Historical Development of the Shire
by Mike Leach
Editors Note: This essay was prepared by Mike for the course "Introduction to the Horse Industry", at the University of Guelph, October 1996. Our thanks to Mike for allowing us to reprint it.
The Shire is a breed of horse that originated from the central regions of England. It has had many names associated with it such as the Great Horse, Giant Horse of Lincolnshire, War Horse, English Cart Horse, and Large Black English Horse. Most of these horses contributed to the make-up of the Shire but did not show the actual traits of the breed today. The traditional Shire today can be black, bay, brown, or grey in colour. Any horse that is roan, chestnut or splashed with white is not considered a true Shire. They are on average 16.2 - 17.2 hands for stallions although the tallest horse on record is a Shire at approximately 19 hands. These horses were bred for size early on for work and war, but the Shire today is a more refined horse with fine feather on their feet.
The Shire's history in England is not as cut and dry as many tend to believe. It did not have direct ancestry until the mid to late 18th century. Up to this point the history and development of the breed could be characterized as a little sketchy. The earliest suggested ancestor of the Shire was the English War Horse used for jousting and cavalry purposes. These horses had size but did not have the traditional characteristics of the Shire today. The first name associated with the importation of these Great Continental Stallions to Britain was Robert de Belleme. After Belleme was turned out by Henry I, horses flooded England from all over. It soon became policy for the country's leader to increase breeding stock. Henry II, Edward II, and Edward III all made strides to increase the population of these Great Horses. Edward II went as far as to make it illegal to export any horses to Scotland or to sell a horse to a scottish person. He believed this would enhance their own breed ahead of the rest.
Henry VII enacted legislation prohibiting the exportation of any stallions or mares outside the country. Henry VIII, who followed his father's lead, enacted a considerable amount of legislation in the later years of his reign. He made his father's exportation law a felony with a fine of forty pounds. He also made attempts to improve breeding by forcing people to keep brood mares on their property. It was said "any owner of an enclosed deer park with a circumference of one mile was required, from 1st May 1537, to keep two brood mares of thirteen hands at least: in a park with a circumference of four miles or more, four such mares had to be kept." (The Shire Horse) Acts were continually passed throughout history to promote the breeding of the Great Horse.
When the invention of gun powder came along the all mighty War Horse was not as valuable to the army. The cavalry wanted smaller, much faster horses to ride into battle. The Great Horse was now turned out to pasture and to work on the farms. The number of horses declined in this period, but the farmers were still breeding the remaining animals for size. Many believe this is where the Shire was really bred from and not the War Horse. It is said that these work horses were bred from the horses of the Flanders and the smaller black Friesians. It was not until the Black English Cart Horse became popular in the 18th century that history becomes much clearer.
Some argue that the Packington village descendants were the most influential horses to the development of the Shire. The earliest recorded stallion was a black horse, born in 1755, by the name of Packington Blind Horse. Packington Blind Horse serviced mares in Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire, where seven generations can be traced. The early Shires were thick, powerful animals which commonly had tufts of hair on their knees and upper lip. Although size and power were obviously desirable traits, improvement of quality and conformation were a new challenge. Robert Bakewell (1726-1795) was one of the foremost breeders of his time. Bakewell showed a considerable interest in long-horn cattle and later in the Shire. Bakewell at his home in Dishly, Leicestershire began to breed the Shire and improve the breed. Close breeding and inbreeding were commonly used to develop close characteristics in the horses. Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire right in the heart of England soon became favoured for breeding.
By the mid-1800's the Shire breed was blooming and great stallions were being established. Many Shire people believe that Lincolnshire Lad, foaled 1865 and bred in Norfolk, was the greatest sire up to his time. Most of his reputation comes from the good breeding of his son Lincolnshire Lad II, foaled in 1872. He soon surpassed his father's breeding and had offspring that were winners in the show ring. The most well known of these offspring was Harold, foaled 1881 and champion at London in 1887.
During these years of great breeding, there was a need to organize the breed as its own. In 1878 the English Cart Horse Society was formed to improve and promote the breed. After 1878 matters seemed to improve for the breed, the English Cart Horse Stud book was advocated by Frederick Street. It was not until 1880 that the first copy of the stud book was actually published, with three hundred and seventy six entries. In 1884 the Society decided to change its name to the Shire Horse Society, which it remains today. By 1890 the first Shire Horse Show was conducted at the Royal Agricultural Hall at Islington. The Shire's popularity continued to grow in England, and by 1905 there were three thousand, seven hundred and eighty one entries in the stud book.
The new found popularity for the Shire was not only in England, but had spread to America. There had been importing of Shires since the mid to late 1800's. Mr. Strickland of Aurora, Illinois, imported a stallion direct from England named John Bull in 1853. There is also record of a stallion named Columbus with a wealth of hair or "feathers" that arrived in Massachusetts in 1844. In the 1880's J.H. Truman started importing large numbers of Shires to the United States. Truman was originally from Cambridgeshire, and brought his love for the breed to America. He held his first auction of Shires in 1882 in Chicago, Illinois. The American Shire Horse Association was formed not long after in 1885, and started their own stud book. Between 1900 and 1918 almost four thousand Shires were imported to the United States. Forshaw's of Nottinghamshire were the main exporter of these Shires. The Shire breed became so popular, in 1971 the National Brewing Company of Baltimore assembled an eight horse hitch of Shires for publicity purposes. This eight-up travelled to two hundred and seventy-three parades between 1971 and 1973 promoting the company and the breed.
The Shire started out in Canada at roughly the same time as it did in the United States. The information before 1850 is sketchy, but there was a stallion named Tamworth described as a Shire that was brought to Canada by British troops in 1836. The highest point of importation of the breed was between 1875 and 1910. In 1888 the Canadian Shire Horse Association was born. The first stud book was published in 1901 with three hundred and twenty stallions and one hundred and fifty-five mares. This stud book would be one of only three published, the others being published in 1909 and 1914. J.H. Truman from the U.S. opened a stable in Brandon to open up sales in western Canada. In 1903 the farm created an impression at the Western fairs with two stallions, Prince Shapely and Gore's Best. The interest in the East was led by J.M. Gardhouse and the firm, Morris & amp; Wellington of Fonthill, Ontario. Wellington was recorded as the president of the association and J.M. Gardhouse was the vice president in the original stud book. A more historical moment was a shipment of two stallions and three mares to Canada from the Shire Horse Society in England. One of the stallions in this shipment was Marden Jupiter who in 1924 was champion of his breed at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and the Chicago International Fat Stock Show. These horses were placed at Dominion Experimental Station, Lacombe, Alberta. This excitement soon died, and by 1941 the CSHA ceased to exist and Canadian Livestock Records assumed responsibility of all new records. In 1983 there had been no new additions to the records; the Shire breed had died off in Canada. Although, in 1981 there were two imports from England, one by Ferdnand Barsalou of Quebec and the other by Blake and Fran Anderson of Alberta. The American bred mare of Cliff Kelsey of Winterburn, Alberta had the first pure bred Shire foal in forty years. In 1984, eleven new entries were made into the stud book, and twenty five more in 1985. The CSHA was reformed and the stud book was started again in 1989 by the Association.
Today the Shire horse is flourishing in many areas of the world. There are horses in Germany, France, Australia, Italy, and South Africa not to mention many other countries. Some of these areas have a small population of horses, but the breed has grown over time. There are approximately three thousand Shires in England and one thousand in the U.S. presently. As for Canada the population has grown to one hundred and thirty horses with forty-three Canadian voting members and twenty-two associate members. The popularity of the Shire has begun to grow, and they have their own classes at many of the larger shows. The National Show rotates each year between the Calgary Stampede and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. The Shire is still one of the major breeds in Great Britain and will probably remain so for many years.
Updated: February 21,2002