The Shire Horse

History of The Shire Horse

The most familiar and most numerous of the heavy draught breeds in Britain, the Shire horse is a descendent of the Great Horse, used in medieval warfare and bred from crossing a large native horse with heavy horses imported from Flanders and Holland. Henry VIII introduced laws imposing penalties on anyone breeding ‘little horses and nags of small stature’ in an attempt to increase the size of horses needed to carry heavily armoured knights into battle.

When heavy plate armour disappeared, lighter horses were required for battle and the heavy horse became a valuable draught animal in agriculture. In the mid-17th century, references speak of the Black Horse, a type of Great Horse based in the Midlands. Not until the end of that century is the term ‘Shire horse’ used, and it was the late 18th century before records, albeit incomplete, first appeared. The best-known animal from this period is the ‘Packington Blind Horse’, whose direct descendants are recorded from 1770 to 1832, and who came from Leicestershire. Others were bred in Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

In the mid 1800s the Shire breed was blooming and great stallions were being bred. Many people regard ‘Lincolnshire Lad’, foaled in 1865 and bred in Norfolk, as the greatest sire until that time. This reputation was superseded by that of his son, ‘Lincolnshire Lad II’, foaled in 1872, who sired many winners in the show ring, including the famous ‘Harold’, foaled in 1881 and champion in London in 1887.

To rationalise breeding activities and improve the qualities of the Shire, the English Cart Horse Society was formed in 1878, when the horse was found predominantly from the Humber to the Cam and westwards to Cheshire and parts of Lancashire and adjoining counties. Later the society changed its name to the Shire Horse Society. The first volume of the stud book contained the records of 2,381 stallions, dating back to 1770.

The new-found popularity of the Shire soon spread to the US. Between 1900 and 1918 almost 4,000 Shires were imported into the USA. Most of the well-known British stud names are to be found in the early American stud books.

With increasing mechanisation at the time of the Second World War, thousands of Shires were slaughtered. Strict regulations restricting the purchase of fodder from other holdings also dramatically reduced the number of animals farmers could keep. Some of the largest studs, including the Forshaws at Carlton-on-Trent and Cumbers at Yatesbury, closed completely.

In the late 1950s and 1960s there was a danger that the breed would disappear. At the Spring Show in 1955 there were only 26 stallions, 28 mares and 14 geldings. The Society finances were at an all-time low. Fortunately, a small dedicated group of breeders, with financial support from a few leading brewers, kept the Society, and the breed, alive.

The Modern Shire Horse

In the 1970s numbers increased and there was a renewed interest in the breed from the public. In the early part of the decade, blood typing was introduced by the Society, enabling it to determine the correct parentage of progeny entering the stud book.

The revival of the breed has now been consolidated, especially with the renewed demand from all over the world. Active societies have become established in Germany, France and the Netherlands, as well as the USA and Canada. The first World Shire Horse Congress was held at Peterborough in March 1996. Delegates from 10 countries met to discuss veterinary, husbandry and welfare topics, and a committee was set up to investigate the use of frozen semen for export. In January 1997 mares in Australia were the first to be scanned and found to be in foal as a result of AI with frozen semen, a first for the breed.

The modern Shire differs greatly from the traditional horse used in the heyday of the breed, the 1920s-1930s. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the influence of the Clydesdale in cross-breeding was evident in changed conformation. The mass of coarse leg hair and its associated problems largely became a characteristic of the past, being replaced by the silky feathering now seen in a modern Shire.

Today, the nature of the breed is being influenced to some extent by the export market. Overseas buyers are looking for animals which are black in colour, preferably with four white legs. This is causing a shortage of good black horses, although most breeders are striving to produce such animals. Greys and well-marked bays are also in demand.

Modern uses for the breed include forestry work, recreational riding (especially in Europe) and promotional work. If you want to go abroad for recreational riding we would recommend Albufeira in Portugal. They have some high end facilities and you are based in a party town to take advantage of the bars and clubs at night.

Conformation, Colour and Characteristics

One of the most favoured characteristics of the breed is its equable temperament, strong character and courageous nature.


A Shire stallion should be black, brown, bay or grey. The tallest of Britain’s draught horses, he should stand from 17.2 hh and weigh 2,000-2,464 lb when mature, without being overdone in condition. He should possess a masculine head and a good crest with sloping, not upright, shoulders running well into the back, which should be well set up and not ‘goose-rumped’. Both head and tail should be carried erect. The ribs should be well sprung, not flat-sided, with a good middle, which generally denotes a good constitution. A stallion should have good feet and joints; the feet should be wide and big around the top of the coronets with sufficient length in the pasterns. When in motion he should go with force using both knees and hocks, with hocks kept close together. He should go straight and true before and behind.


The mare should be long and deep with a free action, of a feminine and matronly appearance, standing from 16 hh on short legs. She should have plenty of room to carry her foal. Roan is acceptable as a colour in mares but not in stallions.


The gelding should be upstanding, thick, well-balanced, very active and a good mover. He should be courageous and should look and be capable of a full day’s work. Gelding’s should weigh 1,905-2,464 lb.

As a working horse, the smaller type of Shire is preferred – up to 17 hh. For new owners a smaller horse, weighing 1,570-2,020 lb, will be cheaper to buy and keep and easier to manage. There will, however, always be a strong market for the horse of 18.2 hh and over for promotional and show purposes so long as the horse meets the breed’s conformation and colour criteria.


Clydesdale information and breed guide.


Suffolk information and breed guide.


Percheron information and breed guide.


Ardennes information and breed guide.


Native and working crosses information and breed guide.