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What is a Shire Horse?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A Shire horse is a type of a draft horse. Shire horses are famous for being extremely large; the biggest horse on record, Sampson, was a Shire horse. Despite their size, Shire horses are extremely gentle and friendly, and they are famous for standing so quietly in their stalls that mice can nest in the straw, although this may be a bit of hyperbole. This breed of horse can be found in many parts of England and in some other regions of the world as well, where it is primarily kept as a show horse and pet rather than a working animal today.

The lineage of the Shire horse is quite old. These horses are probably descended from the so-called “Great Horse” which was introduced in England in the 11th century by William the Conqueror. These horses formed the foundation for Old English Black horse, a breed which emerged in the 17th century. Although the Old English Black is now an extinct breed, it established a lineage which later developed into both the Clydesdale and Shire horse breeds.

Like other draft horses, the Shire horse is extremely strong, with a compact, muscular body designed for pulling heavy loads. The hindquarters of the Shire horse are massive, providing the kind of power needed to pull heavy loads of beer kegs, timber, and other materials. Shires are also famous for their feathered legs, marked with streams of long hair from knees to ankles, and they have slender, Roman-nosed heads with broad set eyes which some people find quite appealing.

This horse breed has been refined over the centuries to have a very even temperament. Shire horses are incredibly patient, and they are willing to stand for extended periods of time in harness while people make deliveries and load cars. It takes a lot to upset a Shire horse, as well; these horses can work in a wide variety of situations and they are not easily startled. They are also gentle and calm enough to be handled by very young riders and drivers.

Because of their size, Shires are actually a bit challenging to ride. Most Shires are driven, rather than ridden, taking advantage of their centuries of breeding for this very purpose. While it is possible to ride a Shire horse, an extremely wide saddle is needed. Lanky riders sometimes enjoy riding Shires, and they are sometimes used as drum horses in parades and other ceremonial events, in which case they are ridden. A drum horse, as you might imagine, is a horse which carries drums in a parade, along with a rider to play them.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By momothree — On Mar 17, 2011


Some of the record holders are Shires. In 2007, a Shire mare by the name of Tina held the Guinness title. Tina was 20 hands high. In 2006, the title was held by a Belgian Draft horse named Radar, standing 19.3 hands high. In 2003, a Percheron named Goliath took the title at 19.1 hands and weighing in at 2,200 pounds.

By StormyKnight — On Mar 16, 2011

I know that Guinness has a category for "largest horse" every year. Are most of those horses Shires?

By PurpleSpark — On Mar 15, 2011

@christym- Sampson was truly remarkable! Sampson, owned by Thomas Cleaver from Bedfordshire, England, was a Shire gelding. Foaled in 1846, Sampson holds the world record for being the largest horse of all time.

Sampson stood 21.2 hands high and weighed in at 3,360 pounds. When he was four years old, he was re-named “Mammoth”, accordingly.

By christym — On Mar 13, 2011

I've seen some Shire Horse photos and they are huge. I'm not familiar with Sampson, though. I would love to know more about him.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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