The Shire can trace its roots back hundreds of years. In the period between the reign of Henry II and that of Elizabeth, 1154-1558, it seems to have been a constant aim of the English government to increase the size and number of horses called "The Great Horse." Little wonder - the weight of many horse soldiers in armor was upwards to 400 lbs. for rider and armor.
During the reign of King John, from 1199 to 1216, 100 stallions were imported from Holland. These horses were described as having black and white markings on the face and feet, a tall stature, and long hair "feathering" on the limbs. It is from that blending some 800 years ago of these animals with English horses that some strains, at least, of England's heavy horses must date their origin.
Later, during the reign of Henry VIII from 1509 to 1547, special attention was directed to the raising and breeding of strong horses. Several laws were passed with that in mind. Acts were passed in 1535 and 1541 forbidding the use for breeding of horses under 15 hands in height, and also prohibiting all exportation, even into Scotland.
If The Great Horse was useful in war, he proved to be even more so in peace. The Shire became a national treasure in the 1800s, prized for their use in agriculture. Big Shire geldings moved the commerce off the docks and through the city streets over badly-paved and rough roads. There was a dependable and extensive demand for massive horses with great muscular strength.
Shire horses quickly spread across England. They did, however, differ from place to place. The Shires coming out of their historic home, the fenlands of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, tended to have more bone and hair than those of their neighbors. Yorkshire and Lancashire, for instance, were noted for horses of a finer texture and more endurance. The rugged demands of the Liverpool market, where thousands of stout geldings were used, certainly contributed to correct type, soundness, and great strength in the case of northern breeders - as London did to the south.
The Shire today is used in many facets of life across America and the world. The versatility and disposition of the Shire lends the breed to be very versatile in the modern horse world. The breed has made a big mark in the horse industry as a pleasure horse - not only in harness, but also under saddle. The heavy horse of the past is now working in dressage, western pleasure, trail competitions, and even jumping and reining. If you can do it on a light horse, horse owners today are doing it on the Shire at some level. The Shire is still working as a work horse in pulling contests and farm fields across the country, as well as in the show ring in the fancy six-horse hitches and halter classes.
The amazing Shire Sport Horse has become more popular in the past 20 years since its induction into the Shire Studbook in the 1990s. A Shire Sport Horse is half Shire, half light horse. These horses are often seen participating in eventing, dressage, trail rides, jumping, and general horse events. The most common crosses are with Thoroughbreds or Quarter Horses.
For additional information, contact:
American Shire Horse Association
PO Box 339
Fredrickstown, OH 43019