The Shire horse, developed in England, traces its history to the days of the Roman Conquest and is one of the oldest of the well-defined draught breeds. The name "Shire" also comes from England, and derives its name from the Saxon word "schyran," which means to shear or divide, hence the name "Shire," that is synonymous with county. King Henry VIII first applied the name "Shire" to the horse early in the 16th century.
Shires, in general, were used in the 16th century with paintings dating back to the 15th century that show them in the perfection of form. Without question, the Shire horse was used as a war-horse. Most people believe, and the story is told, that it was the Shire that was used by the knights, as they rode into battle, dressed in heavy armor with sword and lance poised. However, with the passing of the tournament and heavily armored knight, the ancestor of the Shire Horse was put to work in harness pulling carts over rough roads and plows on the farm. The Shire became the largest and most powerful draught horse in Britain. It was, and still is, used by brewers in cities in stylish teams to pull beer wagons, in weight-pulling competition and in plowing competition.
The Shire was found and developed in all parts of England, but the counties of Lincoln, Derby, Cambridge, Norfolk, Nottingham, Leicester and Huntington, were the special homes. These are presently termed as the Midlands. History mentions the horse by different names notably, the Great Horse, the War-Horse, the Cart Horse, the Old England Black Horse, the Lincolnshire Giant as well as the Shire.
Like the other standard draught breeds, the Shire was improved by the infusion of outside blood at various times in history, notably that of the north German Flemish horses (Belgian) and the horses of Flanders. Reasonably good records exist, dating back nearly 1000 years. During this time outside blood continued to influence the breed as breeders were not hampered by a breed registry and no limits were imposed.
It was during the 18th century that this horse came into special use for draught and farm purposes. With the improvement of roads and the use of coaches, the draught horse came into special demand. During this time, Robert Bakewell greatly improved the Shire under the name of the Leicestershire Cart Horse, by introducing blood from Holland best, the Dutch Friesian.
From ASHA 1994-1997 Newsletters by Arlin Wareing.
Today, the shire is a very versatile horse, commonly used for riding, driving, and agricultural work.
Breed Characteristics The Shire is a horse of great size: a mature stallion stands between 16.2 and 17.2 hands and weighs up to 1,000 kilos. Mares and geldings are slightly less massive. It has relatively large, wide-set and expressive eyes, the nose is rather convex ("Roman"). The shoulders are large and deep and the body has substantial barrel. The legs are long with considerable feather about the feet. It is usually found in bay, brown, black and grey.
Registered shire horses are not branded. They are instead sketched for identification purposes and breeding horses are DNA-tested.
The Australian Shire Horse Stud Book is now on-line.
Click here for on-line access.