Some readers may be surprised to learn that the Shire Horse Society was formed as late as March, 1878. It was at first known as The English Cart Horse Society and became The Shire Horse Society of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1884. Obviously this was not the beginning of the Shire Horse, as a type if not a breed, though until the name became officially established it was more often known as “The Old English Black Horse”, “The Large Black Horse” or “The Fen Breed”.
Robert Bakewell, of Dishley, was so successful in his essays in improving breeds of sheep and cattle by scientific methods, and also in his publicists, that he is often given the credit for likewise improving the heavy horse. Undoubtedly he did so, but other contemporary farmers in the Midlands were engaged in similar programmes for the improvement of horses by the careful selection of breeding stock. Bakewell, though by no means to be disparaged, was one among many. These Midland improvers of the heavy horse had ample good material to work on. Far from needing to increase the size of their animals, some of the steps they took were intended to reduce it. G. Culley, writing in 1786, records that of the horses bred on farms in the eighteenth century the largest went to London to be used as dray horses, and some of these reached 18 hands. The smallest ones were taken by the army, for cavalry and transport, and those of medium size were retained on the farm. The 18-hand draught horses were said to be able to draw a weight of three tons, but Culley thought they had less stamina and were more prone to ailments than the medium-sized horses.
Just how Bakewell viewed the problem is uncertain. M. E. Seebohm, in The Evolution of the English Farm (1952), writes:
Bakewell effected improvements in this animal (the local heavy horse of the Midlands), as with other stock at Dishley, and having strength and activity in his mind rather than height or weight, produced a somewhat smaller horse with a short thick body and short clean legs, and with a hardier constitution than the very large species.
On the other hand, Robert Trow-Smith, in English Husbandry (1951), refers to Bakewell’s work in “bringing in Flanders mares to shorten the long back and restore the size of the old Shire.” He concludes, “The size of the Shire has increased for some centuries, however, and Bakewell’s work seems finally to have made it too large for anything but hard draught work.”
If, as has been conjectured, the stallions on whom Bakewell based his breeding programme, and whose pedigrees he kept strictly secret, were trotting horses from Lincolnshire, he may indeed have sacrificed size for speed, at least temporarily. However, as already noted, he was only one of the Midland improvers. One of the most celebrated of the early Shire stallions was the Blind Horse of Packington (Packington being a village near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in Leicestershire). He flourished between the years 1755 and 1770 and is asserted to have left a considerable impression on the breed.
Mr. R. S. Reynolds, writing in the first volume of the Stud Book of the Shire Horse Society, lists Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire and the Fen counties as the home of the earliest draught stallions. He adds, too, that
Northamptonshire was always the home of heavy horses, and in this county lived the family of Laws of Thenford, who kept as many as five or six stallions at a time, all of which were led on their rounds by Mr. Joseph Laws’s five sons. The records carry the family connection with the Shire horse up to the middle of the nineteenth century.
In Nottinghamshire as early as 1804 the breeding of heavy horses was encouraged. In that year a premium was offered at Retford for the best dray stallion.
William Marshall, in his Report to the Board of Agriculture in 1811, gives a glowing account of the horses in Lincolnshire, saying that “The finest and best horses in the kingdom, chiefly of what are called the blood kind, are bred upon the Wolds; a greater attention is paid to that species of horse by the Wold graziers than even in Yorkshire or Durham. . . .” Note that it was to Lincolnshire that Robert Bakewell is reputed to have gone for his mystery stallions.
Although, as mentioned previously, the heavy horses of the early nineteenth century would not look out of place in a modern stable, there has been some change of fashion over the years. In particular, the modern Shire horse does not carry as much feather, or long hair, around its hooves. An old-time prejudice against Shires with four white feet has passed. Black, too, was an unpopular colour at one time, which is rather strange, for, as we have seen, many of the Midland horses from which the breed originated were black. Nowadays popular preference seems to exemplify the old adage, “A good horse is never a bad colour.” There is, however, a prejudice against broken colour, against a too light ground colour, and against chestnut. The carefully prepared standard of points for the breed is as follows:
Colour – Black, brown, bay or grey. No good stallion should be splashed with large white patches over the body. He should not be roan or chestnut.
Height – Minimum 16.2 hands and upwards. Average about 17.2 hands.
Head – Long and lean, neither too large nor too small, with long neck in proportion to the body. Large jaw-bone should be avoided.
Nose – Nostrils thin and wide; lips together and slightly Roman.
Eyes – Large, well set and docile in expression. Wall eye to be avoided if possible.
Ears – Long, lean, sharp and sensitive. Throat – Clean-cut and lean.
Shoulder – Deep and oblique, wide enough to support the collar.
Neck – Long, slightly arched, well set on to give the horse a commanding appearance.
Girth – The girth varies from 6 feet to 8 feet in stallions of from 16.2 to 18 hands.
Back – Short, strong and muscular. Should not be dipped or roached.
Loins – Standing well up, denoting constitution. Must not be flat.
Fore-end – Wide across the chest, with legs well under the body and well enveloped in muscle, or action is impeded.
Hindquarters – Long and sweeping, wide and full of muscle, well let down towards the thighs.
Ribs – Round, deep and well sprung, not flat.
Forelongs – Should be as straight as possible down to pastern.
Hindlegs – Hooks should not be too far back and in line with the hindquarters, with ample width broadside and narrow in front. “Puffy’ and “sickle” hocks should be avoided. The leg sinews should be clean-cut and hard like fine cords to touch, and clear of short cannonbone.
Bone Measurement – Of flat bone, 11 is ample, although occasionally 12 1/2 inches is recorded – flat bone, i.e. heavier and stronger than pongy bone. Hocks must be broad, deep and flat, and set at the correct angle for leverage.
Feet – Deep, solid and wide, with thick, open walls. Coronets should be hard and sinewy with substance.
Hair – Not too much; fine, straight and silky.
A good Shire stallion should stand from 16.2 hands upwards and weigh from 18 cwt to 22 cwt when matured, without being overdone in condition. He should possess a masculine head and a good crest with sloping, not upright, shoulders running well into the back, which should be short and well coupled with the loins.
The tail should be well set up and not what is known as “goose-rumped”. Both head and tail should be carried erect. The ribs should be well-sprung, not flat-sided, with good middle, which generally denotes good constitution. A stallion should have good feet and joints; the feet should be wide and big around the top of the coronets with sufficient length in the pasterns. When in motion he should go with force, using both knees and hocks, which latter should be kept close together; he should go straight and true before and behind.
A good Shire stallion should have strong character.
MODIFICATION OR VARIATION OF STALLION STANDARD OF POINTS FOR MARES
Colour – Black, brown, bay, grey, roan and chestnut.
Height – 16 hands upwards.
Head – Long and lean, neither too large nor too small; long neck in proportion to the body, but of feminine appearance.
Neck – Long and slightly arched, and not of masculine appearance.
Girth – 5 feet to 7 feet (mature), according to size and age of animal.
Back – Strong, and in some instances longer than a male.
Legs – Short, with short cannons.
Bone Measurement – 9 to 11 inches of flat bone, with clean-cut sinews.
A mare should be on the quality side, long and deep, with free action, of a feminine and matronly appearance, standing from 16 hands and upwards, on short legs; she should have plenty of room to carry her foal.
MODIFICATION OR VARIATION OF STALLION STANDARD OF POINTS FOR GELDINGS
Colour – As for mares.
Height – 16.2 hands and upwards.
Girth – From 6 feet to 7 feet 6 inches.
Bone Measurement – 10 to 11 inches under knee, slightly more under hock and broadside on, of flat hard quality.
A gelding should be upstanding, thick, well-balanced, very active and a gay mover; he should be full of courage and should look like, and be able to do, a full day’s work. Geldings weigh from 17 to 22 cwt.
Outside of East Anglia and the Fens and a few of the northernmost counties, the Shire horse was, until superseded by the tractor, supreme as the recognized power unit of English farms. For most of England, Shire horse and cart-horse were indeed synonyms.
Writing in 1947 Mr. A. G. Holland said that 90% of the heavy horses in the London Cart Horse Parade (then held on Whit Monday) were Shires. In 1974 the proportion was around 80%. The preponderance reflects the status of the Shire in the country as a whole.
Showing began almost as soon as the Society was founded, the first of its annual Spring Shows being held in the Royal Agricultural Hall at Islington in 1880, when 114 animals were exhibited. The champion on that occasion was a magnificent stallion, Admiral 71, who was exported to Australia and sold there for the unprecedented price of £1,500. He was the son of another famous stallion who left his mark on the breed, Honest Tom, who had 58 sons and 51 daughters recorded in the Society’s stud book. Harold, a Derbyshire Shire who won the championship in 1887, went on to head the list of winning sires for ten successive years, from 1893 to 1902.
These were years in which the Society was building up an impressive export trade, which hit a peak in 1888, when no fewer than 1,400 pedigree export certificates were issued. Most of the animals went to the U.S.A. and Canada, where horses were in strong demand with the opening-up of the prairies, but Australia, South America, Germany and Russia were also big customers.
The Shire was found to be the ideal multi-purpose animal. It offered everything but speed. It had strength, stamina, adaptability and docility. The last is one of its most important qualities. When not required to exert its enormous power it will stand quietly. It is extraordinarily patient, which makes it ideal for city work, for it can be trusted to wait, immobile, while waggons are being unloaded and deliveries made. Critics, of course, say that as soon as it stops moving it drops off to sleep!
Tales are told of the Shire’s prodigious strength. The official brochure of the Shire Horse Society contains an oft-repeated story of how “at one London Show, weight-pulling tests were arranged to take place on granite setts, on tan, and on wooden blocks. These tests saw two Shire geldings, yoked tandem-fashion, and on wet, slippery granite setts, move off with 18 1/2 tons behind them, the shaft horse moving the load before the trace horse had got into his collar. Six tons were moved on the tan, and 16 1/2 tons on the wooden blocks. They also pulled against a dynamometer at the Wembley Exhibition. The maximum of the dynamometer was registered, and the pull exerted was considered equal to a starting load of 50 tons.”
I am reminded of a popular “tall story” which had wide circulation in Wiltshire and Hampshire when I was a boy.
A carter with two Shire horses went into a wood to draw out a timber carriage on which was loaded a giant tree-trunk. He had just hitched the horses to the carriage when a thunderstorm broke, and he took what shelter he could find underneath the carriage. When he emerged he realized that the rain had so saturated the ground that moving the heavy load was going to be extremely difficult. However, he decided to try. Going to the horses’ heads he started to urge them on. The horses took the strain on their collars and bent to the task. They began to move forward.
“Up there, Major! Gee up, Captain!” shouted the carter, and so continued all the way out of the wood, along the lane and into the village.
So preoccupied was he with his exhortations that he failed to look behind to see what was happening to the timber-carriage. When eventually he did so, having arrived in the middle of the Village, the carriage was nowhere in sight. All he could see were the leather traces, stretching like ropes of elastic down the village street and disappearing in the direction of the wood. What had happened was immediately clear to him. The leather, soaked by the rain, had stretched under the immense strain imposed by the horses, and the carriage must be still stuck fast in the mud.
“Be danged if I ever seed anything like this afore,” he said, scratching his head. “I must go home and think about it whiles I has me dinner.”
So he unhitched the horses and took them off to water, tying the ends of the traces to the church gate-posts.
During the dinner hour the sun came out and burned down fiercely, as it often does after a thunderstorm. When the carter came back after dinner, there was the timber-carriage, drawn up by the church gate. In the hot sunshine the traces had shrunk to their normal length and brought the timber-carriage home!
Exaggerated though the yarn is, it does draw attention to the phenomenal prowess of Shires in forest work. It was for this purpose, as well as for farm work on the prairies, that many of them were exported to America and Canada in the last two or three decades of the nineteenth century. And Shires are still much in demand in modern forests. They can go into fastnesses where even crawler tractors are at a disadvantage.
The fortunes of the Shire breed of horses, after sinking to a very low ebb in the 1950s and 1960s, are now on the upgrade. Those enthusiasts who kept the breed going, refusing to be daunted by the apparently complete triumph of the tractor, are now reaping their reward.