Uses of the Shire Horse Today
The Shire Horse Society is working hard to halt the decline in Shire numbers, and this means finding new uses for the breed.
Although the heyday of the Shire horse may well be over, the horse is far from redundant, and indeed undergoing a resurgence.
More and more, younger people now feel the draw of working with these wonderful creatures, and the demand is there for traditional, experienced horsemen to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
Horses are working the fields again, albeit on a small scale. Small farms, small holdings and market gardens are finding a place for the horse – especially those concerned with the environmental impact of their activities.
Forestry and timber extraction has been one area that the use of draught horses has increased. Horse’s hooves are far less damaging in area of sensitive flora and fauna.
Organisations such as The Royal Parks are once again employing heavy horses to work the land.
Agricultural shows and ploughing matches are the most visible face working horses, and an ideal opportunity for the public to interact with both horses and their owners.
Ploughing matches had all-but disappeared by the 1960s, but along with those determined not to loose the breed, there were many determined not to loose the skill of the ploughman. Now, ploughing matches are a popular day out across the country and many include classes for novices.
Shire horses are also competing in more modern activities, such as skills tests and obstacle driving, plus cross country trials and timber ‘snigging’ (an obstacle course completed with a log being towed by the horse!). All of these activities demonstrate the abilities of the working horse in a social, if competitive, environment.
There are also a number of Heavy Horse Centres, working farms and rural life museums around the country, many of whom feature Shire horses working, and allow the public, especially children to get close to the horses.
The rise in traditional leisure activities has also seen heavy horses pulling ‘gypsy style’ caravans and canal barges for holiday makers.
The traditional role of the brewery horse pulling the dray has been retained by many of the traditional brewers, primarily as a promotional tool.
A few local authorities use heavy horses for jobs such as park maintenance and promotion.
Horse owners can often find work for their animals providing horse and wagon for weddings or local carnivals. They can also find work harrowing sports grounds and river beds, where the horse does far less damage than the tractor.
This resurgence in the popularity of the working horse of all breeds maybe small compared to the past, but it is vitally important. It is preventing many of the old skills being lost, not only in horsemanship, but also harness makers, heavy horse farriers and other associated trades.