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The Shire Draft Horse comes by its name honestly as it was originally bred in the British midlands shires of Lincoln, Leicester, Stafford and Derby.
The Shire breed is of great antiquity and is thought to descend from the great horse used in medieval times and many say that Shires are the purest survivor of the great horse. If Shires did not originate in England, this country did acquire a very early and ongoing reputation for producing the breed.
The English great horse was most likely a native development of the British war horse, who was praised in histories of the Roman legion when they first landed in Britain.
The history of the Shire horse and that of England are certainly intertwined. When John I was King, from 1199 to 1216, a hundred stallions were imported into England from the lowlands of Flanders, Holland. So at least some strains of England’s heavy horses owe their origin to these stallions. Then beginning in 1558, with Henry II and Elizabeth I, it was the constant aim of the government to increase the size and number of large, strong horses needed for war. A soldier with armor weighed 400 pounds or more! England succeeded since Shires are the largest horses in the world, some reaching 19 hands with a weight of 1640 pounds.
The early development of the breed was also influenced by the Friesian horses back in the 16th century when Dutch engineers were hired to drain the fens and brought their Friesians with them. During that period of time, very large, black horses called the Lincolnshire Blacks were well-known. The Shire horse was greatly influenced as a breed in the marshy fen counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire and it was from these counties that sales were first made for the improvement of draft horses allover England. The breed’s name derives from the fact that it was bred in the midlands shires of Lincoln, Leicester, Stafford and Derby.
The foundation stallion is recognized as the Packington Blind Horse, who stood at stud between 1755 and 1770. The first stud book for the breed was published in 1878 with the Shire’s name coming into use when the society that governs the registry changed its name to the Shire Horse Society from the former English Cart Horse Society.
While useful in war, the Shire horse proved to be even more valuable in peace. The breed became a national treasure in the 19th Century. They moved the commerce of England off the docks and through the streets of cities. Their great weight and strength were needed as streets of that time in the world were badly paved and all roads were rough.
The most popular Shire color is the traditional black of the breed’s ancestors, with white feathering. Bay and brown are acceptable though and there are also numerous grays. The average girth measurement of a stallion is 6-8 feet (180-240cm) and is combined with a broad, powerful chest. A short back, and thick, powerful musculature, particularly over the loins; and the wide, sweeping quarters constitute the strength structure of the breed. The limbs are clean and the heavy, silky feathering hangs straight down.
The head of the Shire horse is medium in size, with a slightly roman nose. The forehead is wide between the eyes and the eyes are large and docile in expression, indicating the lovely temperament of this breed. For a draft horse, the neck is relatively long, running back into a deep shoulder, wide enough to carry a collar easily. The hooves are open and very solid being shaped with the length in the pasterns. The hocks are broad and flat, set at the correct angle for optimum leverage. The action is straight in front and straight behind.
Although the Shire horse, along with all other draft horses, no longer plays a significant role in agriculture, plowing matches are still numerous and popular. They can also still be seen on city streets hauling heavy brewer’s drays and the brewing companies are loyal supporters of the breed. And of course they can be seen in shows and events world wide.