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The Working Shire By Victoria Clayton


n the 1800s, the horse was to become the main power in agriculture and commerce, particularly in the docks and on the railways. Industry required massive horses with great muscular strength.


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In 1878, a selection of the best types of heavy horse were made from the old English carthorse and the Shire Horse Society was formed there from. The marshy fen counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire laid claim to having exerted the earliest beneficial influence upon the breed and it was from these counties that sales were first made for the improvement of the draſt horse all over England.


For more than two centuries, before the coming of the tractor and the lorry, heavy work on farms and roads was powered by the working horse. In 1920 more than two million horses were working in England alone.


The Shire worked hard on farms and was oſten seen pulling various implements and wagons. The horse could be seen doing everything from muck spreading, ploughing and harrowing, to then the rolling in preparation for drilling.


The flatter the land, the easier it is to control weeds and harvest the crop, and rolling can help to reduce moisture loss from cultivated soil. Aſter rolling, the land is then drilled with seed. This was another job which the horse did well, walking in a straight line at an even pace for hours on end, in response to a call from its master, turning neatly at the end of every row.


It wasn’t just the farms who utilised the Shire, they were seen pulling Brewers’ Drays, delivery vans, railway wagons and on the farm, ploughing, carting and harvesting. The numbers of working horses were large, for example the railways had 6,000 horses helping to get goods from the Countryside to the cities. Carrier firms had 19,000 horses, the London rubbish collection had 1,500 horses and it is thought that Brewers had 3,000 horses. The brewery horses worked hard, not only delivering the beer, but also bringing the raw materials and also taking away the waste products. The brewery horses were usually fed on spent grains, a by-product of brewing and could eat up to 6 tonnes per year per horse. Some breweries still have horses today doing promotional work and undertaking local deliveries, including Sam Smiths Brewery, Hook Norton Brewery, Wadworth Brewery, Thwaites Brewery and Robinsons Brewery.


By the 1960s, there were only about two thousand Shires leſt. The speed and efficiency of the tractor and the affordability of fuel had all but pushed the working horse into oblivion. Only a few enthusiasts continued to breed them, mainly for show. Yet today, the horse can once again be found at work on small farms and in Richmond Park in London. A ploughman working with a pair of horses for something like 10 hours reckoned he would walk about 15 miles and ploughed an acre of land. Modern machinery can do this a lot quicker. Yet, the Shire horse is a very special animal. When you see one for the first time you can’t help but be impressed by the great size of it and it’s patient manner.


The Shire Horse was the original war horse, carrying knights into battle and was a key component in both WW1 and WW2. The size and strength of the horse meant that they could haul heavy loads including guns. The animals great strength and placid nature would make them useful on the farm and for pulling heavy loads in teams.


The animals in a large team have different tasks. The wheelers are the pair (or in tandem, the single animal) closest to the vehicle. They provide the main braking effort, slowing the vehicle and controlling it downhill by pulling back on the pole or shaſts. The strength of the wheelers is oſten the limiting factor in determining the maximum safe load for a vehicle . While all the animals can pull uphill, only the wheelers can hold the vehicle downhill. For this reason, the strongest pair in a team may be chosen as the wheelers. Wheelers also steer the vehicle by turning the pole or shaſts.


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MAY/JUNE 2020


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