Horses and humans have a long history of working together. As well as being useful for all sorts of tasks, from working with American cowboys to towing Victorian barges, horses have also forged a special and unique relationship with humans – inspiring art like these beautiful bronze horse sculptures https://www.gillparker.com/horses-limited-edition-bronze-sculptures-to-buy and also working as therapy animals for people with mental illnesses.
One of the most famous and hard-working horses has to be the shire horse. This is a breed that is instantly recognisable and have played a large part in history and society as a whole. The origins of the shire horse go back hundreds of years, and the beginnings of the breed can be found going back as far as the times of William the Conqueror. These horses were used in battle and their strength was highly prized – throughout the Middle Ages, the strongest and largest were selected for breeding, to increase the favoured traits in the breed as a whole – known as heavy horses, they were able to carry knights in full suits of armour, as well as the heavy weapons needed for battle.
The strength and power of these horses were recognised and during Tudor times they were also used more commonly for working on farms and pulling heavy agricultural machinery. When travelling across the rural areas they were also essential as they were able to pull coaches over difficult terrain – in these days, before the industrial revolution, transport networks were sparse, so these large horses were invaluable when it came to transporting not only people but also supplies to and from the farms that were dotted across the land.
During the 1600s, horses from Holland were imported into England – some of these were introduced into the Shire breeding programmes and added a lot to the breed and gave it the more distinct look that we know it for today. These horses were originally brought over as their large size made them ideal for completing heavy work – they then were sold on to breeders once the work had been done, who then went on to further develop the breed. It was from here that the Shire horse name started, as the main breeders of them were in the counties of Derbyshire and Leicestershire.
Once the Industrial revolution arrived, these hardy horses were in high demand and had been for many years. With the new industries cropping up everywhere, demand rose further – from the barges to the mills, these horses were needed to do all manner of jobs and helped to build the foundations of modern Britain. During the first world war they were also called to action, pulling weapons and machinery in difficult circumstances.
Sadly, since then, the inventions that were arriving meant that there was no longer a need for these horses, so they were almost extinct by the mid 20th Century. However, some breeders were intent on keeping the breed alive, and there are now many in the UK, and although they are no longer needed for work, they are a gentle and well tempered horse which makes a loyal friend and wonderful companion.