Shire Horses: Gentle Giants
Only 40 years ago, before farms were fully mechanised, heavy horses were a common sight in the countryside, working in the fields and pulling carts.
Today, they no longer play this vital role on our farms, but they still have specialised uses.
Heavy horses were the backbone of British agriculture during the 18th and 19th centuries, and continued to play an important role in farming during the first half of this century. After World War II they became virtually redundant and during the next 20 years seemed to be on the brink of extinction.
Since the mid-1960s, however, there has been a small revival in the fortunes of the heavy horse breeds. On some farms they have found a new role using modern purpose-built machinery which makes the horse more efficient. In forestry work, their adaptability to different conditions gives them certain advantages over machines. They have also continued to be used by the breweries for local deliveries.
Records are only kept of breeding animals, and therefore exclude geldings, but they still give an idea of the numbers of heavy horses in Britain today. The number of female Shires is now greater than 1500, compared with about 600 Clydesdales and 100 Suffolk Punches. The Shire is therefore maintaining its reputation as the most popular of the breeds.
Our heavy horses may all be descended from the Mosbach horse, also known as the Great Horse of Europe. This horse lived in the woods and marshes of the Rhineland some 400,000 years ago and survived through four Ice Ages.
The Suffolk Punch is descended from the war-horses brought over in the Norman invasion of 1066. It originated in the eastern part of England and, even in the 16th century, was referred to as the old breed’. Today, all members of the breed trace their descent in direct male line to one stallion, Crisp’s Horse, which was foaled in 1760.
The Suffolk is renowned for its efficiency and courage in harness. In weight-pulling contests—once a popular rural pastime in East Anglia—teams of horses were matched against each other and required to pull excessive loads. While horses of other breeds sometimes quit the contest, the Suffolk would never admit defeat, and many horses were maimed as a result. The Suffolk was also in great demand to haul gun carriages in World War I, when its staunchness and ability to tolerate mud, exposure and poor feeding were invaluable.
The Shire is probably the heaviest of the breeds. The average weight of a working Shire is 940kg (2070lb); of a show Shire, 1100kg (2420lb).
This breed resulted from successive importations of Flemish horses in the 13th and 14th centuries which were cross-bred with the existing Norman strains. The Shire mainly evolved in the counties of Lincolnshire, Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire. Although black, brown, grey and bay are the usual colours, piebald and skewbald animals have been recorded by the Breed Society which was formed in 1878.
The influence of the showring has resulted in an abundance of long hair (feather) below the Shire’s knee and hock, at the beck and sides of the legs. This feature was taken to extremes between the two World Wars, after which time some Clydesdale blood was introduced to reduce the amount of feather on the legs. Hairy legs can actually be a serious disadvantage in horses which must work in mud or ploughland.
The Clydesdale was established during the first half of the 18th century, following the importation of a black Flemish stallion in 1715. It is a combination of this heavy imported stock and the hardy breed from Lanarkshire. At various stages of its development, crosses of the Shire and, to a limited extent, the Cleveland Bay have been made. Today, most Clydesdales trace back to a stallion named Glancer which was foaled in 1810.
The build of the Clydesdale contrasts markedly with that of the Suffolk Punch. It is also quite distinct from that of the Shire, despite the frequent exchange of blood between the two breeds. The Clydesdale lacks the sheer bulk of the Shire but has greater speed and agility.
The Percheron is the fourth major breed of heavy horse found in Britain. It originated in France, south-west of Paris, about 170 years ago, and was first imported into this country in 1916. The breed is noted for its hard hooves, developed to cope with the stone-block roads found in its native region.
Another French breed which has more recently been imported into this country is the Ardennes. Of all the breeds, it is probably the nearest direct descendant of the old Mosbach horse. It is relatively small, standing 15.3 to 16 hands, and has an easy, rapid action and gentle temperament. One of the commonest colours is sorrel (light reddish-brown).
Much of the credit for the survival and subsequent revival of heavy horses must be taken by the breweries. Their association with the heavy horse dates back at least three centuries.
The Ram Brewery at Wandsworth, now owned by Young and Company, dates from 1675. It has black Shires, Percherons and Suffolk Punches, and more than 20 horses deliver 10,000 tons of beer each year. Courage originally used Clydesdales. They have now changed to Shires, which are employed for publicity, not delivery. In 1975, the Courage Shire Horse Centre was opened to the public in Littlewick Green, Berkshire, and attracted 80,000 visitors in the first year.
Although sentiment plays a part in the revival of the heavy breeds, commercial considerations have not been ignored. Costings showed that horses were more economical than mechanised transport for deliveries within a radius of two miles from the brewery.
Back on the farm
The rising cost of tractors and other machinery has stimulated renewed interest in heavy horses for use in farming and forestry. The efficient working life of a tractor is about 4000 hours (four or five years), but a heavy horse can work for 10 to 14 years. Even more important, tractors are dependent on a limited and vulnerable source of energy, while horses can be maintained within a self-sufficient farming unit.
Horses are ideal for tasks such as light cultivation, or carting fodder to outdoor livestock. On some farms, such as Hasholme Carr in Humberside which is farmed by Geoffrey Morton, heavy horses do all the work. In forestry, they are useful for haulage on rough and heavily wooded ground.
Care of the horse
The amount of food a heavy horse is given is determined by the type and duration of its work. A typical winter ration for a horse doing medium work is about 5.5kg (12lb) oats and 7.25kg (16lb) soft meadow hay per day. The ration has to be adjusted to keep the animal in fit but not fat condition. Water is given before food, but is restricted when the horse is hot after heavy work. During the winter horses are stabled, but in summer they are usually turned out to grass at night.
Breeding mares are also used as working horses. Work keeps them fit and in good condition for breeding, and they stay in the work teams except for a short period when they are suckling their foals. The foals may be broken in at two or three years, but cannot start working until four years old.
After its useful working life is over, a heavy horse is usually retired to a farm where it can spend its remaining days in comfort and well-earned rest. Lifespans vary considerably, and some horses live longer than 30 years.