There was a time when the Bengal Tigers population outnumbered Shire horses worldwide. That’s according to Tom D. Greenlee Jr. He and his wife, Charity, own Greenlee Farms Shires in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, and he serves on the American Shire Horse Association board of directors.
According to the Shire Horse Society in England, the Shire horse fell from well over a million to just a few thousand horses by the 1960s. Today, there are nearly 3,000 Shire horses in the United States based on statistics published on the American Shire Horse Association’s website (ASHA).
Although among the smallest draft breed by population, the Shire horse has historically been known as one of the tallest. Reportedly, the largest horse to ever live was a Shire named Sampson. The colt was foaled in 1846 in Toddington Mills, Bedfordshire, England. By age four, he weighed 3,360 pounds and matured to 21½ hands. He was renamed “Mammoth,” to more accurately depict his size.
A few modern-day horses are giving him a run for his money. Based on the “Guinness Book of World Records,” the tallest horse alive today is Jake, a Belgian. He is just over 20 hands tall. Jake claimed that title when he was measured at Smokey Hollow Farm in Poynette, Wisconsin, in January 2010.
“Even though a Shire horse doesn’t currently hold the record, they are on average the tallest draft breed,” said Vicky McCaffrey, DVM. She and husband Gene own Ox Kill Farm in Schoharie, New York.
Height isn’t the only trait for which the Shires have records.
“The largest load of wood ever hauled on ice was done by a Shire horse,” she said.
In 1924, a single Shire in England pulled 29 tons, the equivalent of 58,000 pounds, and a team of Shire horses pulled 50 tons at the same trial. Later that year at the Iowa State Fair, a team recorded 38,960 pounds or 17 tons.
Widely known for their height and strength, the Shire’s distinctive breed characteristics make it a favorite among enthusiasts who use this type of horse to work fields, to haul logs, in a show hitch, under saddle in dressage and much more.
Shire horses are widely known for the heavy feathering on their lower legs and for their long-leggedness and strength.
“The feathers developed in England and offered natural protection from the boggy ground and underbrush in the woods,” McCaffrey said.
The extra hair can make the horses more prone to scratches, a fairly common skin disease found on the heels and back of the pastern, but with regular maintenance that can be avoided.
“Rinsing dirt out of the legs can help prevent scratches,” Greenlee said, “but you have to be careful with the products used because certain soaps will dry out their skin and may cause other issues.”
Based on ASHA’s breed standards, Shires are most commonly black, brown, bay or gray. In rare occasions, Shires can be chestnut or sorrel.
“They look very similar to a Clydesdale,” Greenlee said. “There are a lot of hitches that have as many Shires in them as they do Clydesdales and you can’t tell the difference between them.”
Excessive white or roaning are considered undesirable markings and the Shire must reach a minimum of 16.2 hands tall, but can exceed 17 hands. The Shire, like every other breed of horse, has different conformation types or builds that make the horse better suited for the job.
“Shires have an Old English build that is short and stocky and well-suited for farm work or logging,” Greenlee said. “They have a slightly shorter back and neck and are a bit broader.”
The modern Shire build has a longer neck, tends to be taller and is more refined. These horses are used for show and dressage.
“It’s the same breed, just a different style. The one that is best suited for you depends on what you want to do with it,” he added.
Shires at work
Shire enthusiasts love the breed not only for the genetic characteristics, but also for their easygoing, willing approach to work. “They figure out what you need and want quickly,” McCaffrey said.
When the McCaffreys purchased Babe, a mare used by a logger in Vermont, the husband and wife couple witnessed the Shire’s natural instinct to problem-solve.
“We took Babe out into the woods to collect firewood for the house. If a log was lodged against another tree, she tried on her own to maneuver it free,” she said. “First Babe would take two to three steps left, then two or three steps right to jockey the log free. If she didn’t succeed, she’d wait for us to help.”
Individuals who work with Shires regularly have reported being able to send the horses with a log to the drop-off point to a handler at the other end who’d free the log, and the horse would turn around and return into the woods all on their own.
The best way to get involved with working any draft animal for field or logging work is to observe and learn from those already using draft horses.
“I encourage people to look around the area where they live for someone who is using draft horses in the same manner they would like to,” Greenlee said. “Spend time learning from them before jumping in.”
Throughout the year there are a variety of draft horse events open to the public. Each year Greenlee spends nearly a week at the New York State Fair with several of his Shires competing and introducing the breeds to the public. The annual Keystone International Livestock Exposition in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, every October is another event that features hitch horses. And, in November, the Equine Affaire held at the Eastern States Exposition Center in West Springfield, Massachusetts offers a breed showcase that includes a Shire.
“Historic museums also tend to offer plowing, logging and other working draft horse demonstrations,” he said. “It’s also good to call ASHA. We are always willing to connect newcomers with a breeder or owner already participating in an activity they are interested in.”
Read more: Breed Spotlight: Belgian Horses