horse origin story.
Later, this French horse was introduced to the Shire to make the animal thicker-bodied and stronger. Like the Shire equine, the French horse was used in battle and in farming. It was intentionally bred to be gray or white, although some were intentionally bred to be black because French royalty liked having several of these horses of all the same color to pull their carriages. The dappled gray color is the most iconic of this French horse breed, and the gray Shires were often used to facilitate the French horse’s coloring (like the Scottish bay color).
Sadly, this horse is also in decline and considered endangered and considered a rare breed because its size is no longer necessary. Breeders intent on rescuing draft horses from the brink of extinction have been working hard to prevent that. The Shire is key to the survival of the other breeds to which it is related.
Shire Horse Size and Comparison to Other Draft Breeds
Shires are at least 16-18hh high, although many of these horses hold world records for height. One in particular, who went by the name Mammoth, was 21.2hh and weighed over three thousand pounds! Typically most Shires weigh a true ton at about two thousand pounds, making Shire horse size a sort of middle-of-the road for large draft breeds.
Compare that to the typical size of the Scottish horse. The Scottish horse is also 16-18hh, a result of its Shire lineage. However, its smaller frame results in a lighter weight and a less stocky body.
The French horse previously mentioned takes a different approach by being heavier and bigger boned, but shorter. A typical “Perche” might be as short as 15hh, or as tall as 18hh. Most of them lean toward the smaller side, with the stallions being larger than the mares. Weight-wise, they can weigh as little as a thousand pounds to as much as one ton, plus or minus five hundred pounds.
Temperament of Shires
These horses are “gentle giants.” The only time you might find a rambunctious Shire is during mating season and when a stallion smells a mare in heat. The rest of the time, they are very docile animals. If you want to get a male horse of this breed but you want it to be very docile indeed, changing it from a stallion to a shire gelding is a good idea. A shire gelding has had its testicles removed, and is, therefore, safe to ride and keep in the same pasture with mares of any breed.
The mares are a mixed bag when it comes to temperament. They can be very sweet and obliging one moment, stubborn and crabby the next. This seems to be universal with mares of any breed, however, and only old age and a decrease in horse estrogen seem to make them less moody.
If you actually use these horses to pull a carriage or wagon, it is a good idea to only hitch mares together or shire geldings with mares. Never hitch mares and stallions together, or attempt to have stallions pull a carriage or wagon if they are going to be going past mares in a field or mares on the street.
Other Physical Characteristics of the Shire
Aside from its immense size and noble appearance, these horses are very colorful. They can be black, gray, bay or white. The gray coloring was desired in the French draft breeds, as was the black coloring. The bay was desirable in the Scottish breed. White is actually very pale gray, although to distinguish between gray and pale gray the pale gray is just referred to as “white.” There are no roans or dapples in the true Shire equine.
They have feathering around their lower legs, like their Scottish cousins. The feathering is usually white, but it may also be another color if the darker color extends down the legs into the feathered areas. The feet are big and wide to support the weight of these horses, but the heads are refined and well-shaped, hanging on the ends of very thick and muscular necks. Their bodies are not quite as stocky, and that comes from their breeding as riding horses for royalty, particularly women and side-saddle riding.
The Two Types of Shires
Most people don’t even realize this, but there are actually two subtypes of Shire. The Midlands variety has very refined hair and short coat and is built for endurance (e.g., fox hunting with female riders). The Fen variety is woolly, heavy and big-boned for pulling carriages and plows. You can actually ride either, but the breadth and girth of the Fen variety make it a little more difficult for smaller riders to span with their legs.
Care and Feeding of Shires
As you might imagine, these amazing and almost magical animals require enormous amounts of food. A proper mix of grain and hay keeps their digestive system in balance, as well as an adequate and continuous supply of clean water. Horses of any breed can develop colic, a condition that prevents them from vomiting and causes intense, painful bloating.
If not relieved, horses can die of colic. Carefully monitoring how much this horse eats and making sure it gets enough exercise to prevent digestive problems and excessive weight gain is vital to its well-being. Horses also need a salt lick to maintain proper electrolyte levels in their bodies.
Because Shires have varying coat lengths and lots of feathering on their legs and feet, they need to be groomed, bathed, and brushed/combed often. Doing so keeps the coats, mane, tail and feathering from becoming clumped and matted. It also keeps the pests away from these horses and prevents pests from nesting in the thicker strands on the horse’s body. If you aren’t showing a Shire, you can clip it very short for grooming convenience and health.
If You Own a Shire
If you buy a Shire or you already own one, the best thing you can do for its health is keep its paddock and stall very clean. This stops the animal from getting too dirty and prevents intestinal parasites.
Check for weeds that can commonly cause major digestive issues and irritate or poison your horse and remove these weeds when you spot them. Make sure your Shire gets plenty of exercise daily so that it doesn’t become moody, uncooperative, paddock-sour or obese. Keep its hooves trimmed and shod to avoid foot, ankle and leg problems, which can later turn into osteoarthritis or bone composition issues.