The Shire horse is an iconic draft breed originally developed for heavy farm work in the rural shires of Great Britain. The Shire is one of the world’s largest horse breeds, known for its impressive size and strength.
The record for the world’s tallest horse belongs to a Shire gelding named Sampson, who stood at an astounding height of 21.25 hands and who is estimated to have weighed 3,360 lb.
Shires descend from the British Great Horses, who were ridden into battle by Medieval knights. These horses have a long history of use in agriculture, prized for their capacity for pulling heavy carts and plows.
These gentle giants also have easygoing temperaments and striking looks to complement their impressive abilities. While populations of Shire horses declined significantly after the mechanization of agriculture, they are still used for leisure and traditional activities.
This breed profile will discuss the history, characteristics, common health problems, and nutritional requirements of the Shire breed. Keep reading to learn more about feeding and caring for Shire horses.
Shire Horse History
Throughout British history, Shires and their ancestors have held indispensable roles in agriculture, logging, war, and transportation. They were extensively used for plowing fields before the advent of modern machinery and played important roles pulling heavy artillery during wars and transporting people and goods in rural communities.
As the demand for their exceptional abilities grew, these majestic horses spread across the globe. However, several conservation organizations consider this breed vulnerable to extinction today.
Modern Shires can trace their ancestry to the English Great Horse of the Middle Ages. First brought to England after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century, Flemish heavy horses heavily influenced the initial development of cold-blooded draft horses in Great Britain. 
Dutch engineers imported Friesian horses from Holland in the 1600s to help drain the Fens of eastern England. These horses refined the local draft breeds, and the resulting crosses became known as Old English Blacks. 
The Shire horse name first emerged in the 1700s to describe the draft horses used in the rural English shires of the region. Born in the mid-18th century, the black stallion Packington Blind Horse is considered the foundation sire of the Shire Breed. 
English Great Horses served as war mounts for knights wearing heavy armour in battle. The demand for heavy war horses led to legislation under Henry VIII outlawing the breeding of small horses and prohibiting the export of Great Horses from England. 
With the evolution of weapons and warfare tactics, favoring lighter cavalry mounts, the focus of draft horse breeding shifted primarily to the realm of agricultural work. By the conclusion of the 16th century, heavy horses were primarily used for pulling large coaches along the muddy roads of England.
The strong, wide-footed horses used for the land reclamation work involved in draining the Fens remained in the region to cultivate the new fertile land of the local shires.
Prized work horses were highly valued in English culture. Some even slept inside barns at night for protection from theft, predators, and weather hazards. Breeders also cherished Shire horses, carefully tracing and refining bloodlines through desirable lines. 
Demand for the new Shire horses spread throughout England, and the horses played essential roles in emerging British industries. These horses pulled heavy farm equipment in fields, towed barges along canals, worked in mills, and helped build railways. 
The first Shire horses crossed the Atlantic to the United States in 1853. After proving invaluable for hauling heavy artillery during World War I and II, Shires came dangerously close to extinction in the 1950s and 1960s.
Renewed public interest in the 1970s helped revive the breed as leisure horses, but the breed’s conservation status is still at risk.
The English Cart Horse Society published the first studbook for Shire horses in 1878.  Renamed the Shire Horse Society in 1884, the society now maintains a database of thousands of horses and is the official breed registry for Shire horses in the US
The ASHA aims to preserve and promote the Shire breed in North America by publishing accurate pedigrees, assisting in breeding selections, and fostering historical traditions of Shire horses.
Shire horses are easily recognizable by their distinct appearance and characteristics. Some of these characteristics helped the horses perform heavy-duty tasks, while others contributed to the striking beauty of the breed.
Shires are sometimes confused with other popular draft horse breeds, including the Clydesdale. However, Shires are generally larger than other British breeds.
Other breed characteristics include an easygoing temperament and prominent white markings. While the Shire continues to excel in pulling competitions, these horses are also suitable mounts for pleasure riders in multiple disciplines.
Shires are large, heavy horses and this breed generally ranges in height from 16.2 to 19 hands. The average Shire horse stands around 17.2 hands tall. Stallions should reach at least 17 hands by maturity, but some mares are slightly shorter. 
Shires should have long, lean heads with large eyes, a slightly Roman nose, alert ears, and a clean-cut throat latch attached to a long neck. The shoulder is deep and wide enough to support a collar comfortably.
Backs are muscular, short, and strong. The ideal Shire also has a wide chest with well-sprung ribs and muscular, straight legs with broad joints and heavy bones. The Shire’s power comes from wide, long, sweeping hindquarters with full muscling.
Other distinct features include a long, level croup and high tail carriage. Shires also have a short, straight back and well-sprung ribs. Short cannons and strong feet support soundness.
The Shire Horse Society registers Shires with the following coat colours:
Purebred Shires often have white markings on their face and legs. However, excessive white markings or large areas of white hairs over the body are undesirable in the breed standard.
Shires used to have heavier leg feathers, but today breeding directions aim to produce horses with a moderate amount of fine, silky hairs on the lower legs.
Shires have black skin under their coats, except under white markings.
Shires have a well-deserved reputation for being gentle giants. These horses were bred for centuries to be calm and reliable work partners.
They are generally brave and patient, making them suitable for timid riders. However, their size can intimidate beginners or youth riders. Training with experienced handlers helps maintain good behaviour in these big horses.
Despite their origins as war horses, modern Shires are friendly and enjoy spending time with humans. They are exceptionally tolerant of distractions and easily remain calm in hectic environments.
But like any horse, they can still become nervous or anxious. Undesirable behaviours are often the result of mishandling or improper management.
The Shire’s intimidating size and calm temperaments make them a popular choice for mounted police units that need reliable horses for working in cities and among crowds. You can also find Shires working in forestry and on Amish farms, but most modern owners use their Shires for leisure.
These horses have impressive pulling abilities, making Shires and their crosses ideal for driving disciplines. Once widely employed to pull beer drays, some Shire horses continue to be used in teams by breweries to uphold and preserve the tradition.
However, Shires are also capable pleasure mounts for riders that prefer larger horses. Trail riders appreciated the breed’s bravery and calm disposition. Crossbred Shires are also frequently found in English competition arenas.
Shires can also participate in breed-specific shows sanctioned by various equestrian organizations. Owners can participate in multiple disciplines, including driving, dressage, and in-hand classes.
Shire Horse Health
Shires are susceptible to several health problems that commonly affect draft breeds. These breeds typically have shorter lifespans than small horses, so good care is essential for ensuring Shires stay healthy as long as possible.
Polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) is the most commonly diagnosed genetic condition in Shires and other draft breeds. This muscle disorder is characterized by abnormal glycogen accumulation in muscle tissue, which can lead to tying up in affected Shires.
Studies evaluating the prevalence of the GYS1 mutation linked to PSSM Type 1 in different breeds have identified the gene in up to 87% of draft breeds. However, limited research is available on the incidence of the gene in Shire horses due to their relatively small breed population. 
Shires have heavy feathering on their lower legs, making them susceptible to pastern dermatitis and other skin diseases. However, the presence of skin problems can also indicate the early stages of chronic progressive lymphedema in horses.
CPL is a progressive lymphatic disease observed in Shires, Clydesdales, Belgians, and Gypsy Vanners. This condition causes debilitating lower limb swelling, leading to skin folds, lesions, infections, and lameness. 
This breed is also susceptible to shivers, a relatively rare equine movement disorder associated with muscle tremors and abnormal hindlimb flexion and extension. This condition is caused by neuroinflammation and damage to axons of cerebellar nerves, not by PSSM as was originally thought. 
The Shire’s large size also makes the breed susceptible to joint disorders associated with rapid growth, including osteochondritis dissecans. Hocks are the most frequently affected joints in Shires with OCD lesions. Balanced nutrition is critical for preventing OCD in growing foals. 
Care and Management
Shire horses have special needs due to their large size, including more spacious accommodations and appropriately sized equipment, to ensure their comfort and safety. Housing should provide adequate shelter and enough space for Shires to lie down comfortably without getting cast.
Long periods of stall confinement can increase the risk of stocking up in Shire horses and a lack of movement can worsen the symptoms associated with muscle disorders. Horses also need appropriate social contact to reduce stress and promote their mental well-being
Grooming routines for Shires should include thoroughly cleaning and drying the feathering on their lower limbs. These hairs can easily trap moisture and debris against the skin and contribute to skin irritations.
Draft breeds frequently lack naturally strong hooves. Regular farrier care is essential for maintaining hoof health and keeping the foot optimally balanced to support the Shire’s heavy body weight.
Proper exercise supports bone strength and joint health in all horses, but Shire horses have special needs when designing a training program. Due to their heavy musculature, these horses can easily overheat with intense activity in hot conditions. Their heavy body weight also adds extra wear and tear to their joints, increasing the risk of osteoarthritis. 
Shire Horse Nutrition
Providing balanced nutrition is essential to ensure the well-being and longevity of Shire horses.
Due to their larger size, Shires need a greater supply of essential nutrients. However, these horses are also prone to obesity if overfed.
Shires are easy keepers. Bred for hard work and heavy builds, most draft horses have an efficient metabolism. As a result, Shire horses rapidly gain weight when fed excess calories.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy for horse owners to tell when their Shire horses are over-conditioned. Owners can easily mistake obesity in Shires for heavy musculature.
Carrying excess body condition also puts added strain on the horse’s joints, resulting in a higher risk of injuries and degenerative joint conditions.
The following sample diet is intended for a mature 2,000 lb (900 kg) Shire horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).
|Feed||Amount per day|
|Mature Grass Hay (8% crude protein)||17.5 kg / 38.5 lb|
|Salt||30 g (2 tbsps)|
|Omneity Pellets||350 g (3.5 scoops)|
|w-3 oil||230 ml (8 oz)|
|Digestible Energy (% of Req)||100%|
|Protein (% of Req)||110%|
|ESC (% Diet)||8.7%|
For most Shires in light work, forage-only diets tend to provide sufficient calories and protein. However, such diets may lack certain essential nutrients, including trace minerals.
Mad Barn’s Omneity is a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement designed to fortify forage-based diets. This supplement provides essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, yeast cultures, biotin, and more to support hoof health, coat quality, metabolic function and more.
Shire horses also need to consume more water than average-sized horses. Provide constant access to fresh water to prevent dehydration.
Our nutritionists also suggest adding salt to your horse’s daily ration and offering free-choice loose salt to encourage thirst. Many horses are deficient in sodium, and providing loose salt can effectively meet their sodium requirements, proving more beneficial than offering a salt lick alone.
Horses evolved to thrive on a forage-based diet, encompassing grasses, hay, and other fibrous plant materials. Feeding a natural diet and avoiding grain-based feeds enables extended grazing periods, promotes healthy digestion, and supports their overall well-being.
An average 2000 lb (900 kg) Shire horse should consume approximately 40 pounds (18 kg) of average quality, low-starch grass hay daily. Avoid nutrient-dense high-quality hay, which can cause unwanted weight gain due to the breed’s efficient metabolism.
If you allow your Shire to graze on pasture, using a grazing muzzle can help intake of high calorie grass. Alternatively, providing low-NSC hay in a slow feeder offers a safe option for allowing free-choice forage. 
Shire horses should generally avoid high-energy concentrates and grain-based feeds, which carry a risk of gut issues and excessive weight gain.
Instead of commercial feeds or ration balancers, consider feeding soaked beet pulp or hay pellets as a supplement carrier for Shires. If you do feed concentrates, split the daily ration into multiple small meals per day to reduce digestive risks. 
Effective management of PSSM in Shires requires careful control of dietary starch. If your Shire needs additional calories, fat is a safer energy source for these horses and can supply up to 20% of dietary energy. 
Incorporating a fat source rich in omega-3 fatty acids offers additional benefits for joint health in Shires due to anti-inflammatory properties. Research indicates that omega-3 supplementation has significant positive effects on markers of inflammation in arthritic horses. 
When devising a feeding plan for your Shire horse, the primary focus should be on balancing the overall diet to prevent any deficiencies in essential nutrients. Once the diet is balanced, you can then consider additional supplements to support performance goals or address unique health needs.
Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is an essential fatty acid supplement that is commonly used to support joint health in large-breed horses. This supplement is enriched with natural Vitamin E and DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid not found in plants. W-3 Oil is also a safe energy source for horses with PSSM.
Vitamin E and selenium are antioxidant nutrients that are essential for maintaining normal muscle function, neurological health and immune defenses. Adding Natural Vitamin E and Selenium to your Shire’s diet can help protect against oxidative damage.
MSM is a well-researched equine joint supplement that helps maintain normal homeostatic responses to inflammation.  Shires are susceptible to joint discomfort and often benefit from extra support regardless of their workload.
An equine nutritionist can help Shire owners develop a balanced nutrition program to manage health concerns and promote overall wellness. Submit your horse’s diet online for a free consultation by our team of qualified nutritionists and veterinarians.
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