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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 into being.

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 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 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, environment.

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

 
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