Shire horses_ Deliver within the heavyweights

England’s previous may need been ‘borne on his again’, however now, because of a rediscovered appreciation of his pleasant temperament and eco credentials, the way forward for the Shire horse appears to be like brighter than it has for many years, says Julie Harding.

The hitch cart sways hither and thither, each melancholy and mound prompting it to lurch like a slow-motion fairground journey. The nochalant stroll of the 2 bay Shire horses in entrance belies the depth of their effort to propel each cart and hooked up hefty metallic bracken-basher ahead. At corners, the hint chains on the Amish harness jangle; the metallic shaft between the 2 beasts clanks loudly. Two quick, however full black tails flick on the horse flies that proliferate, hover and chew on a day of excessive humidity in London’s Richmond Park.

Head horseman Edward MacDowell is the virtuoso in command of propulsion, steering and the crushing of acres of bracken inside this Royal Park, a job that inhibits the unchecked unfold of those tall, coarse ferns within the lowland acid grassland Web site of Particular Scientific Curiosity. He retains the lightest contact on the reins, which he flicks gently towards flanks, all of the whereas providing vocal encouragement: ‘Come on. Let’s go boys. Up, up.’

‘They’re going at their very own velocity. I’m probably not pushing them — I wouldn’t on a scorching day like this,’ explains Mr MacDowell, who has been working the regular 14-year-old Forest Nicodemus (often known as Joey) and his six-year-old sidekick William, each thickset 17.2hh equines with robust backs, deep shoulders and highly effective legs (the proper conformation for toil), since 7.30am. ‘I’ll in all probability do one other 20 minutes,’ he provides, because the time edges in direction of noon. ‘In fact, historically, on farms these horses would work 12 hours a day.’

Canine walkers cease and stare, nonplussed at this uncommon sight in Twenty first-century Britain, solely eight miles (because the crow flies) from central London. Rewind the clock a century, nonetheless, and Shires and different heavy-horse breeds have been ubiquitous as they laboured ceaselessly within the fields. They are often construed because the ‘grace… laced with muscle, and energy by gentleness confined’ of Ronald Duncan’s poignant poem The Horse, which fits on to verify that ‘England’s previous has been borne on his again. All our historical past is his trade’.

Registered Shire horses numbered some 200,000 within the early twentieth century, however the harnessing of mechanical horsepower below a tractor bonnet beguiled beleaguered and worn farmers and no sooner had the Massey Ferguson or Fordson arrived on the drive than the stables emptied. Shire populations plummeted with the Nineteen Fifties, when solely a dozen foals a yr have been registered, their nadir.

Since then, small-scale breeders have labored tirelessly to avoid wasting these genial goliaths from the void of extinction. Now, too, in these extra environmentally aware occasions, landowners and groundworkers have cottoned on to the advantages of hooves — albeit giant ones — on fragile soil buildings, in contrast with large, compacting equipment tyres.

With this in thoughts, Richmond isn’t the one Royal Park to see Shires in motion. Operation Centaur — which owns William and Joey, in addition to 13 different Shires, and has the mantra to ‘hold the artwork of working with rare-breed heavy horses alive’ — additionally manages wildflowers through harrowing, seeding, rolling and mowing in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. In Inexperienced Park and at Kensington Palace, the Coronation meadow and wildflower meadow respectively are mown; in Bushy Park, in addition to in Richmond, verges are mown, bracken rolled, rides harrowed and forestry work undertaken. These identical Shires additionally work at a couple of Nationwide Belief and English Heritage websites and for numerous councils, together with Wandsworth and Lambeth.

‘It is sensible to make use of horses for sure jobs. Since we started managing the wildflowers, for instance, we’ve seen elevated plant range,’ says Andreas Liefooghe, founding director of Operation Centaur and a psychologist who has additionally used Shires in remedy work for scientific mental-health circumstances and with challenged schoolchildren and prisoners.

Claire Bodsworth not too long ago arrange Siedi Shires on her dad and mom’ west Wales smallholding and is now aiming to breed pure foals utilizing her six-year-old Shire mare, Dothan Bella, and her stallion, the five-year-old, 18.1hh Milnerfields Jack (steady title Fred), which she additionally rides and makes use of to chain-harrow the fields and log within the 5 acres of woodland. ‘Fred’s an enormous softie and he’s additionally an amazing work horse,’ she says of the white-faced, black equine. ‘He’s determined to please and at all times tries his hardest.’ Miss Bodsworth, a former yard supervisor for Huw Murphy on the Dyfed Shire Horse Farm, began Fred’s coaching by long-reining him, then attaching a tyre to his harness and dealing him for quarter-hour every day in order that the texture and sound of one thing dragging behind turned second nature.

‘Getting a horse used to work can take every week or six weeks, relying on the person. I’ll additionally work them for an hour or two eachday, reasonably than for hours over someday,’ she advises. ‘Getting them to harrow or plough in straight traces is one thing that comes with follow. Once I first put Fred within the harrows, he’ll be a bit jumpy for a couple of seconds after which he’ll settle proper into it.

‘Working a horse in a area is a real otherworldly expertise,’ Miss Bodsworth continues. ‘It’s like stepping again in time and it includes a re-connection with you and the horse — a real partnership.’ A supply driver for Tesco, Miss Bodsworth is one thing of a rarity on the earth of Shires. She’s younger — 31 — and feminine, when the overwhelming majority of breeders are male and edging in direction of (or past) retirement age.

‘As so many breeders are older, all of their data and expertise goes with them after they quit or move away,’ displays Angela Whiteway, stud-book coordinator on the Shire Horse Society ( ‘That’s why schooling to encourage new individuals to tackle Shires is so important.’

The society has give you numerous initiatives to spice up numbers (of each people and horses), together with a stallion premium scheme, breeding programmes, which have helped foal numbers to climb to 250–300 per yr, and a heavy-horse camp, a well-liked Could fixture for all heavy breeds and their homeowners that gives instruction within the likes of harness becoming and care, horse husbandry, ploughing, driving and driving.

In truth, driving Shires has now turn into a trendy pastime, as Jade Inventory, a monetary adviser can verify. Twelve years in the past, she was given a two-year-old pure Shire known as Trem y Wydaffa Bryn by her husband as a marriage current. ‘I broke in Bryn with the assistance of an teacher and he was as straightforward as pie,’ remembers Mrs Inventory, who went on to hack and present her bay mount, though he’s now utilized by the Using for the Disabled Affiliation at Holme Lacy Equestrian Centre, Herefordshire, the place he stays more often than not, returning to his proprietor’s smallholding for holidays. ‘He’s a mild large, however he must be rigorously managed. He doesn’t know his personal dimension and he goes by fences commonly; he wants numerous meals and must be fed first or he bangs his door and damages issues; and he additionally has comfortable toes. A set of footwear prices me £250.’

Again in Richmond Park, Joey and William have completed bracken bashing for the day and at the moment are tied up outdoors their Holly Lodge stables, munching on haynets. Mr MacDowell removes their heavy harness, with help from Dennis, a 17-year-old refugee from Ukraine whose father and older brother have been conscripted into the military to combat within the battle. ‘Dennis sends all of his earnings to his household again house,’ reveals Prof Liefooghe. ‘In Ukraine, he labored at a stables and so he loves this job. He’s an instance of the hardworking younger individuals we’re eager to encourage to work with Shire horses.’

The heavy horse within the fashionable world

The truth that the Shire and the Clydesdale are each within the ‘At Threat’ class of the Uncommon Breeds Survival Belief (RBST) 2022–23 watchlist and that the even rarer Suffolk Punch is listed as a ‘Precedence’ breed, is testomony to the wrestle for survival these heavy horses have endured since mechanisation remodeled Britain’s panorama.

Fortuitously, nonetheless, the recognition of those breeds, in addition to that of the British Percheron, is now within the ascendant as soon as once more — not just for their work ethic on farms, in market gardens and in parks and public areas, but in addition for his or her normally calm and reliable temperament when below saddle.

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Mirroring this upsurge has been a hike in ridden exhibiting lessons for these extra sturdy equines. Equally, they show widespread between the shafts and are used for a wide range of driving actions, from pulling drays to taking brides to weddings. With all these jobs for the taking, the long run for Britain’s heavy horses appears brighter than it has for many years.

For extra details about the RBST, go to