Shire Horse History R/T Gypsy Cobs

Recently some good information was shared on the Facebook group page, Proper Cobs.  This website has recently been developed to help educate us all about the historical perspective of the horses that went into the make-up of the modern gypsy cob.  Many people emphasize the importance of the shire type draft horse as it contributed to the look of the gypsy’s wagon horse, and want people to consider the treasured look of the older true working horses versus the modern show cart horses.  The following website explores the history of the Shire horse:

“Lex” is a 13 hand gypsy cob stallion who captures the qualities of a shire in miniature form

Following is a statement by Kirsty Farnfield to Facebook Proper Cobs group in July, 2012 re: discussion about breed type.  Ms. Farnfield has been involved with the shire breed as well as familiar with the development of the gypsy horse and its development in USA.

I’m glad my site is being used for the purpose I intended it – to educate people on what happens when breeds lose their way. I put up the “old style shires” page to illustrate exactly what quality it is we have lost.

Part of the issue with shires was losing their purpose and being repurposed into something they were never meant to be – aided and abetted by people new to the breed who didn’t know the difference between a CART horse and a CARRIAGE horse.

Shires are CART horses, meant for heavy draught work, ploughing, agricultural and heavy cartage – hauling heavy loads, an equivalent of a lorry/HGV/big rig truck or tractor.

CART horses include (old style of all the following) : shires, clydesdales, suffolk punches, percherons, ardennes, brabants, belgian draughts and similar low-slung, HEAVY weight pullers.

CARRIAGE horses however, are lightweight, flashy, pretty, high-stepping horses bred to pull light pretty carriages for leisure, swift travel etc, an equivalent to a sports car, a two-seater, convertible or similar. Using a draught horse to pull a carriage is like turning up to an evening at the opera in a tractor. Our ancestors would think we were doing it for a joke and laugh at us!

CARRIAGE horses include: hackneys, Cleveland bays, orlov trotters, French trotters, Lipizzaner (any mares bred through the Spanish Riding school of Vienna are used for driving), original holsteiners and Hanoverians (not modern day ones).  Of all these, only the hackney has remained true to type.

The original “vanner” is a TERM not a breed per- se — it was a TYPE of horse used to pull VANS – as in not carriages, not carts, but lighter loads vehicles, post office vans, in-town deliveries, bakers, butchers etc, like, you guessed it, a VAN (enclosed delivery wagon).  Multipurpose horses– useful, strong,  sometimes pretty– but functional.   Vanner has LONG since lost its use. (Vanner horses as a using term has not been active for decades.)

Vanners included fell, dales, generic cobs, crossbreeds of various draughts, carriage horses, native ponies etc – any old heinz 57 that was capable of the job really, with enormous variety.

With Shire horses a change came about; people new to the breed came to own them, and didn’t realize that a carriage does not equal a cart. They started showing them in pretty lightweight carriages, and started breeding for high-stepping and lightness, not strength. It got worse in the USA where breed standard changed to such a degree that American shires are no longer allowed to be registered by the Shire Horse Society, which meant that ASHA (the American society) splintered off and is the only place they can be registered. The change from the traditional short, stocky, immensely heavy and predominantly GREY French percheron, into the light, leggy, high stepping, tall, and predominantly BLACK American “percheron” is the most marked change – the two are no longer the same breed by any stretch of the imagination.

Because horse owners and breeders cannot judge their own stock, judges have to be pulled in from other breeds, so Clydesdale judges often judge shires, and they place higher those they like most – those that resemble Clydesdales instead of shires. With the prevalent breeding-in of Clydesdales into the shires, both through official and unofficial methods, the two breeds have become homogenized and almost impossible to tell apart – many modern English shires are indistinguishable from Clydesdales– they have lost their type.

At each National Shire Horse Show I see less and less true shire type on display, this year I saw only ONE stallion who I would have wanted to breed a mare to – the rest were far too light and leggy, not enough feather (it is being systematically minimized and eliminated), not enough bone or type. Even the one I thought worth breeding to didn’t have the “wow” factor of shires of old. 😦

Please, Please, do NOT let this happen to the gypsy horse too!


About minigypsy1

Farmer's daughter raising 6th generation children on Block Farm in west central Illinois. Breeder of Australian Shepherd dogs for 30 years now, applying lifetime knowledge to establishing a new breed of pony, the miniature gypsy horse.
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