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The Shire Horse - An Article Written By Chris Anderson For "Genesis", The Newsletter Of Rare Breeds Canada
Historical Development Of The Shire - An Essay Written By Mike Leach For A Course At The University Of Guelph
The following article appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Genesis, the quarterly journal of Rare Breeds Canada. The cover photo was taken by Julie Anderson, and shows "Medwyn and Mallyn", two grey mares formerly owned by Brian & Cher Oates of Nor'wind Edge.The article also appeared in the Fall 2004 issues of Genesis and The Draft Horse Connection.
THE SHIRE HORSE
They are magnificent in appearance; majestic in movement; mild mannered in temperament. They are the Shire horses, the tallest and heaviest breed of horse in the world. Shires are reputed to be the most docile of the draught breeds. Are they really a rarity in Canada? How many are there? Where are they found? To answer these questions, and many others, we must start at the beginning. The breed certainly has a colourful history, ranging from a much-needed animal, to the brink of extinction.
A NOBLE BEGINNING
The history of the Shire horse is hard to pin down. The year 1068 seems to be a good starting point when tracing its background. It was then that it was mentioned being used as a pack animal. The terms ‘War Horse’ or ‘Great Horse’ come to mind when speaking of the Shire, since it is believed by many to be the breed that carried knights into battle. Most Shire people accept that today’s horse is indeed descended from the heavy cob type of about 15.2 hands used in the armies of King Henry II.
It stands to reason that for horses to carry a fully armoured knight weighing in excess of four hundred pounds into battle, an animal with great strength and yet a calm temperament would be required; two characteristics not lost on today’s Shire. Whether for use as a ‘Cart Horse’, as they were also known during this period in history, or as a ‘War Horse’, ‘a hundred stallions of large stature’ were imported to England from the lowlands of Flanders, Holland, and the banks of the Elbe, from 1199 to 1216. It is from this blending, over seven hundred years ago, of these animals with the English breed, that some strains, at least, of our heavy draught horses must be said to date their origin. It was during the reign of Henry VIII that acts to prohibit the breeding of horses under 15 hands were passed, and that the name ‘shire’ as applied to the horse was first used in these statutes. The name came from the Saxon word ‘schyran’ which means to shear, or divide, hence the name shire, which is synonymous with county. It is the counties, or ‘shires’, of the Midlands in England, namely Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Staffordshire, that the horse hails from.
FROM WAR HORSE TO WORK HORSE
Eventually, the ‘Great Horse’ was no longer needed to carry soldiers. The advent of gunpowder meant armour-piercing bullets made the knights of old pass from the battlefield into the history books. The Shire horse was used to pull heavy wagons and coaches. The importation of heavy horses continued, and in the late 1500’s comes an important part of the horse’s history. The Flanders horse, mentioned earlier, can be said to be the heaviest horse of the sixteenth century, and the true ancestor of the modern Shire. Along with their importation to England, came the Almaine, or German draught horse, which had good cart potential, but had no lasting influence. The Friesian horse introduced a refining element and a better, freer movement. These three breeds, and in particular the Flanders and Friesian, when mixed with British horses of the time, produced over many years the Shire as we know it today.
The heavy hair on the Shire feet comes from the time of the Dutch contractors working on draining the Fenlands in England in the seventeenth century. The fens were marshy, swamp land and to clear these areas required massive, wide-hoofed animals. The hair, known as feathers down the back of the leg, and spats over the hoof, evolved so that water ran off of the foot back to the ground. The foundation stallion is generally recognized as the Packington Blind Horse, who stood at Packington, near Ashby de la Zouche, between 1755 and 1770. He appears in the first Shire Stud Book in England because of the large number of horses claimed to be descended from him. Shires were eventually sent to Scotland and breeding there resulted in the familiar Clydesdale. Farming, the pulling of barges and freight wagons seemed to be the Shire’s function. Mechanization came, with trucks and tractors replacing the horse, and their numbers fell drastically. In 1921, over 20,000 Shires were registered in England. Today, it is estimated that less than 5,000 are registered worldwide!
THE SHIRES OF CANADA
Shires were first introduced into Canada as early as 1836. As with the rest of the world, their numbers here declined drastically with the coming of the gasoline engine. By the 1940’s their use in farming and commercial business had all but ceased. Their population here was reduced to near zero. The animals continued to be found here and there throughout Canada, though their numbers were falling off. Indeed, in the early 1960’s, it has been reported that the Shire horse was nearly extinct in this country. The Canadian Shire Horse Association was formed in 1888. Volume 1 of the Stud Book was published in 1901 with 327 stallions and 155 mares. The association became inactive with the Shire decline of the 1930’s and 40’s, with the last Shire registered in 1946. It would be another 37 years before another registration took place and the CSHA became active again. In 1983, registrations at Livestock Records were started again, and a group of Canadian breeders began plans to reinstate the association. Their efforts resulted in the incorporation of the current Canadian Shire Horse Association in 1984, under the Animal Pedigree Act of 1952 as a non-profit organization. In 1988, the Government of Canada passed a new Animal Pedigree Act to regulate the formation and activities of related associations in Canada. The CSHA constitution was rewritten to conform to this Act and to broaden its scope. The constitution now benefits all Shire breeders in Canada, while following the regulations set out by the Canadian Government. As far as their numbers today, since 1989 the Association has registered 158 mares, 43 stallions and 27 geldings.
Membership is open to Breeder members, Associate members, and USA & Overseas members. The association enjoys its annual National Shire Show of Canada, held alternately at the Calgary Stampede in Calgary, Alberta, and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. When not hosting the National Show, the Calgary Stampede is the venue for the Western Regional Shire Show, while the CNE is the home for the Eastern show. Featured are Breeding Classes, Men’s & Ladies Cart Classes, as well as Team, Four Horse and Six Horse hitches. Due to the small numbers of Shire horses here, they are usually judged in with the Clydesdales, something the Shire people would like to change. They would like to get enough numbers to warrant their own classes at fairs and shows. Although they were unable to stage the Eastern Regional Show at the CNE this year, they still managed to have a show at Carp, Ontario. Another big ‘show’ for the Shire horse, is at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair every November in Toronto. The GMC Cavalcade Of Horses area showcases a variety of different breeds, most of which are rarely seen or known to the public. The CSHA is fortunate to have been a part of the Cavalcade for many years. The presence of the Shire horse in the 32’ by 84’ ring always brings applause from the audience. Breeder members come with their horse for two day "shifts", providing the public with information brochures and membership forms. They answer the many questions asked about the breed, and the horse is featured three times a day for a ten minute demonstration in the ring.
Shires are known for their enormous strength and size. Although there may be taller, heavier individual horses out there, as mentioned earlier the breed is generally regarded to be the heaviest and tallest. Their strength is evidenced in the records of 1924 from England. Two eight-year-old Shire geldings named ‘Vesuvius’ and ‘Umber’, were yoked tandem-fashion. On slippery granite setts, they moved off easily with 18 tons 9 ½ cwt, (18.7 tonnes), behind them. The shaft horse started the load before the trace (rear) horse got into his collar!
That same year, another weight-pulling test involving Shires was staged at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The animals’ weight range was 1,708-2,100 lbs. (774-952 kgs.), and this time the horse had to pull against a dynamometer, an instrument for measuring mechanical power, which was attached to an immovable object. One horse, ‘Vulcan’ exerted a pull equal to a starting load of 29 tons (58,000 lbs.), and a pair easily pulled a starting load of 50 tons (100,000 lbs.), the maximum registered on the dynamometer!
As for height, the CSHA has in its possession a letter from Guinness World Records stating the world’s tallest horse was a Shire gelding named Sampson (later re-named Mammoth), foaled in 1846 in Toddington Mills, Bedfordshire, England. By the time he was a four-year old in 1850, he was 21.2 ½ hands tall. Remembering that the withers on a horse is the tallest point at the shoulder, this horse stood 7 feet 2 and one-half inches at the shoulder! His weight was estimated at 3,000 lbs.Today, the Shire horse is based on the following standards of conformation:
Medium size head
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