Shire horses are a heavy draft breed. They are generally described as being cold-blooded, which means they have a personality that is inclined to want to work. They are generally described as being a docile breed, being both calm and patient in most circumstances. This makes them an exceptional horse for general work purposes and for recreational riding, even though many of them stand up to 19 hands.
Shires originated in England. Their foundation, like most heavy draft horses, is believed to go back to the Destriers. Called the “Great Horse,” the calm disposition of this large horse, along with its ability to not spook easily, made it an attractive war horse for the armies of Medieval Europe.
Over time, as conflicts subsided, the heavy nature of the Shire made it an attractive investment for farmers and those in agricultural work. One Shire could pull a plow, take the family to town, and perform a wide range of jobs. They were often considered to be part of the family, with some even getting to live in the home with their owners. This led to the development of a close relationship between this breed and humanity which still exists today.
How Has the Shire Evolved Over the Last Century?
The last century has brought about several incredible technological changes. We’ve gone from using horses for carriage work and driving to driving automobiles. Farmers use tractors instead of horse-drawn plows. Lumberjacks have heavy equipment to haul logs now instead of relying on the strength of a Shire.
These changes have threatened all the heavy draft breeds, including the Shire. This has led breeders to work on refining the breed so that it can be adapted to the modern world. There is still a need for a work horse, especially in difficult areas where mechanized equipment cannot go, but those areas are growing fewer with each passing year.
Today’s Shire has had Clydesdale influences to help it become taller and improve the quality of the feathering. There has been an emphasis to include show ring qualities with this breed as well, including hock action, knee action, and added height.
Yet the Shire horse temperaments have remained virtually the same throughout the entire improvement process. It is still a calm and gentle breed. There will always be individualistic exceptions to that rule, of course, but in general terms, the Shire is an excellent family horse that is ready and willing to put in a good day of work.
What to Expect with a Shire Horse
The Shire is one of the largest heavy draft breeds in the world today. Several Shire horses have been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest horse in the world. One of them is a horse named Sovereign. In 2013, he was measured at just over 20 hands, making him the tallest horse in the country and competitive with the world record holder.
Sovereign is just 0.75 inches shorter than the current world record holder. Because Shires can keep growing well after their seventh birthday, there is always a chance that a new record holder could be crowned.
Despite this propensity for size, breeders are seeking to create horse that are even bigger. The goal is to create horses that have a gentle disposition, but an imposing presence, so that the best of both worlds can be obtained. You have a massive horse that is friendly and gentle, but will also be very difficult to ignore because of its size.
This size gives the Shire an incredible pulling strength. A team of Shire horses has the potential to pull several tons of weight. Assuming both horses are around 1.25 tons in weight, it is possible for a team to pull over 10 tons over a lengthy distance.
Part of the reason why this pulling strength exists is because the physical makeup of the horse. Shires have wide shoulders and a long neck for a draft horse, which gives them some added leverage when it comes to driving. Their legs are muscular and very clean. Their hocks are set in such a way that they can achieve maximum leverage, especially with their hooves that are oversized and round.
Don’t Be Fooled by an Easy-Going Shire Horse
Shires are known for being easy-going horses. They take life in stride and offer respect before receiving it. Many refer to them as “gentle giants.” The respect that they offer, however, does have its limits.
Shires have a desire to understand what it is that they are doing. They’ll respond to commands because they trust their owners or handlers, but at some point, they also wish to understand why the command is being issued in the first place. Without this information, you can find a Shire can become very stubborn.
Unlike other horse breeds that become stubborn when they sense a perceived lack of respect, there is rarely any aggression that comes from a Shire. This breed uses its size to its advantage. You’re not going to force a 3,000-pound horse to go anywhere or do anything it has decided that it doesn’t want to do. Shires tend to stand still and refuse, putting the onus on the owner to provide an explanation.
And they might not choose to move unless that explanation is received or there is a treat sensed somewhere.
Because Shires are not easily spooked, it can be difficult to overcome this form of stubbornness as well. The goal that most Shire horses have is to be a faithful companion. They are generally well-mannered and work hard, but they will not put up with an owner who doesn’t offer respect in return.
Shire horses are very hardy as well, partially due to their size, but their coat helps a lot as well. They can handle harsh environments, the cold in particular, and they don’t mind being asked to work in difficult locations, like a wetland lumber harvest.
The feathering on a Shire has improved over the past few generations, but moisture and debris still tends to get caught in this part of the coat. Unless addressed, this moisture and debris can affect the integrity of the skin. Shires are stoic horses, but they will show discomfort in this circumstance and may become fidgety or show irritation in other ways.
The Shire horse temperament is one that is highly coveted by horse owners around the world. With the desire to work that only a cold-blooded breed can provide, these calm horses provide a wonderful addition to any family. They are loyal, protective, and willing to do what it takes to maintain a relationship.