Once intrinsic to Great British industry, the Shire horse is a breed steeped in heritage. Hannah Park looks back on their heyday and what the future has in store for this iconic animal.
Considerable muscular strength, together with a largely placid nature and patient manner make the Shire horse quite unique. Great British industry relied heavily upon the Shire for centuries, and in the not too distant past it was commonplace to see heavy horses pulling brewers’ drays, delivery vans and railway wagons and, before the coming of the tractor and the lorry, heavy work on farms and roads was also powered by the working horse.
Victoria Clayton, secretary of the Shire Horse Society, who has been involved in the Shire world for more than 25 years, says: “The Shire horse was the original war horse. It carried knights into battle and was a key component in both World War I and World War II. The size and strength of the horse meant they could haul heavy loads of wartime paraphernalia and essential goods.”
The breed embodied the ideal companion in farming and food production too, and Shires were used extensively to carry out all manner of cultivation and haulage tasks, walking in a straight line at an even pace for hours on end, turning neatly at the end of every row in response to a call from its master.
“Pulling various implements the Shire could be seen muck spreading, ploughing and harrowing, not to mention pulling wagons for livestock transportation as well as horse ambulances – one such which can still be seen being paraded at the Grand National meeting,” says Victoria.
“A ploughman working with a pair of horses for something like 10 hours reckoned he would walk about 15 miles to plough an acre of land.” Come 1920 there were more than two million horses working in England alone.
“It’s thought the railways had some 6,000 horses helping to get goods from the countryside to the cities, carrier firms had 19,000 horses, the London rubbish collection had 1,500 while brewers around this time were said to collectively have some 3,000 working horses between them,” says Victoria.
“The brewery horses worked hard, not only delivering the beer, but also bringing the raw materials and taking away the waste products.
“They were usually fed on spent grains, a by-product of brewing and could eat up to six tonnes per horse per year.
Some breweries still have horses today doing promotional work and undertaking local deliveries.”
Fast forward to the 1960s though, and there were only a few hundred Shires left thanks to the speed and efficiency of the tractor and the affordability of fuel which had all but pushed the working horse into oblivion.
“The mechanisation of transport, agriculture and industry brought with it a decline in numbers of Shire horses and only a few enthusiasts continued to breed them, mainly for showing,” Victoria says.
In the 1958 stud book, there were just five colts and 11 fillies. They were in serious decline, but a number of dedicated breeders, including the then secretary of the society, Roy Bird, turned things around. And while their heyday may have passed, the heavy horse today is far from redundant thanks to industries like forestry and timber extraction, as well as leisure when it comes to events like agricultural shows and ploughing matches.
“Some breweries still have horses today doing promotional work and undertaking local deliveries, while the Royal Parks in London still use horses for the upkeep of the parks.
“Shires are predominantly an animal for pleasure now though and enthusiasts breed and show them across the country both inhand and in ridden classes.”
Ridden Shires have been around for a number of years but really started to take off back in 2015 and 2016, says Victoria. The Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) has held a championship for ridden heavy horses since 2016 and there are now 14 qualifiers.
“The class is very popular and one that the crowds love to watch. This and ridden classes in general have definitely shown the diversity of the breed and has opened it up to a new audience.
“At the National Shire Show each March, the ridden classes are among the most popular. Entries are high and we have seen 30 entered and put forward for the HOYS qualifier class. It is some sight to see them all enter the arena.
“I think it will help the breed going forward and it is hoped that numbers bred will start to rise to meet demand for the ridden shire.”
It is thanks to this, and the Shires’ heritage that Victoria believes the future for the breed is bright.
“The Shire horse is a very special animal. When you see one for the first time you can’t help but be impressed by its great size and its patient manner – people love them and it remains that much of the farming and countryside fraternity have a story whereby someone in their family worked with them.
“You cannot fail to be impressed by the size and that little bit of magic these horses bring.”
Resident Shires on the Wimpole Estate in Cambridgeshire are not only a part of its history, but also a presentday enterprise aimed at showcasing to visitors what they can do. Used for carriage rides, experience days and ridden work between the seasons, they have long been a firm favourite those visiting the National Trust owned site with many visitors, in ordinary times, travelling the length and breadth of the country for the carriage rides and Shire horse driving experience days on offer in the summer months.
But some agricultural related heavy horse handling skills are now set to get a new lease of life as the estate looks to re-introduce some of its five Shires to traditional agricultural tasks, in a bid to keep these alive in the public eye. The project is being headed up by head horseperson, Emma Warner, who has worked Wimpole for the past 15 years.
“We often get asked by visitors if the horses work,” says Emma.
“And while the horses do the carriage and ridden work, I think it’s agricultural tasks people are thinking of and want to see.” Progress is now well underway with two of the horses now working separately, pulling a set of grass harrows, but having mainly done carriage work herself in the past, Emma says the project has also involved a learning curve for herself and other staff members.
“I’ve had some lessons with horses that already know what they’re doing, with the idea that we can then bring that back to Wimpole.
“The carriage has wheels, drives without much resistance and is fairly quiet behind the horse, whereas the agricultural work involves implements that moves and sounds different to this, so we want to build up the horse’s confidence gradually and then progress.”
Going forward, the plan is to secure some suitable land on the estate to start grow some crops and restore or get hold of the implements needed to work these though the year.
Emma says: “As we gradually build up what the horses can do, the idea is to hopefully be able to show visitors a farming year when it comes to working the land, but with the horses as it would have been centuries ago.”