With their liquid brown eyes, kind spirit, and love of human contact, these gentle giants are very hard to resist – and at anything up to 20 or more hands high, not to mention often weighing in at 1,100 plus kilograms (that’s over one tonne), they’re also very hard to miss!
Descended from the breed once known as the Great Horse or War Horse, the Shire Horse has, not surprisingly, held the record for being the largest equine on earth on more than one occasion – and along with their forebears, have played a significant role in the development of human civilisation, mainly in terms of agriculture, industry, commerce and warfare.
Early British History: Although the presence of horses in the British Isles is believed to date back many thousands of years, domestication probably didn’t begin until around 2,500 BCE when they were primarily used for transport and in battle.
Fast forward to the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066, and records from that period mention the importation of cold-blooded heavy horses from Europe. Prized for their strength and powerful build, they were bred with local stock in an effort to impart those qualities to selected English herds. The result was the Great Horse, with the strength to not only pull a plough, but also to easily carry a knight in full suit of armour either into battle, or to vie for honours in the ever-popular jousting tournaments.
To ensure that the advantage gained with the Great Horse (particularly on the battlefield) remained with England, laws were enacted which limited horse exports, and animals considered to be of unsuitable size were culled.
When Henry VIII took the throne in the early 1500s, he continued that trend by passing the Breed of Horses Act and the Horses Act, which were once again aimed, through controlled breeding and culling, to build on the height and strength of horses in Britain. However, Henry went a step further – breeding with stallions under 15 hands high was expressly forbidden, and, determined to retain the benefits of possessing the tallest and most powerful horses in the realm, he completely prohibited their exportation.
Moving forward: By the time the 16th and 17th centuries had rolled around, strong horses were essential for ploughing, and for pulling heavy wagons and coaches between towns connected by roads that were often thick in mud and deeply rutted. They were also necessary for work on a project designed to increase the area of land available for agriculture by draining the waterlogged fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. In order to meet these needs, Dutch Flanders and Friesian horses (predominantly black with feathered legs) were imported in considerable numbers. Now recognised as one of the most important figures in the British Agricultural Revolution, Robert Bakewell, a landholder from Leicestershire, bred with these imports to produce the English Black, which, because it came from the shires of England, later became known as the Shire Horse.
For many years these immensely strong and even-tempered giants literally provided the horse power that propelled England’s agricultural, industrial and commercial growth, as well as pulling heavy artillery and other equipment during the country’s involvement in WWI and WWII. But by the end of WWII, mechanisation had overtaken the need for the Shires, and their numbers dwindled from an estimated 550,000 in 1939 to just 5,000 in 1972. It was thanks to a handful of enthusiastic breeders and breweries – who liked to use the Shire for short hauls and in promotions – that the breed was brought back from the brink.
The Shire Down Under: The Shire arrived in Australia during the 1800s, but not in sufficient numbers to create a viable herd. Conditions in Australia, the long distances and harsh environment, did not suit the breed, and by the mid-1920s registered Shires were virtually non-existent.
It was thanks to Helene and Gregory Scarf that Shire Horses made a comeback in Australia. In 1981, they imported Ladbrook Edward, the first registered Shire stallion to arrive Down Under in many years. In 1984 a shipment of mares arrived, and the Scarfs established Cedars Shire Horse Stud in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, which they own and operate to this day.
While the number of Shire Horses in Australia is now in the hundreds, we must make special mention of Archie (Cedars Archibold), who in 1987 was the first pure bred Shire to be born in Australia since the beginning of that century. A media personality from the start – television news heralded his birth as a new beginning for the breed in Australia – Archie found his way into the Mounted Police Academy in Redfern NSW. Archie was their resident drum horse for many years, as well as going out on street patrols, a duty that had to be discontinued when the loveable Archie caused too many traffic jams because pedestrians continually stopped to pat him while they were crossing the road! Archie’s appearances on TV shows such as The Great Outdoors, Getaway, Totally Wild, and the Disney Channel’s Horse Tales, did much to raise the profile of the Shire breed in Australia.
As Helene notes: “At 19 hands high Archie was at the time Australia’s tallest horse. He was once on display at the Royal Easter Show for 10 days in a row where he really drummed up a crowd! Archie won more than fifty first place ribbons in his lifetime and he was the first Shire to be in led and ridden in classes at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.”
Archie passed away in 2014 at the respectable old age of 27, and is buried alongside his full sister, Cedars Dutchess, back home in Kangaroo Valley.
The Australian Shire Horse Society: In the early days of the Shire Horse’s Australian revival, foals were registered with the Shire Horse Society UK. However, in 2004 Helene, Gregory and several others decided the time had come to establish an Australian society. They contacted Grahame West, a Shire Horse enthusiast who, in the late 1970s, had registered (and still owned) the Australia Shire Horse Society name – although at that time there weren’t enough of the breed to warrant starting a stud book.
“We asked him whether he would be a founding member and luckily he accepted our request,” Helene explains. So after a hiatus of more than 20 years, the Society became operational – and in a nod to history, Grahame, an artist, designed a breed registration certificate featuring King Henry VIII.
“Our beautifully illustrated certificates show Henry VIII in armour riding a Shire and holding the Australian flag. Grahame also included the King’s crest on the certificate,” says Helene.
From small beginnings, the fledging society grew and now boasts the Shire Sport Horse Registry as well as the Australian Shire Horse Stud Book.
The modern Shire: Today’s Shire is still big and powerful, but moves with grace and athleticism. Surprisingly versatile, they make stunning show horses and are used in all types of riding, for pulling carriages, sleds and ploughs, and, as a guaranteed crowd pleaser, they’re perfect for promotional purposes.
With a fine head and silky feathering on the lower legs, they can be black, bay or grey, and often have a white blaze and socks. Renowned for their placid temperament, they are friendly, intelligent and adaptable, and make loyal and beautiful companions.