Learn About the Shire Horse Breed

Shire Horse Profile

Shire Horse
A Shire Horse, off duty from his usual work. Getty Images

Shire Horses are very tall and have held records for being the strongest horses and the largest. In the days when horses were used as draft animals, they were well known for their immense pulling power. That real horsepower is no longer used has put the Shire Horse on the list of endangered livestock breeds in the UK,  USA and Canada. In Canada, it is estimated that there are less than one hundred individuals, and the breed is on the “critical list” of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Body Type:

It would be easy to confuse the Shire Horse with the Clydesdale. The head is longer and narrower in profile, with a smaller cheekbone. The nose is slightly Roman. The neck is long, arched and set high. The back is short, and the shoulders and chest are powerful and muscular. The hindquarters are not quite as bulky as a Clydesdale, but nevertheless, powerful and well muscled. Overall, the Shire Horse has a commanding and powerful presence.

Average Size:

The Shire Horse is the tallest breed, with the breed standard requiring individuals to be at least 16.2 HH. The average is 17.1 HH, and stallions may reach up to 17.2 HH.

Uses:

The Shire Horse was extensively used to pull carts of ale from breweries to public houses. Before WW1, they were widely used as farm horses, pulling wagons and working agricultural fields. When coal was a major source of heat and light, Shires were employed pulling enormous coal wagons over the rough roads.

Today the Shire is still popular for pulling vehicles for showing and pleasure driving. They are an environmentally friendly alternative to tractors on small farms, pulling sight-seeing wagons and logging. And of course, they are a popular promotional tool for modern-day brewers, some of whom are again making deliveries by horse and wagon.

They are also used as riding horses.

Color and Markings:

Shire Horses come in black, bay, gray and chestnut or sorrel (chestnut colors are not allowed in the UK). The American breed standard states the "roans, and excessive white markings are undesirable." Like Clydesdales, Shire Horses have feathering, long strands of hair below, the knees and hawks. This feathering should be fine and silky, and not overly thick.

History and Origins:

Shires are named for the shires of the countryside where the breed developed. It is thought that the British ‘Great Horse’ used for war horses, is an ancestor of the Shire. The descendants of the Great Horse may have been out-crossed with Friesians and other breeds and developed as the Old English Black Horse. The Packington Blind Horse, a stallion which lived in the late 1170s, is regarded as a foundation sire of the Shire horse breed. The Shire Horse Society, first called the English Cart Horse Society, was formed in 1878.

Unique Characteristics:

The most outstanding characteristic of the Shire Horse is its height. The breed is also known for its easy-going temperament. They are extremely strong. One pair of Shires in the 1920s pulled a load of over forty-five tons.

The exact weight of the load could not be determined because the weight exceeded the measuring tool’s reading capacity.

Shire Horse Champions and Celebrities:

For many years, until his death in 2001, a Shire Horse gelding named Goliath was the Guinness Book of World Records record-holder for the world's tallest horse. He stood at over 19 HH. The world’s largest horse may have been  a Shire named Mammoth, born in 1848. He stood 21.2 hands high and weighed an estimated 3,300 lbs (1500 kg).

Shire Horses are very tall and have held records for being the strongest horses and the largest. In the days when horses were used as draft animals, they were well known for their immense pulling power. That real horsepower is no longer used has put the Shire Horse on the list of endangered livestock breeds in the UK, USA and Canada.

In Canada, it is estimated that there are less than one hundred individuals, and the breed is on the “critical list” of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Body Type:

It would be easy to confuse the Shire Horse with the Clydesdale. The head is longer and narrower in profile, with a smaller cheekbone. The nose is slightly Roman. The neck is long, arched and set high. The back is short, and the shoulders and chest are powerful and muscular. The hindquarters are not quite as bulky as a Clydesdale, but nevertheless, powerful and well muscled. Overall, the Shire Horse has a commanding and powerful presence.

Average Size:

The Shire Horse is the tallest breed, with the breed standard requiring individuals to be at least 16.2 HH. The average is 17.1 HH, and stallions may reach up to 17.2 HH.

Uses:

The Shire Horse was extensively used to pull carts of ale from breweries to public houses. Before WW1, they were widely used as farm horses, pulling wagons and working agricultural fields. When coal was a major source of heat and light, Shires were employed pulling enormous coal wagons over the rough roads. Today the Shire is still popular for pulling vehicles for showing and pleasure driving. They are an environmentally friendly alternative to tractors on small farms, pulling sight-seeing wagons and logging. And of course, they are a popular promotional tool for modern-day brewers, some of whom are again making deliveries by horse and wagon. They are also used as riding horses.

Color and Markings:

Shire Horses come in black, bay, gray and chestnut or sorrel (chestnut colors are not allowed in the UK). The American breed standard states the "roans, and excessive white markings are undesirable." Like Clydesdales, Shire Horses have feathering, long strands of hair below, the knees and hawks. This feathering should be fine and silky, and not overly thick.

History and Origins:

Shires are named for the shires of the countryside where the breed developed. It is thought that the British ‘Great Horse’ used for war horses, is an ancestor of the Shire.

The descendants of the Great Horse may have been out-crossed with Friesians and other breeds and developed as the Old English Black Horse. The Packington Blind Horse, a stallion which lived in the late 1170s, is regarded as a foundation sire of the Shire horse breed. The Shire Horse Society, first called the English Cart Horse Society, was formed in 1878.

Unique Characteristics:

The most outstanding characteristic of the Shire Horse is its height. The breed is also known for its easy-going temperament. They are extremely strong. One pair of Shires in the 1920s pulled a load of over forty-five tons. The exact weight of the load could not be determined because the weight exceeded the measuring tool’s reading capacity.

Shire Horse Champions and Celebrities:

For many years, until his death in 2001, a Shire Horse gelding named Goliath was the Guinness Book of World Records record-holder for the world's tallest horse. He stood at over 19 HH. The world’s largest horse may have been a Shire named Mammoth, born in 1848. He stood 21.2 hands high and weighed an estimated 3,300 lbs (1500 kg).