Shire Horse HistoryWe should never forget the role that the Shire has played for hundreds of years both in this country and world wide. First it was used as a war horse carrying knights in armour and then it was the main source of power in agriculture for 250 years. Again it became a war horse in the 1st & 2nd world wars pulling the heavy artillery in appalling conditions.
The Shire Horse nearly became extinct after the 2nd World War and it is only through the dedication of breeders like Alistair King that has prevented it from disappearing from our countryside for ever.
The English Great Horse or War Horse
The origin of the Shire Horse dates back to a cold blooded heavy horse first mentioned in around 1066 probably brought into England after the Norman Conquest. From this developed the "English Great Horse" of the Middle Ages often spoken of by Medieval writers.
In Medieval times it was essential to increase the size and number of horses called "The Great Horse" in order to carry knights in full armour.
During the reign of Henry VIII, from 1509 to 1547, special attention was directed to the raising and breeding of strong horses, and several laws were passed with that in mind. Acts were passed in 1535 and 1541 forbidding the use for breeding of horses under 15 hands in height, also prohibiting all exportation, even into Scotland.
It is from this heritage as a War Horse that the Shire Horse of today was originally bred.
The English Draught Horse or English Black
From the end of the 16th Century heavy horses were required to haul heavy wagons & coaches across the countryside at a time when roads were no more than deep rutted muddy tracks. At this time large numbers of Flanders & Friesian, horses predominantly black with feathered legs, were imported from Holland and had a great influence in the development of the Shire introducing a refining element and a better freer movement.
These Dutch horses were used in the first half of the 17th century when work began on draining the Fens in the east of England Lincolnshire & Cambridgeshire and a massive wide footed horse was needed to provide the strength and weight needed for the heavy work.
When the work was finished these horses remained in the area and were used for breeding. Sales of them were made in particular to Leicestershire, Staffordshire & Derbyshire and so from the Shires Of England developed the Shire Horse.
Both in commerce and agriculture Shire horses literally made the wheels of Britain's industry go round. They worked in fields, in towns, on docks and quays, on canal towpaths, for mills and railways. There were millions of them. There was a huge demand, for many, many years, for massive horses with great muscular strength and an even temperement and the breeders applied their skills in developing these important traits.
The English Shire Horse & Shire Horse Society
The foundation Stallion of the Shire Breed is recognised as being the Packington Blind Horse who stood at Packington near Ashby de la Zouch between 1755 &1770. He was black and appears in the first Shire Stud Book because of the large number of horses claimed to be descended from him.
The English Cart Horse Society was founded in 1876 and published the first stud book 2 years later. In 1884 it changed its name to the Shire Horse Society. At this time the Shire horse was still very much a work horse but was being shown extensively, the fierce competition resulting in improving the breed further. The Shire had a huge following including King George V. His stallion Field Marshall V won the London Show twice before going on to be one of the most influential sires of his time.
The Shire again played an important part in the 1st & 2nd World Wars pulling the heavy artillery After the 2nd world War with the improvement in mechanism the Shire was no longer needed in either industry or agriculture and in the 1950's was nearly doomed to extinction.
Numbers of horses (including Shires) used for agriculture including mares for breeding fell dramatically from 550,000 in 1939 to only 5000 on 1972. The subsequent revival of the Shire owes much to a few determined breeders & exhibitors and Breweries using them for short haul work and promotions