For one weekend in March, Newark Showfield in Nottinghamshire turned into the land of the giants, but have no fear as these were as gentle as they were dignified. They were Shire horses attending their own equine version of Crufts.
There was an array of classes for them to compete in and all ages took part. I had assumed they were black horses but there were bay and silver colours too. I was beginning to wonder why it was just geldings and stallions but it was actually ladies’ day the following day when the mares would get preened up. The overall winner would compete in the National Horse Show in Birmingham later on in the year.
Shire horses were once used to pull carts and we got a glimpse of this during another competition where drainage companies competed with breweries.
There was a selection of vintage tractors and other farming machines on display, and, as at these types of events in general, a host of stalls selling refreshments and merchandise, and promoting charities.
It all felt so very ordinary as we wandered about that I forgot how last year this enjoyable event would not have been allowed to happen.
I always get Shires mixed up with Clydesdales as they are both large horses. I knew the Shires were large – 17.2 hands – and is the largest horse in the world. What I didn’t realise was their war history, an irony as they have a reputation for being so calm. While I picture Shires working on the canal, pulling freight barges along, they actually came into being through war in the medieval ages. I had a look at the Shire Horse Society’s website to find out its history…
Back in medieval ages, knights wearing armour were too heavy for the small British horses such as the Dartmoor so heavier breeds came over from Flanders, Germany and Holland. And so the War Horse aka the Great Horse appeared on the scene.
Farmers then took advantage of the Shire’s great strength and it started ploughing and pulling heavy loads (taking over from the oxen). During the Industrial Revolution, the Shire towed barges along the newly constructed canals, as well as drays, trams and wagons.
Technology in the form of railways, tractors and cars meant the need for Shires declined and they were no longer needed on barges, farms or roads. Although the breed’s numbers fell to a few thousand in the 1960s, they are becoming popular again and are seen on small farms, agricultural shows, ploughing matches, forestry and rural life museums, among other places. They are also seen as the more environmental option when it comes to working on the land.
I’m glad to see that these dignified giants will be around for a long time yet.