The shire horse can trace its history back to William the Conqueror, but by the 1960s numbers had declined dramatically. Now, however, it is enjoying a revival thanks to a surge of interest on the continent and in the United States.
Dillon, Royal and Princess are stabled at the National Shire Horse Centre, Plymouth, waiting to travel to Germany. They are the latest animals in a growing export market that saw more than 100 shires go abroad in the past year.
Such is the world-wide interest that enthusiasts of the world's largest working horse will gather tomorrow at the first World Shire Horse Congress at the East of England Showground, Peterborough.
There are 3,000 members of the society world-wide of whom 1,000 are actually involved in the management, buying, selling and breeding of the horses.
Between 1880 and 1930 there were nearly 200,000 shire horses registered in the stud book kept by the Shire Horse Society. But after the Second World War numbers fell until by the 1960s there were less than 2,000 registered animals nationwide.
The work of several breeders in insuring the breed's survival has now been rewarded. John Ward, field officer for the Shire Horse Society, said, "The latest interest will guarantee the future of the shire horse. It is a wonderful opportunity for the society, with new markets evolving as the quality of the shire horse is recognised throughout the world."
He said horses had travelled to the continent for shows and exhibitions and people had liked what they had seen. Shires have historically been popular with brewers for pulling drays and German breweries were now using them because of their temperament and imposing appearance.
Because there is little demand for shires in Britain, foreign buyers are amazed at how cheap they are, selling for an average of pounds 3,000. But if the interest continues, demand will outstrip supply and prices will rise.
The Shire Horse Centre acts as a clearing house putting potential buyers in touch with breeders with horses to sell. In the last two months the export of 20 horses has been arranged. The centre has 35 shires of its own, including King, the world's tallest living horse, who is 19.2 hands (6ft 6in) at the shoulder. But despite offers from abroad, King, a big attraction at the centre, is not for sale.Reuse content