The Shire Horse is the English breed of draught horse, renowned for its size and presence, and with long silky feather (hair) on its legs. The Shire has white socks and usually has a white blaze. The base colours of the Shire Horse are black, bay, brown and grey.
The breed traces its ancestry back to the 1066, when the Normans from France conquered and settled Britain with the help of their powerful war horses. The breed was first a heavy war horse, carrying knights and cavalry into battle at the trot. Black stallions were later imported from Holland and bred to English mares, to improve these heavy war horses.
The breed type evolved into a bigger, heavier work horse and they became known as the ‘Black Horse’. Later, they were known as the ‘English Cart Horse’, and they were developed further for the pulling of heavy carts around the towns and cities, while some worked on farms doing agricultural work. In 1880, the official Stud Book commenced in the UK and the breed soon became officially known as the ‘Shire Horse’, which had become a common name for them because they were primarily bred and worked in the British Shire counties, such as in Lancashire. These counties were the powerhouses of the British industrial revolution and Shire Horses played a very important role in that revolution.
Shire Horses were imported into Australia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to carry out farm and cart work. However at that time the Shire had a heavier body and shorter legs than today and they proved to be not so suitable for work in the harsh Australian environment and with the longer distances than in England. The place where they did the best was in Tasmania, with its similarities to England.
Sadly, in the 1920’s, registered Shire Horses died out in Australia, although you could still find, in various parts of Australia, unregistered descendants of the early imported Shires.
Registered Shires were slowly reintroduced into Australia from 1981, with the importation of two stallions and a number of mares during the 1980’s. By this time the usage of the Shire had changed again significantly because, from before World War 2, and then more so after the War, trucks and tractors completely replaced the horse as a work engine.
In fact the Shire Horse almost completely died out in England in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Literally hundreds of thousands of them were sent to slaughter within a period of a few years. It was a tragic part of their history and it took a small group of committed Shire breeders, famously known now as “The Few”, with the support of British Royalty, to save the breed from extinction.
Thankfully, the breed survived and the Shire has now evolved into a more active, athletic type of horse, more refined and better suited to heavy horse harness driving, and in more recent years, more suited to a riding horse. Today the Shire Horse is an extremely versatile heavy horse, and its numbers are growing around the world, especially in Europe.
The Shire breed now has an Australian Shire Horse Stud Book and an Australian Official Panel of Judges, and numbers have built up to about 300. However the Shire Horse is still a very rare horse in Australia.
With thanks to the Shire Horse Society Australia for the photos and history of the Shire Horse in Australia