History of the Great American Horse Breeds

Learn and use these rare horse breeds. Take a ride on some of the world’s oldest mares and geldings.

| January/February 2012

When thinking of rural American horses, most folks envision the American Quarter Horse, Paints, Appaloosas or maybe even the Missouri Fox Trotter, among others. But those breeds are only part of the picture when it comes to horsemanship in the rural United States. If you’re looking to add a few steeds to your place, you’d be remiss not to consider these heritage horse breeds.

Shire Horse

Status: Critical

The Shire horse is a native English horse breed that descends from the Great Horse, a draft breed of medieval England. The breed was used by King Henry II’s army to carry 400-pound, fully armored knights into battle. Through the ages, these horses were crossed with Flemish stallions and Dutch Friesians. By the 16th century, gunpowder revolutionized war practices, meaning large horses were no longer needed for battle. The Great Horse moved from the battlefield to the homestead, where it soon gained the name Heavy Black. Families began using the breed for pulling, logging and other farm work.

In the late 1700s, noted English geneticist Sir Robert Bakewell worked to define the characteristics of the breed, shaping the modern Shire horse. The Shire’s popularity grew quickly, and, by 1884, the breed was officially christened with the Shire name. Shires were imported into the United States in the late 1800s.

Today, the Shire horse is known as the tallest of the modern draft breeds, averaging 17.2 hands (70 inches) at the withers, sometimes reaching 19.2 hands (76 inches). Their great height is coupled with a hefty size; most animals weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Shires come in a variety of colors, but bay, black, brown and gray are the most common. The Shire’s size, beauty and movement make it an ideal modern horse for pulling and showing. Farming and logging also are possible with the breed, but owners should be prepared for the management and care of a massive animal. Today, the Shire breed is considered globally endangered with fewer than 2,000 animals worldwide.


Status: Threatened

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