The Shire horse is a breed of draught horse (BrE) or draft horse (AmE). It is the tallest of the modern draught breeds, and a stallion may stand 18 hands or more (about 180 cm). Their weight is frequently in the region of a short ton (910 kg).
Shire horses can be black, bay (sometimes called "brown"), or gray. In the United Kingdom Shire stallions must not be roan or chestnut, although mares and geldings can be roan. In the United States, roaning is considered "undesirable" but chestnut (also known as "sorrel") is permitted, though considered rare. The legs should have white stockings or socks (except on gray horses). The hair down the back of the legs is called the "feather", while the hair over the foot is known as the "spats".
Shire horses average around 17.2 hands (178cms) tall at maturity (measured at the withers, with the breed standard being at least 17 hands, although a Shire horse was recorded reaching over 21.2 hands (220cm). The girth of a Shire horse varies from to . Shire stallions weigh, on average, between to .
The head should be long and lean, with a Roman nose and widely-spaced eyes. The breed standard specifies that the eyes should be docile in expression, and they are generally brown. The neck should be long and lean, with an arch. This leads to a short, muscular back, with no pronounced dipping or roaching.
A hundred horses 'of large stature' were imported into England from the Low Countries during the reign of King John. When Robert the Bruce rode a palfrey in the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), the English knights, mounted on heavy horses, realised a lighter, more maneuverable horse was needed. Horse breeding became important again during the reign of Henry VII, from 1485, and laws were passed making it illegal to export mares worth more than 6s. 8d. and stallions. At about this time, the practice of gelding (castrating) male horses began, again making breeding more selective..
The English Great Horse was valued during the reign of Henry VIII, when stallions measuring less than 'fifteen handfuls' could not be kept, but the advent of gunpowder in the late 16th century brought an end to the use of the Great Horse in battle. Oliver Cromwell's cavalry favoured lighter, faster mounts and the big horses began to be used for draught work instead. Stage coaches needed strong horses to draw them and the Great Horse found a new niche.
From this medieval horse came an animal called the Old English Black Horse in the 17th century. The Black Horse was improved by the followers of Robert Bakewell, of Dishley Grange in Leicestershire, resulting in a horse commonly known as the "Bakewell Black." Bakewell imported six Dutch or Flanders mares, notable since breeders tended to concentrate on improving the male line. Two different types of black horse developed: the Fen or Lincolnshire type and the Leicester or Midlands type.
When the pedigree society was founded in 1878, the name was changed to English Cart Horse, since "black" was a misnomer. Six years later, the name was again changed to Shire. The breed was improved during the following years as ruthless veterinary examinations virtually eliminated the old unsoundness of wind and limb. With the increased use of mechanized farm and transport equipment, the numbers of Shire horses began to decline. By the middle of the 20th century their numbers had dwindled to a small fraction of what they had been in their heyday.
Numbers of Shires are on the rise again, however. They are now widely used in breeding heavier hunter types by crosses with Thoroughbred mares, and are also seen in Draught or Draft horse competition worldwide.
The Shire horse was originally the staple breed used to draw carts to deliver ale from the brewery to the public houses. Owing to practicality and modernisation, this is a tradition that only remains at a few breweries in the UK. These include the Hook Norton Brewery, the Samuel Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, which maintains a small stable of grey shires to deliver to public houses within a seven mile radius, and Thwaites Brewery in Blackburn, which resumed horse-drawn deliveries in May 2008. The former Bass Museum, Burton upon Trent (Now Coors Visitor Centre) has a small stable of shire horses which it uses for promotional events. . Several breweries have recently withdrawn their shire horse teams, including the Tetley brewery in Leeds.
Because of their vast size and loadbearing capacity, Shire horses are used ceremonially in the UK as drum horses by the Household Cavalry. They are on show in many Royal processions, notably annually in Trooping the Colour.
Two drum horses lead the Massed Mounted Bands of the Household Cavalry, ridden by drummers who work the reins with their feet, their hands being occupied with the drumsticks. Their form of salute is to cross the drumsticks above their heads, as they continue to manipulate the reins with their feet. The most famous drum horses in recent times were Spartacus and Constantine.
The Shire horse holds the record for the world's biggest horse; Sampson, foaled in 1846 in Toddington Mills, Bedfordshire, England, stood 21.2½ hands high (i.e. 7 ft 2½ in or 2.20 m at his withers) by the time he was a four year old, when he was re-named Mammoth. His peak weight was estimated at over 3,300 lb (approx 1.5 tons).
The most recent Shire to hold the record was Goliath, a dray horse for the Young & Co. brewery who held the Guinness World Record for the tallest living horse at 19.2 hh (1.98 m) until he died in July 2001.