Shire Horse History

The Shire Horse, like every other heavy horse, is a descendant of the Great Horse (also called the War Horse). 

The Great Horse was bred up from the so-called cold-blood horses of Central Europe.  The latter, like all other horses were derived ultimately from Eohippus.  But Shire history, if by this we mean the history of pedigree, begins only about the year AD1760.


By the beginning of the fifteenth century, The Great Horse (aka War Horse) - was ready for battle.  It had to be capable of carrying prodigious weights of military hardware.  Wrapped in metal plate or chain mail, it was propelled at the enemy carrying a man and armour weighing upwards of a fifth of a ton.


To the inadequately-armed and poorly-protected peasant pressed into military service by his warrior chief, the sight of a one ton mixture of muscle and metal thundering down upon him must of been devastating.  Yet, when the clang and clamour of  war receded, it was the peasant farmers who took over the stewardship of the great horse.  He harnessed him to the plough, the heavy cart, fallen trees - to anything beyond the physical capability of humans and lesser animals.  They bred him for docility rather than aggresive spirit, for even more strength now that he no longer needed the agility to weave through the hazards of a battlefield with a man on his back.  Gradually the ancestors of the Shire spread throughout the land, ousting the ponderous oxen.


The Great Horse, no longer required for military service, was no longer a saddle horse, and took its place as a beast of draught.  From this time foward, we shall give it the name that associates it with agriculture and commerce and speak of.... The Shire Horse.


In the 1940's, the Shire Horse dominated the landscape of rural Britain (and Australia).  Indeed, it had been for more centuries than written records reveal the absolute monarch of the farmyard - agriculture's principal source of energy, the ultimate workhorse.

Huge, docile and willing, the Shire and kindred breeds of heavy horse obediently plied their rippling power throughout the farming year, equal to any task their masters could set them.  Far removed from the glamour and elegance of the hunt, the carriage, or the racecourse, they heaved and hauled from first light until sunset.  If strength was their principal asset then a majestic dignity became their main characteristic.

Eventually, the major workload of  British (and Australian) agriculture was shared by the Shire and the three other breeds of heavy horse: the Clydesdale, the Percheron, and the Suffolk.


Bay, black or grey, the Shire has been the closest working companion of the British farmer since the middle ages.  In addition to his strength (records show that two Shires pulling together moved a fifty-ton weight from a standing start), he has the stamina to work long hours and an infinite adaptability.  In the early years of the twentieth century it is estimated that more than a million-and-a-half Shires and others were sharing Britain's major transport burden with the railways.


And then - disaster.  The heavy horse collided head-on with the internal combustion engine.  Indeed, for all horses outside racing stables the noisy, fume-spewing, new-fangled mode of transport signalled the start of an equestrian armageddon.


Almost to a man the farmers of Britain and Australia opened their gates to the ugly, smelly but undeniably more efficient tractor and turned out the Shire and his brethren.  Obediently and trustingly, they plodded into the knackers yard and waited for the poleaxe to slam down and turn them into quivering corpses.  There are no records, but estimates claim the toll reached more than one hundred thousand a year at its height.  The carnage was appalling and the Shire horse practically slid into oblivion.


Doubless, the leading pedigree horses did not join the queue at the knackers yard.  After all, enormous sums of money changed hands for the aristocrats of the breed.  No one in their right minds would turn animals of that calibre into glue, but there was no maket for the progeny and most became lonely ornaments.  The stud books of the breeds, proudly maintained by the breed societies since the 1870's, became very sorry volumes indeed.


The prospect of extinction for the Shire was very real, certainly as a useful, working animal.  The lowest ebb came in the 1950's and 1960's.  But a few special men kept faith with the heavy horse, stubbornly refusing to accept what appeared to be an overwhelming argument for total mechanisation.  Because of them, a noble species had its survival secured and their eccentricity turned out to be inspired foresight.


Even if every farmer in the land tried overnight to trade in his tractor for eighteen hands of horseflesh - it would be painfully slow and gradual.  To begin with, there are not enough horses of any kind, and certainly not of the right kind.  There was once a beautifully balanced breeding system, fashioned over centuries, which was totally wrecked during the great massacre of the 1950's and 60's.  Even top horses had to be tough working animals, obliged to do their share in the fields between parading around the show ring.


For the Shire and his kindred breeds of heavy horse are coming back to where they belong, emerging slowly but triumphantly from the longest and bloodiest battle any war horse had to endure.