Shire Horse Facts, Colors & Everything You Need To Know

Did you know that the Shire horse is one of the most majestic and rare breeds in the world?

That’s just the start of how special these horses are.

I wanted to share with you facts about the Shire, so you too can fall in love with them like me.

So let’s get started!

What is a Shire Horse?

shire horse with large built

Did you know that Shire horses are known as Gentle Giants? It is the largest horse breed and despite their size and strength, they are one of the gentlest types of horse.

So, what exactly is a Shire horse and how did the breed develop? The Shire is a type of draft horse. Drafts horses are cold-blooded. They are generally heavier, stronger, and calmer than other breeds.

Shire Horse History

Like many heavy horses, the Shire has ancient roots connected to the medieval Great Horse. Great Horses were war horses used by armored knights who need a horse strong enough to carry up to 400lbs across long distances with ease.

In the 13th century, the English Great Horse was crossed with Flemish stallions and another cross with Friesian horses from the Netherlands occurred in the 16th century. [1]

These crosses resulted in the early version of the Shire, known as the Lincolnshire Black, a horse that was popular for farm work and pulling heavy loads. 

This horse spread out into other English shires, such as Derbyshire and Staffordshire. As you can now see, the name Shire horse comes from where the breed originated, England’s shires.

The 17th century saw the breed explode in popularity. The Packington Blind Horse from the mid-1700s is considered the breed’s foundation sire. [2] From this point it became a highly popular British working horse.

At the start of the 19th, a good breed standard was established and the breed society was formed in 1878.

The peak of the breed’s population occurred in the last 20 years of the 19th century when they were essential for transport and farming.

With the world wars and the coming of mechanical machines for farming and transport the breed suffered severe losses and almost became extinct. 

It is now a rare breed but since the early 1970s efforts were made to protect the Shire and population numbers have slowly improved.

With that said, let’s take a look at the characteristics of the magnificent horse breed.

I found this really cool video, which shows you a short history of the Shire. Check it out.

Physical Characteristics of a Shire Horse

The Shire horse has distinctive characteristics that distinguish it from other horse breeds. The Shire is a large, powerful equine that falls in the draft horse category of horses.

Let’s take a look at some more shire horses facts.

Markings

shire horse on the ground

It is common for these heavy horses to have white socks, often on all four legs and stretching up to the knee.

They also will frequently have a white blaze on their face and a large amount of long hair on their lower legs known as feathers.

These leg feathers should have fine, silky hair. This combined with their striking white markings makes the breed a truly beautiful horse.

The breed standard looks for well large eyes with a gentle expression. They have long ears and attractive heads in proportion to their body. [3]

Shire horses have large strong bones and huge, almost diner plate sized feet. These identifying markings make it pretty easy to recognize the breed. 

Some Shires have white splashes on their bodies but this is not accepted for high-quality breeding stallions.

CHECK MORE: Rare Horse Coat Patterns

Shire Horse Colors

Shire horse colors include black, bay, grey, brown, and roan. However, roan is not accepted if the horse is a stallion and only allowed for mares.

Chestnut colors and multi-colored coats, such as piebald, skewbald, and spots are not accepted.

Size & Weight

The Shire is considered the largest horse breed. It is usually bigger than other types of draft horses such as the Clydesdale and Percheron. The Clydesdale is probably the most famous of British breeds.

Stallions are larger than mares and stand on average at 17.2 hands tall. The biggest Shire in the world, on record anyway, was Sampson. [4]

Sampson stood an impressive 21.25 hands tall and lived in Bedfordshire, England. He was born in 1846. [4]

Mares while still big don’t reach the same average height as a stallion. They should stand 16 hands tall and over. However, most are at least 16.2 hands tall.

Now that you know how tall this breed is how much does a shire horse weigh? The average weight of a Shire is between 1,900 and 2.500 pounds, making it the largest of the heavy breeds.

See and learn more about the desired characteristics of the breed in this video of the Shire Horse Society stallion inspections.

Shire Horse Behavior

The Shire is known for its calm, gentle behavior. They are generally not spooky or easily frazzled and are considered very docile horses. All qualities that were necessary to work safely on a farm or transport goods in busy cities.

It is an intelligent horse that enjoys working and wants to please. This love of work makes them forward going but safe horses.

Shire Horse Health

The Shire is a generally healthy horse. However, they are at higher risk of some diseases than other breeds.

The most common of these health issues is Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM). [5] 

EPSM “is a buildup of glycogen and abnormal polysaccharide in the skeletal muscles. Affected horses are not able to properly metabolize starches and sugars due to an abnormality of glycogen synthesis regulation that results in deposition and storage of unmetabolized carbohydrate in the muscles.” [5]

Another health issue that can affect the Shire and other draft horses is Azoturia, also known as Tying Up. It is thought to be connected to EPSM.

The neuromuscular disease, Shivers, is also more common in the Shire. Shivers affects the hind limbs and can cause trembling and difficulty lifting the leg.

They are also more prone to Ocular Squamous Cell Carcinoma. These are tumors that form on the eyelids.

The feathers on their legs also require extra care to prevent mites of mud rash (scratches).

READ MORE: What is a Grulla Horse?

What Is The Average Lifespan of a Shire Horse?

The average lifespan of a Shire horse is 25 – 30 years. This is the same as most horse breeds.

For a little fun, check out this adorable Shire foal.

What Do Shire Horses Eat?

The Shire eats the same as a smaller horse, which seems contradictory due to their larger size. They may require more hay than the average horse but they do not require more grain.

It is also important to consider the higher risk they have of some diseases and adjust the diet accordingly. One such risk, as mentioned above is EPSM.

Horses affected by this disease require a low sugar and low carbohydrate diet.

How Much Do you Expect to Pay for a Shire Horse?

The cost to buy a Shire horse is $2,000 to over $20,000. The large variation in the price will depend on the horse’s age, breeding, and training.

Check out shire horse price to learn more about the costs.

Shire Horse FAQs

Are Shire horses good for riding?

Yes, Shires are good for riding. They are especially good for nervous riders and heavier or taller equestrians.

What are Shire horses used for?

shire horse

Shires are still used for traditional work as farm horses and demonstrations of wagon pulling. They are also becoming more popular as riding horses.

How rare is a Shire horse?

The Shire is rare and considered an endangered breed. Today, there are less than 3,000 left in the world. A far cry from their peak when there were more than a million. [6]

Are Shire horses good for beginners?

Yes, Shire horses are good for beginners. This is because of the calm, friendly temperament. They suit riders of almost any experience level.

Are Shire horses easy to train?

Yes, Shire horses are easy to train due to their willingness to please and work. Though it is still important to keep their size and power in mind.

Conclusion

The Shire horse is truly a special breed with many fantastic qualities. It is sad that there are so few left.

Hopefully with continued efforts to protect the breed and more equestrians discovering their amazing abilities numbers will increase and it will survive. It is a breed all horse lovers will take a shine to!

shire horses pulling a cart

Have any of you ever met a Shire horse? Comment down below!

Resources

  • 1. Angelique. Shire Horse [Internet]. The Livestock Conservancy. Available from: https://livestockconservancy.org/heritage-breeds/heritage-breeds-list/shire-horse/
  • 2. Breed Standard & Points of the Horse – The Shire Horse Society [Internet]. Available from: https://www.shire-horse.org.uk/about-us/the-shire-horse/breed-standard-points-of-the-horse/
  • 3. Behold: The Biggest Horses in the World! [Internet]. Modern Farmer. 2015 [cited 2022 Jun 20]. Available from: https://modernfarmer.com/2015/12/biggest-horse-in-the-world/
  • 4. Gentle Giants – Draft Horse Diseases [Internet]. www.totalequinevets.com. Available from: https://www.totalequinevets.com/client-center/resources/TEVApedia/gentle-giants-draft-horse-diseases
  • 5. BBC Wales – BBC Wales – Gentle giants: Could the Shire horse be extinct in 10 years? [Internet]. BBC. [cited 2022 Jun 20]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/KXC6r1yBm3Rjcn5gL6ytlQ/gentle-giants-could-the-shire-horse-be-extinct-in-10-years#:~:text=One%20hundred%20years%20ago%2C%20there
Siun L
Siun L

Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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