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The shire

.: Shires Past and Present
.: From the Great Horse to the Shire
.: Packington Blind Horse
.: The Stud Book
.: The Contemporary Shire
.: Origins of the Shire


Shires Past and Present
haroldThe Shire horse breed originated in England, particularly in the Fen district of East Anglia and in Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire. The breed dates back to the big English horse of the Middle Ages, known as the Great Horse, which in turn derives from the heavy horses brought to England following the Norman Conquest. These continental horses were descendants of the primitive forest horse.

(into photo: Harold (1881-1901))

From the Great Horse to the Shire
Judging by the accoutrement used in the 16th century, what is now known as the Great Horse was actually a cob type of animal standing about 16hh (160 cm) at the withers. It had little in common with Hitchin Conqueror today´s Shire. The Great Horse was of no practical use in England until the late 16th century when these large, heavy beasts were no longer needed to carry knights in armour. They were now put to work hauling heavy wagons along country lanes that were no more than wheel tracks, hard as stone in the Summer, deep and muddy during in wintertime.
The Friesian and Flanders breeds also played an important part in the development of the Shire. The Friesian refined the breed and gave it an easier gait, but it was the Flanders horse (mainly black, like the Friesian) that contributed most to the Shire´s development. The Flanders horse came to England with the Dutch contract workers who drained the Fenlands of East Anglia in the early 17th century.
When the land reclamation was complete, this horse breed remained and was reared locally. From that time onward the Great Horse of England is not mentioned. Instead, the English Cart Horse became known as the English Black, so-called by none other than Oliver Cromwell, who hailed from Cambridgeshire and was a well-known agricultural expert. Probably he was referring to the Friesian horse, but the name English Black survived and is still used.

(into photo: Hitchin Conqueror)

Packington Blind Horse
The Shire horse root stallion is believed to be the all black Blind Horse of Packington village near Ashby de la Zouche in Leicestershire, who lived from 1755 to 1770. He was referred to in the first edition of the Cart Horse Stud Book, as he had sired so many horses!

The Stud Book
Halstead  Royal Duke The first Shire horse society was The English Cart Horse Society, founded in 1878 and the first Stud Book was published two years later. The name of the organisation was changed in 1884 to The Shire Horse Society. About five thousand animals were registered each year from 1901 to 1914 and many were exported. After the Second World War, however, there was little demand for the breed, either in agriculture or in industry. One of the few areas where Shires played a useful part was in the brewery trade where they made an attractive advertising feature. Shires have enjoyed good publicity at shows round the year in all parts of Britain. The best known of these is the world´s biggest, Peterborough Show, Cambridgeshire.

(into photo: Halstead Royal Duke, champion at London into 1909)

The Contemporary Shire
Today’s Shire Horse differs from those of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today’s Shire is not so heavy and stocky. In those days there were two different classes at horse shows, one for smaller stallions and one for larger. A stallion standing 17.3 hh (1.80cm) was very unusual. Nowadays the Shire does not have so heavy a frame, and its feather is not so bushy. The latter was reduced by breeding in an attempt to deal with grease and coarse limbs. It was achieved by, among other things, crossing the Shire with the Clydesdale, and at the same time refining the heavy skeleton, which produced a more slender-limbed horse. Today’s Shire is taller and has longer legs than its predecessors. Their enormous strength is manifested by their numerous hauling records. At the Wembley Exhibition in 1924 a pair of Shires were pitted against a dynomometer (an instrument for measuring tractive effort), but the instrument´s range was insufficient and the arrangers of the trial estimated that the horses had exerted a tractive effort of 50 tons. The same pair, driven in tandem on a slippery stone track, hauled 18½ tons; the rear horse started to pull before the lead horse had even been coupled up! Black with white legs is still the most popular colour for the Shire, greys are fairly common, but the most common of all are brown and bay.

Origins of the Shire
Breeding of the huge Shire horse is, of tradition, concentrated to the Midland counties of Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire (hence the name “Shire”) and also Lincolnshire and the Fenlands, nearer the North Sea coast, where the heavier and bulkier horse type originated. The work of draining the Fens during the early 17th century played a large part in the origin of the Shire breed. The Dutch contract workers brought their own massive, large- footed horses with them. They were the only horses that could cope with such heavy work on the soft soil. When the work was completed, the horses were left behind and became the founders of today’s Shire horse breed.

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