The Shire Horse as a breed has had a fascinating history, and
its development had been inextricably linked the development of
the Society we know today.
The Shire horse is a magnificent animal -
tall, gentle, noble and immensely strong - loved by many.
Because Shire Horses are so calm and placid, we do not think
that they would be good in wars. However, it is because of war
that the Shire horse came into being.
The War Horse
Native British horses were quite small and light, like the
ponies you can still see in wild in places like the New Forest,
Dartmoor and Exmoor. When knights started wearing heavy suits of
armour the horses were unable to carry them.
Heavier breeds from the Continent (especially Holland, Germany
and Flanders in modern day Belgium) were introduced to Britain
and the Great Horse (also known as the War Horse) first came
Eventually warfare changed and soldiers no longer wore heavy
suits of armour, but this did not mean that the Great Horse was
no longer needed. It was soon recognised that their great
strength and placid nature would make them useful on the farm
and for pulling heavy loads.
They soon took over the jobs previously done by oxen on farms,
such as ploughing. Horses were faster and more intelligent than
oxen and could also work in forestry.
The Work Horse
The Industrial Revolution saw the construction of a
nationwide system of canals which enabled heavy loads to be
transported long distances. The Shire was the ideal horse to
use, towing the barges along the canals. They were also used to
haul large wagons, drays, omnibuses and trams.
Soon however, technology developed and the need for the horse
declined. The first blow was the rise of the railway, meaning
less goods were transported by barge. Then came the tractor,
replacing horses on farms. Finally more and more road vehicles
were powered by engines and the Shire horse’s days soon seemed
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 rescue though and the
Shire is seeing a resurgence in popularity both as a working
animal and a riding horse.
The Plight of the Shire Horse
Shire Horses, for all of their dignity, grace and majesty, are a
breed under threat. For centuries this loyal horse has served
man, fearlessly taking him into war, tirelessly working the
land, and transporting him and his goods the length and breadth
of this country.
More and more, younger people now feel the draw of working with
these wonderful creatures, and the demand is there for
traditional, experienced horsemen to pass on their knowledge to
the next generation.
Horses 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 area of
sensitive flora and fauna. Some local authorities, and
organisations such as The Royal Parks, are once again employing
heavy horses to work the land.
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. Now,
ploughing matches and agricultural shows are a popular day out
across the country and many include classes for novices.
Shire horses are also competing in more modern activities, such
as skills tests and obstacle driving, plus 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 working horse in a social, if competitive,
There are also a number of Heavy Horse Centres, working farms
and rural life museums around the country, many of whom feature
Shire horses working, and allow the public, especially children
to get close to the horses.
There are even one or two traditional brewers in the UK who
still retain the traditional role of the brewery horse pulling
the dray, primarily as a promotional tool.
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.
The Shire Horse Society