The mighty Shire could claim to be a symbol of the English countryside, although they have been exported all over the world, particularly to the United States. Although they are best known as draught horses, they are beginning to gain more recognition as riding animals. What they lack in speed, they make up for in comfort and reliability.
The Shire's history has been nothing if not varied. There are references to some kind of heavy horses being used for work in England in Medieval times. Contrary to popular belief, up until the early 19th Century, oxen, not horses, were the preferred choice for agricultural work. The original heavy horses were used for other purposes, notably war. By the time of Henry VIII in the early part of the 16th Century the value of these large, imposing, mounts, was such that Henry VIII attempted to stamp out smaller breeds and keep only the larger beasts which were useful in war. By the 17th Century however, gunpowder was an integral part of warfare and the emphasis had shifted to lighter, more mobile cavalry. Shires were still useful as carthorses in situations where either raw strength or mobility was required. These heavy horses outshone oxen in both those regards, but oxen were massively cheaper to feed. The turn of the 19th Century saw massive social changes in the UK. In particular the Land Enclosures act was the beginning of the end for the use of the ox in agriculture and the start of the age of the heavy horse. Prior to the 19th Century, peasants had farmed land in strips, each growing their own crops in their designated areas. The best way to imagine the set up was like a vast patchwork quilt, with each individual being responsible for his own patch. The Enclosures Act change this patchwork approach into what we would recognize as farms today. This meant that instead of just having to plough in straight lines, ploughs had to be able to get into corners to make full use of the space. Teams of oxen were simply too cumbersome for this task but the stronger, more manoeuvrable horses could cope admirably and did until the 20th Century when even their great strength was overtaken by mechanical horsepower. Many of the Shires who were killed in World Wars One and Two were simply not replaced. Even those who might have wanted to keep their horses were often unable to do so due to the difficulty of feeding them in war time and in the difficult inter- and post-war years. Rather ironically given the breed's history as a plough horse, their survival as a breed was in no small part due to their use in pulling brewers' drays. Horses which had historically served on battlefields found themselves negotiating the traffic in big cities, advertising their breweries as they did so. This practice still goes on today. Shires also still find themselves in demand in areas where machines are impractical, such as on steep hillsides or in forests. Finally, Shires are now starting to find a niche for themselves as recreational horses. In addition to their long-standing use as driving animals, Shires are also starting to be used more under saddle.
The modern Shire is a tall horse standing at least 16HH (mares), 16.2HH (geldings) or 17HH (stallions). All shires may be black, bay or grey, mares and geldings may also be roan. White markings are permitted as long as they are not excessive. As is to be expected, the Shire shows all the characteristics of an enormously strong horse. It is broad and muscular with a deep chest, muscular quarters and sturdy legs. Thanks to the influence of the Clydesdale, the modern Shire has silky feathering rather than coarse hair on its legs. Its feet are in proportion to its body and give it solid grip to pull even in poor conditions. A pair of Shires are recorded as having pulled over 16.5 tonnes on slippery ground at an exhibition. This all makes the Shire a surprisingly good modern riding horse with hugely comfortable paces. They’ll never beat more refined horses in a race but they’re much quicker than a lot of people might expect and very respectable jumpers.
Gentle giant sums up the modern Shire very nicely. They are docile and friendly horses, who can be trusted in pretty much all situations. Notwithstanding this, they are also intelligent and can be very playful. Anyone who has seen a Shire enjoying itself in a field with its friends will know that this is horse which works hard, but knows how to have fun.
The Shire is generally a healthy animal, but it is worth noting that they can suffer from chronic progressive lymphedema, which is essentially a condition which causes swelling, cuts and malformation of the legs. Depending on the severity of the condition it may be possible to keep it under control.
Caring for a Shire
The basic point to remember about Shire care is that because they are bigger than most horses, pretty much everything associated with them is bigger too. This means first of all that prospective owners will have to make sure that they have access to a stable and field which are suitable for an animal of this size. Putting a Shire into a stable which is too small could potentially lead to a fatal accident. They will also have to be prepared to spend money on suitably-sized tack and rugs. These will be, if not one-off purchases then at least very long-term purchases. In terms of food, although the Shire will need a lot more feeding than, say, a native pony, they are far better doers than more refined horses so feeding bills should be reasonable. Everyday vets bills for minor injuries, vaccinations etc. are likely to be on a par with those for other animals; however in the event that a horse becomes seriously ill and needs an operation then these will go skyrocketing even more so than for smaller animals. With this in mind, insurance should be very seriously considered.
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