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When shire horses ruled the landscape
LOVE at first sight. How can anyone really know the meaning of those words until they encounter Harry and Joe?
They tower above their stalls, soft-eyed giants with glistening coats and flicking tails, extraordinary compounds of power and gentleness. They are instantly loveable.
Harry and Joe are shire horses, successors to a breed that has pulled, ploughed and moved mountains on behalf of England for hundreds of years.
Shires were the predecessors to tractors and JCBs, equine machines bred to do the heavy, muddy work. Part of the natural affection people feel for shire horses must come from gratitude.
There is, though, another reason why human hearts go out to Harry and Joe. Despite their massive size and strength, there is a surprising air of vulnerability about them. Right now, they need all the love they can get.
Working horse numbers have inevitably declined. The shire horse’s cousin and neighbour, the Suffolk Punch, is actually a Category One Endangered Species. Only 400 are left in the world. They are rarer than giant pandas.
The shire horse’s situation is less critical, but it is nevertheless officially “a breed under threat” and it needs to be tended. It was for this reason the Essex Shire Horse Association was set up 24 years ago.
The association has fought to keep the historic breed intact, both in numbers and quality of bloodline. Now, though, it is the humans who find themselves looking into the twilight.
“Shire horses’ welfare has been very dependent on a number of devoted individuals with the land and other resources to maintain them,” says Maureen Cheek, an ESHA committee member from Leigh.
“Often they were farmers who were old enough to remember when heavy horses were still used on the land, and unfortunately age is taking its toll.”
One such devotee, happily very much still with us, is Graham Collins, Harry and Joe’s owner.
Graham runs the Collins dairy, the Southend family business, which has been operating in Southend for more than a century.
The Collins milk floats may no longer be horse-powered, but Graham, working alongside his son, Richard, keeps the wheels rolling elsewhere. They maintain an 1895 dray, which Harry and Joe haul at equestrian events around the country.
Thirty years of such events are recalled in Graham’s collection of harness, horse-brasses and other equestrian tackle and mementos.
They are stored in an outhouse next to Harry and Joe’s stall, in the countryside near Southend – for understandable reasons, Graham is keen not to reveal the exact location.
Graham’s soft spot for the shires springs from what he calls the breed’s “down-to-earth honesty”.
He points out shire horses developed out of the humble old English cart horse. Shires only acquired official status and title in 1878, with the establishment of the Shire Horse Society. “I’m not dismissing other breeds, of course,” Graham says. “But the shires were the horses that did the real work, up and down the country. They were the farmer’s horse for centuries, raising food. The industrial revolution was built on their back. When the canals were being built, it was they who carted away the spoil.”
His sentiment is widely shared. Maureen owns a shire horse, Susie, which she rides rather than drives. Susie is always the centre of attention. Maureen says: “You can be out riding as a group, with other riders who are on thoroughbreds. It’s always the shire horse that gets people’s attention. It’s her they want to meet and make a fuss of. They almost ignore the fancier horses.”
Yet, while shire horses may be down-to-earth, this does not mean that they are cheap to run.
“It is,” says Graham, understatedly, “quite an expensive little hobby.”
The sheer size of shires tends to bank up the cost. A farrier, for instance, can shoe a number of average size horses in the time it takes to complete just one shire.
“It’s not helped by the fact they tend to lean on him,” says Graham, who has to pay his farrier £120 per horse, every two months.
This helps to explain the slow flow of young blood into the ESHA, despite the public enthusiasm for shire horses.
The association also faces another issue. Fundraising is mostly achieved through public events, when the horses and carriages are put on display.
Opportunities for such events, however, have shrunk.
“We used to do very well at the Essex County Show,” says ESHA chairman John Peacock. “But we lost that window, of course.” The association also had to say goodbye, at least temporarily. to its annual spring ploughing event.
“We were given use of a field owned by Writtle College, but that was withdrawn when the college restructured,” says John.
If anyone has an acre or so of land they are happy to see ploughed up once a year, the association would love to hear from them.
The key event in the association’s calendar remains the annual Essex Heavy Horse and Country Show. The 24th show takes place at the Orsett ground on Sunday.
At these events, the shire horse still rules the landscape. Dressed in full rig of leather, brass and plait, they are no longer the humble workhorse but kings of the ring.
Hours will have gone into the preparation. The horses have been shampooed, brushed down, powdered, their tails painstakingly plaited.
Perhaps their most eye-catching features, though, are the flights, the distinctive feather-like trims worked into their manes. Here, as in so much that involves shire horses, a precise combination of art and etiquette applies.
Graham ruefully accepts: “We spend far too much of our lives on the preparation, but then you see them in all their glory and you just forget about everything else.”
Essex Heavy Horse and Country Show Orsett Showground, off Rectory Lane, Orsett Sunday, 8.30am to 5pm £6, concessions £4