There are few other breeds that command attention like the mighty Shire. With their substantial size, feathered legs and unusually kind eyes, this impressive breed can simultaneously shake the ground and melt the heart. Since 1878, when the first Shire Horse Registry was founded, the breed has continuously proven true the term “gentle giant”.
In the early 16th Century, “heavy” horse breeds were beginning to lose favor as “war mounts”. Cavalries began to choose lighter and more maneuverable mounts, and thus the draft breeds that had once been necessary for carrying heavily armored soldiers, were relegated to life as “labor horses”. The ancestors of the Shire found easy work pulling brewery wagons, logging, plowing fields, etc. It was around this time that Dutch engineers came to what is now England, and brought with them Friesian Horses, which are believed, through cross breeding, to have had a heavy influence on what eventually became known in the 17th Century as the “Bakewell Black Horse”. The term “Shire” is first recorded in relation to a stallion known as the “Packington Blind Horse”, who stood at stud until the 1770’s, and is considered to be the foundation sire of what is today known as the Shire breed.
The American Shire Association was established in 1885, and between 1900 and 1920, nearly 7000 Shires were imported and registered. Sadly, during World War II, due to restrictions on livestock feed and the proverbial wheels of industry turning from “hoof” to “steel”, thousands of Shire horses were slaughtered, and breed numbers fell so severely that at one point it is believed that less than 200 were left in the U.S. During the 1950’s,. In an effort to increase numbers, Clydesdales were used for crossbreeding, slightly changing certain aspects of the breed, including the silkiness of their feathered hair coat and their color patterns. It has been a slow and steady recovery since that point, but the Shire is still considered to be in a “critical” state by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, meaning that the estimated global population of registered horses is less than 2000.
Breed standards call for a heavy, well muscled horse with a wide chest and hindquarters, and a higher set, slightly arched neck (likely a remnant of the Friesian’s early influence), leading to a lean head with expressive eyes. Stallions in the United States may be either black, bay, grey or chestnut (the UK registry does not recognize chestnut), but may not have roaning or heavy white markings, and they must stand at least 17 hands tall. Geldings must be at least 16.2 hands tall and mares at least 16 hands; Both are permitted the roan pattern and heavier white markings (including higher “stockings”, belly markings, fuller face markings, etc.).
Despite the Shire’s rarity, one San Luis Obispo County local is happily promoting the breed, with three beautiful Shires of her own. Judi Hastings (of Iron Thistle Drafts, in Paso Robles, CA) and her son Phillip Livingston Cromwell purchased their first Shire, “Huska Millennium Braveheart” (Bravo) in 2002 from Huska Millennium Acres in Paso Robles, CA. At age 4, Bravo was under saddle and beginning his training as a “jousting mount” with the help of James Zoppe of the American Jousting Alliance. Bravo proved to be a worthy and courageous “war horse”, and he and Phillip competed in jousting tournaments from Southern California to Utah. In 2007, Bravo retired from his jousting career when Phillip relocated to the East Coast. Judi continued his training, and began taking riding lessons and attending many of the wonderful clinics offered here on the Central Coast to build her confidence and skill set. Eventually, she found her way to the Shire Rider’s of California, with whom she began exhibiting Bravo in parades and other exhibitions. Beginning local, with the Arroyo Grande Harvest Festival and Paso Robles Holiday Lights Parades, Bravo eventually made it all the way to the world famous Tournament of Roses Parade in 2011, ridden by his owner Phillip.
In 2012, Bravo made the long journey to Maryland to be reunited with Phillip, where he has continued to be a brave and kind ambassador of the Shire breed. He has been the center of attention at several children’s equestrian camps at the farm where he is boarded, and he is a beloved mount for the children (sometimes more than one at a time), as well as a favorite specimen for the horse anatomy classes. In 2013, Bravo was the guest star at Phillip’s wedding, where he and his bride, Sydney, rode off together into the sunset on the horse of their dreams. Bravo currently stands 18.1 hands tall and weighs 1900 pounds; he is a strikingly beautiful modern-style Shire with an extremely refined head and an unmatched personality.
Though Bravo was the first Shire to hold court at Judi’s Iron Thistle Drafts, he is certainly not the last. She currently owns “Tally Ho BK’s Lady Fiona”, a 9 year old, 17.2 hh, black mare with abundant white feathering, and “Tally Ho BK’s Dalin”, a 3 year old, 18.1 hh (expected to be 19+ hands at maturity), black gelding who has his full sister’s good looks and personality.
Lady Fiona and Judi forged a quick bond. Fiona is the first horse to greet you at the gate, and is always ready for a new adventure, whether that is simply relandscaping the front yard, or hopping in the trailer for a trip to the beach. Judi and Fiona are California State Parks Mounted Volunteer Patrol members, and enjoy their long rides in the Oceano Dunes Preserve and other picturesque local areas. Fiona is the perfect equine ambassador to park visitors; She knows to stop and chat, will bow on command to make the children giggle, and loves to pose for vacation photos with admirers young and old. Fiona and Judi already have an impressive number of public appearances under their belts, including the enormous Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade last summer.
Judi’s newest undertaking is Cowboy Dressage, and she hopes to compete with Fiona later this year. Until then, Fiona will continue to be the charming lady of Iron Thistle Drafts, bossing around her younger brother and two miniature horse pasture mates, when she isn’t playing “leadline” horse for her many young admirers around the ranch.
So, if you find yourself enjoying a day at the beach in SLO county, and spot a lovely lady on a fairy-tale-feathered Shire, give Judi a smile, a wave, and your thanks for helping to promote an amazing breed that nearly slipped into extinction.