Shire Horse Facts And Information – Breed Profile

The Shire Horse is a British horse, which is known for being one of the biggest horse breeds in the world. This English great horse was initially used as a war horse to carry knights in armor to the battlefield. Today the shire is mostly used as a leisure horse and for draft work. 

Shire Horse

The shire breed has held many records for being the tallest horse and also the largest horse in the world. One of the distinctive features of these large horses is that they have the capacity to pull heavy loads. They have been used on the farm and for transporting goods on the road.

Used extensively as a draft horse, the horse fell out of favor after agriculture became mechanized. This led to a fall in the horse’s numbers. The millions of horses reduced to a few thousand. This has led to the horse being considered one at risk. However, numbers are now increasing again.


The ancestor of the shire was the British Great Horse that was used in wars. During the 16th century, Friesian horses were brought to England and they influenced the development of the Shire horse. In the 17th century, the Old English black horse was bred from the British Great horse.

Robert Blackwell of Leicestershire improved the black horse and the result was a horse known as the ‘Bakewall Black’. Flemish horses that had leg feathers also were used during the breeding in those times. The Packington blind horse that lived in Paddington from 1750 to 1770 is considered the foundation sire of this breed.

This led to the development of the Shire breed that was used for draft work. References to the horses called shire horses were seen in the middle of the 17th century. Records also started to be maintained by the 18th century.

The English cart horse society was established in 1876 and later came out with the stud book for the breed. This society renamed itself as the shire horse society in 1884. An open stud book was maintained and these horses were still used for heavy work.

In 1853, the shire horses were exported to the United States. The American shire horse became popular and an association established to regulate horse registration. By 1911, there were more than 6,000 shires registered in the USA. 

In 1881, one of the most well-known shire stallions Harold was born. Most of the successful show horses, as well as the horses, bred after the second world war trace their origin to Harold. During both the world wars, the shire stallion was used to pull artillery.

In the post-war period, the horse neither had work in the military nor was it used in agriculture, since mechanization had reduced the need for horses. As a result, the number of horses drastically fell. Horses that were no longer used were slaughtered. Many studs that bred these horses closed down. This led to a situation where there were only 5,000 horses by 1972.

Subsequently, a number of breeding programs helped revive interest in the horse and its numbers started to grow again. The interest in this horse grew so much that the first World Shire Congress took place in 1996 in the city of Peterborough, England. Every year a Spring show is held for this horse breed in Britain.

It is estimated that presently there are around 1,500 of these horses worldwide. This has put the horse at risk. It is classified as critical and vulnerable by many conservationists. Efforts are being made to conserve the breed so it flourishes again.


There are many unique characteristics that can be seen in this horse. It is one of the tallest and strongest horses and there are many records highlighting the strength of this horse. The feathering on the legs is one of the most distinctive features of this horse. This feature can help identify the horse easily.

There are long hair strands on their legs that look like feathers. This makes the horse stand out in appearance. It also has huge hooves on its legs. Another key characteristic of this horse is that even though it is so tall and strong, it is very gentle in nature.


The shire horse breed does not require a special diet for its upkeep. It requires the same diet that all horses need. It can get all its nutritional requirements from standard food like hay, grain, fruits, and vegetables. It is not necessary to add any feed concentrate or any other special food.

Since the horse is both tall and strong, it naturally requires a higher quantity of food than other horses. The quantity of food to be given depends on the weight of the horse. A horse that does more heavy work needs more food.

Sufficient clean drinking water is essential for the horse. Some of these horses can face a condition known as polysaccharide storage myopathy. This condition can cause spasms in the hind legs affecting the horse’s movement. To ward off this problem, a vet may recommend a high-fat diet for the horse. 

Being a heavy horse, it needs around 1.5 to 2.5% of its body weight in forage. To ensure a balanced diet, grains can be included.

Breeding And Uses

The horse is bred because it is a heavy horse suited for heavy-duty work. Earlier the horse was bred for use in the military where it was used to pull heavy artillery. It was also used extensively on the farm where it was used to draw wagons. It was also used in the fields. The horse was useful on rough roads and was even used to transport coal.

Mechanization led to a reduced need for the horse in the military and on the farm. The horse was then used by breweries. The horse was used to carry carts of beers from the brewery to the pub.

Even today this horse is used for pulling vehicles. It is bred for use in the tourism sector and the horse is used to pull vehicles with tourists to take them for sightseeing. Even now in some farms, they are still used as an alternative to tractors to be more eco-friendly. Some beer companies use this horse for promotional work.


This horse is well known for its height and weight. Its height can be up to 17.2 hands and weigh up to 2,430 pounds. 

The stallion is around 17.2 hands (178 cm or 69 inches). The mare is around 16 hands tall (163 cm or 64 cm). Geldings would be around 16.2 hands tall (168 cm or 66 inches). The weight of the shire is between 1,870 to 2,430 pounds (850 to 1,100 kg).

The tallest shire was 21.2 hands (219 cms or 86 inches). The horse known as Mammoth (born in 1848) weighed 3,360 pounds (1,524 kg).

What Breeds Make Up The Shire Horse?

The British Great horse that roamed the shires in Britain is considered the forefather of the shire horse. An important breed that contributed to the making of the shire was the Flemish horse. The leg feathering of the shire is believed to be influenced by the Flemish horse’s bloodline.

The Old English black horse is another horse whose bloodline has contributed to the development of the shire. The bloodline of the Flanders Dutch horse also made up the shire horse.


Shire horses are usually black in color. They are also found in brown, bay, and gray colors. For registration, the stallion should not have a roan color. Similarly, white markings can disqualify a stallion from registration in the UK. Chestnut color is also not allowed for registration.

Mares and geldings can be roan color. In the US, chestnut color is accepted for registration.

What Do They Look Like?

The height and size of the shire horse are what one first notices in this horse. This large horse has a long head that is lean. Its eyes are large. The neck is arched and it is long. It has a wide shoulder with a wide chest that is muscular. This gives the horse strength.

The hindquarters are wide and are also long. The feathering on the leg is fine but not too dense. It has a silky appearance. The horse’s legs are muscular. It has large hooves that are round.

What Is A Shire Horse Used For?

Shire horses have been used for pulling heavy loads. Even today they are used for pulling weights in farms and also to pull carriages having tourists. They are used by some beer companies for promotional work.

The horse is today used for general riding. It is used in dressage and in eventing. A horse named Goliath was listed in the Guinness book of world records in 2000 for being the tallest horse in the world. It was 19.5 hands tall.

Where Do They Live?

The Shire horse originated in England. From there, they were sent to the USA. They are also found in other countries with breeding societies formed in these countries. Canada, France, Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands are other countries that have shires.

How Long Do They Live?

The shire horse is a long-living horse. This makes it a valuable asset for owners. The horse is powerful and useful in various ways. With long life, it represents a good value for money purchase for owners. The horse lives a full life for 25 to 30 years.

The horse is healthy and unlikely to face any major problems. Chronic progressive lymphedema is a condition this horse may face. This can cause swelling of the legs. However, it is possible to slow down the progress of the condition. Polysaccharide storage myopathy is another condition that can occur and may cause spams and pain in the legs.

How Fast Are They?

Shire horses are essentially draft horses. They are tall and strong but are built for towing weights and not for running. They are used in dressage events but are not very fast horses. It can run at an average speed of 27 to 30 miles per hour.

How Much Do They Cost?

A shire horse is not cheap. Since it is a large horse and lives long, the cost of the horse would be high. Apart from the initial price, maintaining the horse will also lead to expenses. It needs more food to eat. 

Finding a horse of good breeding is not so easy because of the low numbers of the horse. The cost of a shire can vary from $2,000 to $20,000. It depends on age, gender, and experience.

Are Shire Horses Good For Beginners?

When you look at the shire horse, it is huge that you think it is a difficult horse to manage. This is not the case. The horse is gentle and very mild-mannered. It is willing to be trained and gets along very well with its owner/rider.

Even a beginner can ride this horse thanks to its temperament. However, the height of the horse can be a problem for beginners. Once they climb on, managing the horse is not too much of a problem.

Conclusion / Summary

The Shire horse originated in England from a great wild horse that roamed in the shires or countryside. The horse was bred for use in heavy work. It is a huge horse that is very tall. This helped it to be used for pulling artillery and doing heavy work on the farm.

There were millions of these horses but once they stopped being used on the farm and by the military they were slaughtered. The huge fall in numbers has led to this horse being considered at risk of becoming extinct. Breeders in the UK, US, and other countries have put in efforts to revive the species.

The tall and powerful horse is today used for dressage and as a riding horse. It is still used for draft and works on the farm and to pull wagons containing tourists. The horse lives a long life and has good health. Its gentle and amiable nature makes it a great horse to own.

There’s a whole world of horse breeds out there to explore! Discover and find out more information by checking out our horse breed guides.