SHIRE DRAFT HORSE
Breed Organization Information
About the Breed
The Shire horse, developed in England, traces it’s history to the days of the Roman Conquest and is one of the oldest of the well-defined draft 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. Everyone does not share this belief; however, even in England some doubt this as being true. 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 draft 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 draft 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 draft and farm purposes. With the improvement of roads and the use of coaches, the draft 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.
Although the first Shire was imported to America in 1853, substantial importation did not begin until after the 1880’s. As the new century began, the Shire seemed poised to challenge the Percheron as the nation’s most popular draft horse. From 1909 through 1911 around 6,700 Shires were registered, with approximately 80% being native bred.
Because of their large size and flashy action, the Shire had been particularly popular in the urban America. By the end of World War I, however, the draft horse had virtually been replaced by the truck, subway, and electric streetcar in the city. At the same time, farmers were looking for a smaller, more economical horse to work the fields.
Belgians and Percherons came to dominate the Midwest draft horse market causing the center of Shire breeding to moved to the West. Their numbers continued to drop throughout the 1940s and 50s, with only twenty-five horses registered from 1950 through 1959. Today the Shire, like most draft breeds, is making a comeback. By 1985 there were 121 Shires registered in America.
From ASHA 1994-1997 Newsletters by Arlin Wareing.
The Shire is a horse of great size: a mature stallion stands between 16.2 and 17.2 hands and weighs up to 2200 pounds. 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 gray.
It is important to remember that the creation and promotion of the English Shire Registry was, at least in part, due to the Americans wanting registered stock. It surely stands to reason they would also want to continue this practice after getting those horses on American soil. We have also learned of the desire to improve the quality of the breed. One method to do this, of course, would be the keeping of records, which is still in practice today.
Seeing the need for the Americans to promote quality, and the continued desire to expand the breed, the British contributed funds to help organize the registry in the US. Thus, on April 28, 1885, the American Shire Horse Association was organized. It was incorporated on May 21, 1885.
Article II, “Object of the Constitution,” reads: “The object of this Association shall be the revision, preservation and publication of the history and pedigree of purebred Shire stallions and mares, and such regulations as may prescribed by the Association.”
It was surely in the best interest of the English Society to insure a quality animal in the US in order to continue their exports and fill an ever-increasing demand. The close ties and good relations between the Shire Horse Society and the American Shire Horse Association have always been evident; much more so than the other draft breed associations. However, in the late 1900’s, with limited knowledge and spirit of independence, some of the American breeders seemed to resent those ties. A continued effort for unity has always been a topic of concern by the associations’ leadership.