The magnificent and rare shire horse is best known for its height and strength, holding records for being the tallest horse in the world. Appearing similar to a Clydesdale, these horses are absolutely massive with large hooves and feathering on their legs. But in spite of their imposing size, shire horses are typically calm, docile, and eager to please. They can be good for horse lovers of any experience level, as long as the person is comfortable with such a large horse.
Weight: 1,800 to 2,400 pounds
Height: 16 hands (64 inches) to 18 hands (72 inches)
Body Type: Very tall; muscular build; large hooves; feathering on legs; long, arched neck; slightly Roman nose
Best For: All levels of riders and owners
Life Expectancy: 25 to 30 years
Shire Horse History and Origins
Shire horses are named for the British shires (countryside) where the breed was developed. It is widely believed that the British Great Horse, which was used in battle, is the ancestor of the shire horse. Flemish horses with leg feathering also might have influenced the breed. The Shire Horse Society, first called the English Cart Horse Society, formed in 1878 as a breed registry.
Shire horses came to the United States around 1853 but never attained much popularity. Instead, they were used primarily to breed increased size into smaller farm horse stock.
In the days before machinery became the workhorse of agriculture and industry, the shire horse was used for its immense pulling power. But now that the horsepower of draft horses is no longer required, the shire has landed on lists of endangered livestock breeds in the U.K., U.S., and Canada.
Shire Horse Size
The shire horse is the tallest horse breed, standing at an average of around 16 hands (64 inches) to 18 hands (72 inches). Some shires even reach 19 hands (76 inches) or more, with the stallions generally being taller than the mares. The breed typically weighs between 1,800 and 2,400 pounds.
Shire Horse Breeding and Uses
Bred for its size, strength, and easygoing demeanor, the shire horse was used extensively to pull carts of ale from breweries to public houses. Before World War I, these gentle giants commonly served as farm horses, pulling wagons and working in fields. When coal was a major source of heat and light, shires were employed to pull enormous coal wagons over rough roads.
Today, the shire horse is still popular for pulling vehicles, such as sightseeing wagons, and many equestrians enjoy riding the docile breed for pleasure. They are an environmentally friendly alternative to tractors on small farms and are still used in logging operations. They also are a popular promotional tool for modern-day beer brewers, some of whom are again making deliveries by horse and wagon.
Colors and Markings
Shire horses are commonly black, bay, gray, or brown. The U.K. breed standard does not allow chestnut colors. And while the horses often have white facial and leg markings, excessive white markings are not desired for the breed.
Unique Characteristics of the Shire Horse
The most outstanding characteristics of the shire horse are its imposing height and extreme strength, traits documented both in record books and anecdotally. For example, in the 1920s, a pair of shires reportedly pulled a load of more than 45 tons, though the exact weight could not be determined because it exceeded the scale's capacity.
The breed also is well-known for its easygoing nature. Shires don't spook easily. This trait likely arose from the breed's original use confidently carrying soldiers in heavy armor into loud, dangerous battle situations.
Furthermore, like Clydesdales, shire horses have distinctive feathering—long strands of hair—on their lower legs, and their hooves are massive.
Diet and Nutrition
Shire horses eat a standard horse diet that includes good quality hay, grain, vegetables, and fruits. They just need a lot more food (and water) than an average-sized horse to maintain a healthy body weight. Some veterinarians recommend high-fat diets to ward off polysaccharide storage myopathy, a condition that can cause spasms in the hind legs.
Common Health and Behavior Problems
Shire horses are generally healthy with very calm, agreeable attitudes. But the breed is prone to chronic progressive lymphedema. This is a disease in which the legs gradually become swollen, though management can help slow its progression. Also, while polysaccharide storage myopathy is not that common in shire horses, some still might experience its bouts of leg stiffness, cramps, and spasms.
The feathering around a shire horse's lower legs requires regular brushing and cleaning to avoid skin irritation and infection. It is also important to fully dry the feathering after a bath, as a wet environment can breed bacteria and fungi. Other than that, these horses take standard equine grooming. But you might need a sturdy stool or ladder to reach all the high points on your horse's body.
Easy to train
Requires extra grooming attention
Upkeep can be expensive
Champion and Celebrity Shire Horses
One of the most famous shire horses was the majestic Goliath, who died in 2001. Measured at more than 19.5 hands high, he was the tallest horse in Great Britain at the time. He also was recognized in "The Guinness Book of World Records" in 2000 as the tallest living horse in the world. A beautiful black horse renowned for his character, he was a member of a show horse team owned by the Young and Co. brewery.
The world’s largest horse of all time might have been a shire born in 1846 named Mammoth (AKA Sampson). He stood 21.2 hands high and weighed an estimated 3,300 pounds.
Is the Shire Horse Right for You?
While they're massive in size, shire horses are typically manageable, even for inexperienced owners and riders. Some riders might need a boost to climb aboard, but they can be reasonably sure of a smooth ride. Shires rarely rear or buck, and they don't scare easily. They are eager to please and easy to train.
However, a shire is a rather expensive breed to keep. Because of its sheer size, it requires more feed than most other horse breeds. And owners typically must buy custom-made tack, as mass-produced equipment simply won't fit. But if you have the time and means to care for this horse, it can be a quality companion.
How to Adopt or Buy
Shire horses can be somewhat difficult to find because of the breed's rarity. Researching reputable horse rescues or breeders online is often your best bet, though it's highly recommended that you spend time with a horse before choosing to bring it home. Shire horses vary in cost from around $2,000 to $20,000, depending on age and their level of training. When selecting a horse, it’s important to get the full picture of its health, temperament, and history. A quality rescue or breeder will be open with you about its animals to help you find the right fit. It is also highly recommended to have your veterinarian perform a pre-purchase or pre-adoption examination to confirm the horse's health and suitability for its desired use.
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