A Peek at Shires in the Shire - Heavy Horses in the U.K.
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
At age eleven I found myself entering the collecting ring back behind the famous Horse of the Year Show in Wembley London, and being conscious of something large coming along behind me. Something jingled loudly. I looked behind me. As I turned with my eyes glued to the ground I saw the massive feet of a Shire horse. My jaw dropped, my amazed face turned upward to find a homely looking long equine nose and a set of soft brown liquid eyes peering at me between blinkers. Wow!
Somewhere in the distance I heard voices shouting but I stood there mesmerized until someone grabbed me by my arm and pulled me to the side. A team of the most magnificent horses I had ever seen passed by me into the ring. Brasses gleaming, coats glistening, leather creaking quietly and the ground shook beneath my feet.
It was not until I was eighteen and my father came home from his London office to drive me for my entrance interview for Reading University that I was to be up close and personal with the breed again. We were early for our appointment and my father, who has always loved horses; suggested a quick stop off at a renowned Shire horse stud en route.
The yard was immaculate. The giant horses stood in loose boxes in a square yard, nodding their heads in the sunshine and surveying these new visitors with interest. We were suddenly unceremoniously ushered out of the way by a small wiry gentleman with an Irish accent, who deftly pulled a horse from one stable and a horse from another, and proceeded to lead the two out of the yard to the big green pastures beyond. It was a photo worthy sight. The man looked so minuscule between the silhouette of the two heavy horses as he disappeared into the distance. On his return he apologized for his brusque tone.
"Those are young colts, "he explained, " They are highly unpredictable and I didn't want you to get hurt."
We were privileged to be allowed to tour the barns, stables, and pretty yard at our leisure although they were closed to the public that day. I think it was quickly apparent to the Manager that stood watching discreetly from his office window, that horses were my passion. I enjoyed every minute petting them, and not one of the thirty plus horses would go without a pat before I left. The Manager kindly offered us access to the closed gift shop through a back entrance and my father asked me what I would like to remember the experience.
"I'd like to take one of those horses home," I said and recall being quite serious.
"How about one of those big posters instead," answered my father.
The poster of three Shire horses looking over a gate, in a black and white sepia print hangs framed on the wall of my bedroom at the foot of my bed in my parents U.K. home to this day. It is the first thing I wake up to see on my trips home today as it has been for many years.
Aside from a trip to Peterborough for the East of England Horse Show at some point in the late seventies (when I was living in London and met up with my late kid brother to go for a horsey day out of town, and a meet and greet in Florida sessions with our children to the close cousin to the Shire horse, the Clydesdales (Budweiser), I have not been around heavy horses for years.
I guess some fascination with the nature and heavier breeds comes through; for after breeding purebred registered Hanoverian warmbloods for fifteen plus years, I did migrate into cross breeding which interestingly enough feature some Percheron and Belgian lines.
Even the Hanoverian warmblood horses we bred, which also stem from draft horses in part from eons ago, were the older style homlier types with long noses, big eyes and ears with lots of white. Bloodlines such as the Grande line were a particular favorite of mine. The Dutch warmblood horses we now breed also stem from heavier Holstein breeds and Groningen Dutch agricultural working horse lines. I guess it is their great temperaments and quiet steady work ethic that I find so appealing.
Funny enough, years later in honor of the great day out we had watching the brewery horse teams compete at Peterborough with my brother, I named my Dutch Warmblood/Percheron cross bred Charrington inspired by the Charrington Bass brewery. No matter that he has never been driven! I am proud to say he has now attained Grand Prix level in dressage.
So it is not surprising that when we happened to pass by a Shire Horse Center in Cheshire, driving from Manchester airport south to Shropshire, that I would quickly plead with my husband to pull in.
Handily the stud had a neighboring pub so that helped seal the deal, where we planted ourselves in the garden and enjoyed a cold beer and 'Ploughman's Lunch' after our long overnight flight from New York. Our kids were with us on this trip; and they enjoyed sitting on a deck over the river while watching the ducks, hens and other various animal life go about their day on this early lunchtime summer day.
Over the bar I noticed a photo of two Shires standing at the bar which naturally inspired a conversation. Yes, the owner had brought inside two of their award winning champion stallions for a Guinness. I could not imagine how they had navigated the twisting turns and corridor of the old Inn building, but these were the days before Photoshop, and the picture was real.
We had barely downed our lunch before I was dragging everybody off to take a tour of the Cotebrook Shire Horse Center.
This was many years before the Center received a rural development grant from the E.U. and has since won multiple awards for best 'Small Visitor' attraction in Cheshire. The idea to open up the farm to visitors was the notion of a man who loved his horses, who had shown them to great success across Britain including The Horse of the Year Show and the Peterborough Show. He had set up the wire fenced paddocks with grass pathways between them so visitors could stroll the pathways for a nominal fee and admire the horses up close and personal.
After we had investigated all the horses in the pastures, trotted alongside the babies in the fields and petted the contented, quiet mares munching on the far forty, we arrived back at the brick stable-yard.
The owner, Alistair King, was there to greet us, having heard from the barman that we were horse folk. He proudly brought out his marvelous stallion, King, and two other studs whose names escape me now. My daughter, who is as horse nuts as I am, was quick to step up and pat the shoulders of the 18.2h.h stallions. She could just about reach them. Both the owner and I, eyed her open-toed sandals with a horseman's eye, and he uttered a reminder to "Watch yer Feet young 'un," in broad accent. She was aware and deftly stepped back as the horse moved lightly on his feet and began prancing with excitement at all the attention.
There are some wonderful stallions here that are available worldwide via AI with chilled/frozen semen for breeding for the draft horse breeding aficionado including and Moorfield Edward and Moorfield Ted.
Edward is one of only seven Super Premium Stallions worldwide and is a tremendous stock getter. He won the National Champion Stock Stallion award in 2012 and 2011, with his son Moorfield Ted reserve to him in 2011 and two of his sons (including Moorfield Ted) reserve to him in 2012. In 2013 Edward was reserve National Champion Stock Stallion to his son - by one point! Points for this award are based on the success of his progeny exhibited at the National Shire Horse Championship Show held at Peterborough and at the Final of the Shire Horse of the Year Show.
It was a super day out and one I would highly recommend. Two years ago I was in the same neighborhood and stopped in once more to see how things were going. The facility had developed to include a cafe, a gift shop, a video showroom and a whole lot of other creatures to view. They included Shetland ponies, white pigs and Hebridean sheep, peacocks, owls, ducks and hens, polecats, red foxes and many more. The list of what you can see there just depends on what has come in as a rescue case or what has recently been born on the farm. On this particular re-visit a pig had just given birth.
It appears I wasn't the only one to appreciate the place, as there was a tree planting area with a photo of H.R.H. Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall setting a tree. Over 1500 native trees have now been planted on the property.
What a wonderful way to grow a horse business! Agri-tourism is a staple of British life and such a good education for everyone. So, if you find yourself on the A49, two miles north of Tarporley, stop in for a quick bite at the Alvanley Arms Inn and take a tour of the Cotebrook Shire Horse Center.
If you want to take it to a whole other level, check out their special 'Experience Days.' You can book a day to include everything from mucking out the stables and feeding the horses, to preparing for the show ring by washing the feathers and plaiting the mane. Plus, you will be able to learn all about the history of these native horses, from their carrying of knights into battle during the Middle Ages, to their near extinction in the 1950's with the domination of tractors.
Various aspects of stud work are explored, depending on season, such as Stallion work, breedlines, scanning and foaling. You can also learn about the ideal conformation of a Shire horse and what the show ring judge is looking for. Alistair King, owner of the internationally renowned Cotebrook Shire Horse Stud has been breeding prize-winning Shire's for over 40 years at the award-winning center and he will personally guide you through your experience.
Love heavy horses? Check in at Catskill Horse magazine June 15th Edition for more on heavy/draft horses, with our forthcoming article on showmanship and general care of these noble beasts of toil.
Here is a snapshot of the email we received in response to this article.
Thank you for the wonderful article you have written about Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre. You clearly enjoyed your visit, which has lingered in your memory! We are extremely passionate about our Shires and love to share them with our visitors and we strive hard to make sure that everyone has a great experience to remember for a long time. Overseas visitors are especially welcome to visit our native Shire horses – the largest breed of horse in the world!
I will share your story on facebook and twitter and hopefully you will get lots of new people looking at your website.
Thank you once again
Janet & Alistair
Alistair and Janet King
Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre