I remember the first time I laid eyes on a Shire Horse. As a young child, he seemed impossibly huge, hooves as wide as footballs and a muzzle big enough to push me over.
And yet, as we stood together amongst the straw and dust, all we shared was an easy fascination with each other. Despite his undeniable power, this gentle giant meant no harm; all he wanted was the treats in my hand.
From the Shire Horse to the Suffolk Punch and the Clydesdale, I think you would be hard pushed to find a child or adult who wouldn’t stop and admire these giants. And some of them really have been true giants. It is a Shire Horse named Sampson who still retains the tallest and heaviest horse ever recorded. At a heady 21.2½ hands high and 1,524kg, he broke records and hearts as all heavy horses seem to do right to this day. It therefore seems a tragedy to learn that all three of these enchanting heavy breeds are in danger of becoming extinct in the UK within the next ten years.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), a charity dedicated to the conservation of farm animals, has estimated that at the start of the 20th Century, there were 2.6 million heavy horses working in agriculture and trade. In 2017, the numbers are ironically small. Just 240 Shire, 199 Clydesdale and 25 Suffolk pedigree foals were registered. These figures are a stark contrast with previous centuries when these animals were often an everyday sight.
So why save them some may ask? With the advances in farming, transport and trade, surely there is little need for these workhorses anymore. After all they are monstrously expensive to keep, breed and feed.
Well, like the RBST, I believe that we owe it to these horses to protect them. After all, without their brute strength and calm nature, much of what we have today wouldn’t exist.
From the eighteenth century onwards, heavy horses worked alongside humans and helped progress our great society. Whether working the land or pulling canal barges, they were an essential part of everyday life. Before mass transit polluted out towns and cities, heavy horses hauled ladened wagons, drays, omnibuses and trams. London carrier firms used around 19,000 horses, while the Capital’s rubbish collection employed a further 1,500. All of these would have been draught breeds much like now ‘at risk’ Shire, Suffolk Punch and Clydesdale.
In the nineteenth century, the heavy horse’s role evolved once again; from supporting the London brewers to the front line of World War I. Marching beside brave men, they pulled heavy supply wagons and despite the chaos of war, had the docile nature to remain calm in battle.
During World War II, about 6,000 Suffolk Punches were registered. Today the RBST estimates the number of viable breeding females in the UK to be just 80. With a history as vast and rich as the animals themselves, how can we not feel indebted to them in some way.
“These breeds of horse reflect human developments and accomplishments across centuries. Our use of horses throughout history alone dictates that they are just as worthy of conservation as any other breed, landscape, stately home or historic monument.” RBST Charity.
In an attempt to change the bleak fate laid before these “working class heroes”, the RBST charity is aggressively promoting a fundraising campaign. It hopes not only to raise awareness but also support initiatives to collect material that can be stored at the UK National Livestock Gene Bank.
Thanks to modern technology, theoretically scientists could use material stored in the gene bank to re-create a breed if extinction did occur.
Despite this mind-boggling fall-back, the charity is rightly determined to avoid extinction in the first place.
Growing up with horses gives me a kinship with them that few have. However, I would challenge anyone to disagree that these particular rare breeds of horse need our support. Their contribution to our society is almost insurmountable and at the current rate, specialist breeders alone cannot save this part of our history.
I hope that these gentle animals get the chance to live on. It seems too hard to bear that the only place they could exist in the future, is in the fond memories of my childhood.
Link to donation page: https://www.rbst.org.uk/news/uk-working-class-horse-heroes-facing-extinction