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Heritage of the Shire

The wars that brought William the Conqueror to England in 1066 also brought the ‘Great Horse’ from which modern day Shires have evolved.  Their role was to carry fully armoured knights, weighing in excess of 400 pounds, into battle.  An animal with great strength and a calm temperament was required, two characteristics not lost in today’s Shires.   Used as a ‘Cart Horse’  as well as a ‘War Horse’ during this period in history, many stallions of large stature were imported to England between 1199 and 1216 from the lowlands of Flanders, Holland, and the banks of the Elbe.  It is from the blending of these animals with the English breed, over 700 years ago, that some strains of our heavy draught horses date their origin.

It was during the reign of Henry VIII that acts to prohibit the breeding of horses fewer than 15 hands were passed.  It was in these statutes that the name ‘Shire’ was first used as applied to the horse.  The name came from the Saxon word ‘schyran’ which means to shear or divide, hence the name ‘shire’ which is synonymous with county.  The counties or ‘shires’ of the Midlands in England, namely Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire were home to many of the foremost Shire breeders of their time.  Eventually, the ‘Great Horse’ was no longer needed to carry soldiers.  With the advent of gunpowder, armour-piercing bullets made the knights of old pass from the battlefield into the history books, and the role of the Shire was changed to pulling freight wagons and coaches.

The importation of heavy horses continued, and in the late 1500s, the Flanders horse arrived in England.  Known to be the heaviest horse of the sixteenth century, it is most likely the true ancestor of the modern Shire.  Also at this time came the Almaine or German draught horse, which had good cart potential but no lasting influence.  The Friesian horse introduced a refining element and a better, freer movement.  These three breeds, especially the Flanders and Friesian, when mixed with British horses of the time, eventually produced the Shire as we know it today.

The long hair on the lower limbs of the Shire originated in the seventeenth century when Dutch contractors were draining the Fenlands in England.  The fens were marshy swampland and to clear these areas required massive, wide-hoofed animals.  The hair down the back of the leg and over the hoof, known as feather, evolved so that water ran off the foot back to the ground.

The foundation stallion for the Shire line is generally recognized as the Packington Blind Horse who stood at Packington, near the town of Ashby de la Zouche, between 1755 and 1770.  He appears in the first Shire Stud Book in England because of the large number of horses claimed to be descended from him.

For the past century, Shires have delivered beer daily in the streets of London, pulled barges in the canals, and have performed agricultural tasks on farms in rural England and Wales.

Although the Shire is the most popular heavy horse in England, it was extinct in Canada for more than 40 years prior to imports in the early 1980s.  There are still fewer than 300 registered Shires in all of Canada.

Shires are black, bay or grey, usually with a blaze and some white markings on their lower legs.  The long hair below their knees and hocks remains a characteristic feature.  Mature horses stand 17-18hh and weigh 1700 – 2400 pounds.  True to their ancestry, Shires are still known for their strength, athletic ability and docile disposition.

The Shire is presently used for driving pleasure, farm work and promotional hitches, and has been successfully crossed with thoroughbreds to produce excellent sport horses.

However, in recent years, registration of shires has decreased and they have now been placed in the Critical category of Rare Breeds Canada’s Conservation List. Click to read The Critical Status of the Shire Horse in Canada.

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