About Shires

The Shire Horse originated in England and is one of the oldest and largest breeds of draught horse. Shires are descendants of the ‘great horses’ of mediaeval times and are known for their versatility, size and temperament. In years gone by Shires have been used as war mounts, dock and rail workers, agricultural assistants and even brewery delivery teams.

Today, Shires are most commonly owned by those keen to preserve this magnificent breed and as such can be seen doing all manner of things. Some compete in agricultural skills tests like obstacle driving, log ‘snigging’, driving with a slide and ploughing. Others enjoy driving in carts, both for promotional purposes and shows. Still others delight in riding their Shire horses, both at home and in the show ring. There are Shires being used as wedding horses that pull beautiful vehicles for the bride and groom to travel in. Even the traditional role of the Shire as a brewery delivery horse is still used by breweries as a promotional tool. Whatever the activity, Shires consistently demonstrate their versatility, intelligence and temperament.

Modern Shire horses generally stand between 16 – 18 hands and weigh up to 1000 kilograms. They can be bay, black, brown or grey and generally have white markings on the legs and face. Shires are strong, big-barrelled horses with large, deep shoulders and a broad chest. Their hind legs are set close together to provide the power they need to pull heavy loads. They have long legs, large hooves and plenty of feather around the hoof. A Shire’s eyes are wide-set and expressive and the nose is often convex (‘Roman’). Despite their size and strength Shire horses are extremely willing and gentle.


Excerpt from the Shire Horse Society (UK)…

Because Shire Horses are so calm and placid, we do not think that they would be good in wars. However, it is because of war that the Shire horse came into being.

Native British horses were quite small and light, like the ponies you can still see in wild in places like the New Forest, Dartmoor and Exmoor. When knights started wearing heavy suits of armour the horses were unable to carry them. Heavier breeds from the Continent (especially Holland, Germany and Flanders in modern day Belgium) were introduced to Britain and the Great Horse (also known as the War Horse) first came into being.

Eventually warfare changed and soldiers no longer wore heavy suits of armour, but this did not mean that the Great Horse was no longer needed. It was soon recognised that their great strength and placid nature would make them useful on the farm and for pulling heavy loads.

They soon took over the jobs previously done by oxen on farms, such as ploughing. Horses were faster and more intelligent than oxen and could also work in forestry. The Industrial Revolution saw the construction of a nationwide system of canals which enabled heavy loads to be transported long distances. The Shire was the ideal horse to use, towing the barges along the canals. They were also used to haul large wagons, drays, omnibuses and trams.

Although the Shire might now seem to us most at home in the fields, it must not be forgotten that up until the last half of the twentieth century, the horse was also the main urban means of transport, too.

The rise of urban living throughout history has always fuelled a demand for goods from the countryside. The coming of the railways is often thought to have signalled the beginning of the decline in horse-drawn traffic, but in fact horses were in great demand for transporting goods to and from the railway yards. In fact, in 1893, the railway companies ‘collecting and delivering goods to the metropolis have amongst them a stud of 6,000 (horses).’ These horses would have need to be capable of pulling large loads and so would have been Shires or a similar breed. Carrier firms had around 19,000 horses in London alone, while the Capital’s rubbish collection would have employed another 1,500 horses, all of whom would have been draught breeds.

Also in 1893 it was estimated that London’s brewers used around 3,000 horses, many of which were Shires. Indeed, some brewers still use Shires today, not only for promotional purposes, but also for local deliveries.

The transportation of coal, the vital source of heating and cooking fuel, had to be done by horses, and with wagons weighing up to 3 tons, this was definitely a job for the heavies!

Soon however, technology developed and the need for the horse declined. The first blow was the rise of the railway, meaning less goods were transported by barge. Then came the tractor, replacing horses on farms. Finally more and more road vehicles were powered by engines and the Shire horse’s days soon seemed numbered.

Shire horse numbers fell from well over a million to just a few thousand by the 1960s and the breed was in serious trouble. A small group of dedicated breeders came to rescue though and the Shire is seeing a resurgence in popularity both as a working animal and a riding horse.

(Original can be found here – www.shire-horse.org.uk/about-us/the-shire-horse)


In the 1800’s and early 1900’s, Shire horses were imported into Australia for both heavy hauling and agricultural work, but there were not enough of them to sustain the breed. By the mid 1920’s they had died out.

In 1981 Helene & Greg Scarf brought the breed back to Australia by importing Shire stallion Ladbrook Edward. The following year, the Scarfs imported three Shire mares with another couple interested in Shire horses, Mike & Barbi Chandler. They’re collectively responsible for the reintroduction of Shires in Australia, importing two stallions and twelve mares between them.

New breeding programs continued to pop up and the Shire has been growing in numbers ever since. Despite a wonderful resurgence of interest, the Shire is still very much a rare breed. In Australia, there are about 350 Shires, only 200 of which are breeding horses.