Like so many other equine breeds, the history of the Shire Horse is relatively unknown. Thought to descend from the ‘Great Horse’ which was a popular war mount in medieval England, the Shire Horse likely hails from the shires of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire – two counties that have a strong case for crediting themselves with the early development of the breed.
Besides its large scale use in war, the stocky Shire Horse has shown its worth and dexterity in a range of capacities over the years, from pulling wagons of ale and coal to ploughing, forestry and transportation. Today, the Shire Horse is considered a rare and endangered breed, with some estimates placing the breed population at less than 2,000 horses worldwide.
Interest in this heavy draught horse has fluctuated throughout history, with breed numbers declining after the Second World War and increasing with renewed public interest in the 1970s.
Various other breeds have influenced the development of the Shire Horse, from the sturdy Clydesdale to the more elegant Friesian. In order to preserve the breed, the Shire Horse Society (originally the Cart Horse Society) was established in 1878, although today the Shire’s existence remains in jeopardy.
Boasting an average height of 16-18 hands, with well conformed legs, a strong head, feathered fetlocks, and a thick mane and tail, the Shire is an easily recognised horse that still appears widely in television advertisements today, typically in relation to breweries.
There is evidence to suggest that the Shire Horse was commonly on sale at London’s Smithfield Market as early as 1145, being sold in the same location as public executions.