Having thus attempted to trace briefly the genealogy of this ancient breed, through the long period that has elapsed since the days when the earliest kings of this country first directed their attention to the improvement and development of the native horse, it now becomes necessary to consider the variety from the point of view in which it at present exists. Before doing so, however, it may be desirable to cast back one's memory to the vicissitudes through which the old War-horse has passed - assuming that he is accepted as the direct ancestor of the modern Shire horse, and there appears ample ground for believing that he is. In support of this contention, there can be no doubt that the horses which descended from those employed for the purposes of war by the ancient Britons were crossed with heavier animals imported into England from beyond the seas, and it is scarcely likely that, when the horse-breeders of a nation were encouraged by their successive sovereigns to persevere, the strain they were at work upon would be permitted to die out. Besides, the persuasive powers of such monarchs as King Henry VIII could hardly fail to render his subjects complaisant instruments in his hands, and his predecessors upon the throne, moreover, do not appear to have belonged to the class of ruler that would allow their subjects to stultify their royal efforts to improve the equine race, without offering the most vigorous remonstrances applied in a highly practical form. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that until the days of King Henry VIII, at all events, the blood of the Old English War-horse had not been lost, but, on the contrary, had been improved by judicious crossing. Subsequently to that period the Great Horse had become fairly established. and the fertile pastures of the great inland shires were the localities in which the breed was chiefly fostered and produced. The troublesome times which preceded the restoration of the Stuarts may very probably indeed have affected the progress of the animal, as it is only reasonable to infer that Cavaliers and Roundheads alike were not over-particular as to what means they took to get possession of suitable remounts for their cavalry, and doubtless many an excellent stud was broken up in consequence. Probably, therefore, a temporary check to the advancement of the breed may have resulted, but it still survived; and in spite of the unfavourable criticisms passed by the Duke of Newcastle upon the breeders of that period, they could not have been so incompetent after all, for no allusions are subsequently made by later writers to the depreciation in value or degeneracy of the Great Horse. On the contrary, though a lighter variety of animal was being bred as well, the big ones were at the same time being quietly improved.
Although the horse-breeders of England during the past century do not appear to have been benefited by any ultra-enthusiastic chroniclers of their doings, at all events during the earlier portion of that period, there are substantial grounds for assuming that they were working on methodical lines, and, so far as time and opportunity would permit, were manufacturing a breed of native horses. John Scott alludes to the fact in the quotation given from his writings on a former page, and confirmatory evidence is found in the statement that an imported Flemish stallion, which was travelling some of the shires about the year 1820, was the recipient of very little patronage from the farmers in those districts, this tending to show that the English-bred animals were in their opinion the superior.
The increase in stature made by the Great Horse, and the intelligent desire to increase still further his proportions, likewise point to the fact that breeders, if quiet, had none the less been working for the improvement of the breed, whilst the high prices that were realized by the taller animals point conclusively to the upward tendency of the market, which, after all, is the chief barometer by which the popularity and position of a variety can be discovered. It may, therefore, be accepted as a fact that there was a supply of 17-hands horses available in the earlier quarter of the nineteenth century for those who cared to pay for them; and this being so, the evolution of the old War-horse from an undersized, though willing creature, to an equine giant of huge strength and magnificent proportions became an accomplished fact.
During more recent years, the lines of breeders of the Heavy Horse - it would be premature to refer to the animals just yet as Shires - were cast in pleasanter places. There was, in the first place, a ready-made animal for them to exercise their ingenuity upon, the principles of horse-raising and the management of stock had become far better understood, and the facilities for arranging crosses of blood had been infinitely increased. In suggesting that the Heavy Horse men of the nineteenth century have laboured under fewer obstacles than those which confronted their predecessors, there is, however, no desire on the part of the writer to minimize the value of their work. On the contrary, had it not been for their perseverance and intelligence, combined by a liberal expenditure of time and money, the position of the breed would be nothing like what it is. The perfection of any animal - and the Shire horse, as he now exists, is on the threshold of perfection - is always a very difficult task. Still, it is very reasonable to presume that, within the space of a few years more, the number of misfits will be much reduced, and the imperfections which now detract from the value of many a grand specimen of the race will be much less frequently met with.
The present position of the Shire horse may therefore be taken to be that of an animal that can always command a ready sale, both at home and abroad. He possesses a whole army of influential supporters, and is generally accepted as a most profitable animal to breed, and a very useful one to possess by those who require the services of powerful horses. On the other hand, it would be idle to deny the fact that the Shire horse, like many another good animal, has his detractors, who prefer some other breed. His enormous proportions, for instance, are objected to by some, who express the opinion that he is unnecessarily big, oblivious of the fact that it is by virtue of the weight he can throw into his collar that he is enabled to walk away jauntily with such a load behind him as would have appeared incredible to his admirers of a century ago. It is possible that in employing Shire horses for agricultural purposes in some districts their owners are not making the most of their strength, and that a lighter animal would do the work equally well, and in a shorter time; but the whole aim and ambition of breeders of this variety of stock has been to produce the most powerful horses procurable for the purposes of heavy work, relying on the misfits, or such as do not come up to this standard, for purposes of lighter draught. As regards the food question, it naturally occurs that a large frame requires a great deal of keeping up, and if size and weight be required, they can only be maintained by the supply of a liberal amount of nourishment. The firms that employ Shires would scarcely continue to do so did they not find them remunerative slaves; and considering that these animals possess no equal in size or power, and that there is no other breed that can fulfil their duties equally well, it appears that the contentions of their opponents savour somewhat of the hypercritical.