The Shire Horse: A Gentle Beast and a True Workhorse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 09, 2023
5 min read

Shire horses are a type of draft horse known for their large size and regal appearance, as well as the famous Shire horse temperament. These big beasts have a gentle and friendly nature and are commonly found in several parts of England and other regions of the world. This article explains some of the characteristics of the Shire horse and how to care for them.

Shire horses are magnificent, tall, gentle, noble, and strong horses bred in England. Shire horses are one of the oldest breeds of draft horses — large, heavy breeds of horses defined by their tall stature (more than 16 hands high), considerable body size (over 1400 pounds), and muscular build.

Although popular all over England, the counties of Derby, Cambridge, Norfolk, Nottingham, Leicester, and Huntington are commonly considered some of the regions of Shire horse origin. Today, these counties together are called the Midlands. The British Great Horse, which was used in battle in medieval times is widely considered an ancestor of the Shire horse.

The Great Horse got its name due to its strength, courage, and gentle behavior during difficult times. Over time, these horses were made more sturdy and capable by breeding them with other breeds such as the north German Flemish horses (which also have leg feathering) and the horses of the Flanders.

Shire horse sizes are the largest among all British draft horses and can stand up to roughly 17.2 hands tall (69 inches). A fully grown stallion can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Sampson, a Shire horse, who grew up to 21.2 hands (85 inches) tall and weighed over 3,000 pounds, remains the tallest and heaviest of all horses to date.

These horses are typically brown, black, bay (where the horse’s body is reddish-brown or brown, while the mane, tail, ear edges, and lower leg are black), and gray. Female horses sometimes have roan-colored coats, where the body hair is a mix of white and colored hair, while the head, tail, mane, and lower legs are colored.

The average domesticated Shire horse lifespan is anywhere between 25 to 30 years, but with proper care, they can live up to the age of 35.

Shire horses tend to thrive when they’re in the company of other horses, which brings out the playful nature in them. Solitary Shire horses often tend to look bored with their heads down — a sure sign that they don’t enjoy the lack of company.

You’ll need around two to three acres of grazing land per horse if you’re dependent on pasturing your horses for grazing. If you’re not dependent on open land where your horses can graze, roughly one-fourth of an acre per horse should be enough. Although draft horses can live outdoors all through the year, it’s a good idea to build them a shelter. Build fences at least four to six feet high and avoid using sheep netting or barbed wire for creating boundaries as this could harm your horse. Horses typically lean hard on fences when grazing and also use them as scratching surfaces.

Shire horse diet can include oat straw, bran, and carrots. They enjoy grain chaff, regardless of the type of grain, and pulped roots like mangold. A high percentage of their diet should consist of roughage and hay and include more hay during winters.

Avoid feeding them foods that are dusty as it tends to stick to their noses and irritate them. So make sure any chaff you feed them is damp before you set it in front of your horse. Place a lump of rock salt or a mineral block for licking and give them clean water throughout the day. Keep in mind, when it comes to horses, a hungry one is a good sign.

A distinct feature of the Shire horse is the feathering — long strands of hair on their lower legs and their hooves. That’s why these horses need special care for their feet. The feathering requires regular brushing and cleaning to prevent irritation and infection. It’s also vital to dry the feathering completely after a bath, as otherwise, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. You may sometimes need a high stool to reach certain parts of your horse.

Avoid leaving their legs and feet muddy for too long. Remove the sweat off them using a brush, while you can use a hoof pick to clean their hooves. You can check your horse for lice while you brush them.

Draft horse breeds such as the Shire, Percheron, Belgian, and Clydesdale are ideal for pulling, plowing, and farm labor.

An easygoing and gentle demeanor — typical of the Shire horse personality — are primary reasons for the popularity of this breed as a true workhorse. Pulling carts of ale from breweries to serving houses, pulling wagons, and tilling the fields were some of the traditional uses for these horses. When coal became a major energy source, many households employed Shire horses to pull large coal wagons across the country roads.

Today, these horses are primarily used as an environment-friendly alternative to tractors (on small farms), and logging operations, and remain a popular choice for horse riding enthusiasts for shows and personal riding.

  • Legends say the Knights of England used to ride on Shire horses when they rode into battle as these horses could move swiftly while carrying their riders, who would weigh as much as 400 pounds with their armor.
  • Shire horses are also called the “War horse,” “Cart horse,” and the “Lincolnshire Giant.”
  • The first Shire horse was imported into the U.S. in 1853, and their popularity peaked in the 1880s. According to records, around 6700 Shire horses were registered in the U.S. alone, with almost 80% of them being bred locally.
  • Before steam engines and tractors became common, Shire horses were essential for transportation and agricultural work. The mechanization of many agricultural processes and transportation led to a considerable decline in the demand for Shire horses.
  • The number of Shire horses fell from over a million to just a few thousand by the 1960s, making this breed dangerously endangered. But since then, the popularity of this horse breed has grown and a resilient group of breeders has maintained this horse as a working and riding animal.