The United Kingdom is famed for its breeds of heavy horses, notably the Shire, the Clydesdale, the Suffolk Punch and the Percheron, the latter originally a French breed but now considered a British heavy horse.
After the Second World War, heavy horses fell out of favour as increasing mechanisation on farms and within cities rendered them redundant. Numbers declined but some breed enthusiasts continued to support these noble creatures and they are often seen today at county and country shows where they may be pulling either agricultural vehicles or trade turnouts such as brewers’ drays, or just being shown in hand. Some breeds such as the Suffolk Punch and the Shire are being monitored by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, an organisation started by a man called Joe Henson – you may recognise his son, Adam Henson, who is one of the regular presenters on the BBC television series ‘Countryfile’. The RBST was started in the seventies to protect any farm livestock that was in danger of disappearing and this included horses. It is challenging to maintain numbers for animals which don’t seem to now have a valid use. Some heavy horses can be found in heritage centres and Shire horses are still used to pull brewers’ drays in parts of London and other cities which remain totally inaccessible for a lorry but, compared to their usage in the first fifty years or so of the last century, the working role of the heavy horse has largely disappeared into the mists of time.
Heavy horses have not been ridden for many centuries, since they galloped into battle carrying a knight in full armour. Sometimes a farmhand would sit side on to guide a horse or take a team of plough horses from one location to another but their height and width dictated that they were never the first choice as a riding horse. More recently however, there has been a creeping trend to actually ride heavy horses which, despite their size, often have surprisingly gentle and equable temperaments.
The recently created British Ridden Heavy Horse (BRHH) Society aims to showcase the draught breeds under saddle in different show rings around the country although Shires and Clydesdales have been used for several years already as trekking horses in areas of the north of England and also in Devon. The BRHH Society is promoting pure bred Suffolks, Clydesdales, Shires and Percherons who are registered in the studbooks of their respective breed societies, and they also have classes for first cross heavy horses. Before the arrival of the continental warmblood in its modern form, it was popular to cross a draught breed with a Thoroughbred to produce a sports horse, combining the bone and power of the heavy breed with the lightness and athleticism of the Thoroughbred. These crosses have tended now to fall out of favour, superseded by the Irish Draught crossed with the Thoroughbred and more recently, the very popular modern warmblood which offers elegance, power and lightness in abundance.
One of the reasons the BRHH Society was founded is to support breeds which are in decline; if heavy breeds become accepted as a ridden animal, then more people will be interested in both riding and breeding them and this can help support declining numbers. The BRHH Society aims to offer guidance and support for those who want to ride these large breeds, feeding, training, turnout, even saddle fitting, not a challenge to be undertaken lightly. They run a competition series to showcase the different breeds and a panel of judges who understand the breed distinctions and can bring a coherent and cohesive response in the ring to the unique challenges of riding and showing these heavy horses. The Society is not without its critics but they have done a sterling job at finding shows to support their cause and run their classes, including several very well established names on the county circuit and all in a very short space of time.
But as if riding a draught breed was not unusual enough, there is also now a move afoot to race them. Lingfield Park racecourse in Surry have raced Shires before, holding the first official Shire horse race at the track in 2013. The race attracted huge interest from around the world and the racecourse was overwhelmed at the amount of genuine enthusiasm which the event attracted and the publicity it generated. The horses were provided by a breed enthusiast and were not connected with the BRHH Society, although the stated aims are very similar; to showcase this wonderful breed and save it from any further decline in numbers – there are only 1,500 Shire horses left worldwide. Exeter racecourse have hosted racing Clydesdales and more recently, Lingfield Park have pitched Clydesdales against Shires to introduce a competitive twist. Chelmsford Racecourse is the latest track to feature Shire racing, new for 2017. The horses are piloted by top National Hunt jockeys and the races are always a bit of a feature on the race card. The racing heavies show an amazing turn of speed and athleticism and clearly have a real enjoyment of their latest role.
Riding heavy horses is like all new developments in the showing world, usually unthinkable to begin with and met with a reaction of consternation followed not long afterwards in a matter of a few years, with a response of, why hasn’t this been done before. Veteran classes now have an enormous following, dreamed up by one or two people a few years ago who had lovely old horses that would not have been eligible for more standard classes. And of course coloured horses which around thirty years ago, were frowned on in the show ring and currently have a huge following, likewise the ridden traditional coloured which now has its own dedicated society - a mini heavy horse in every way. So perhaps it is not such a quantum leap to ride the bigger version of the traditional feathered cob and who knows what will come next.