Pic: Bruce Deacon

The End of the Road?

6th April 2018

Heavy horses are the gentle giants of the equine world, but sadly their hoof steps are growing fainter. Jack Watkins explains how it happened and why the Rare Breeds Survival Trust wants your help to safeguard their future.

When St Pancras International announced it was to run a series of special events, exhibitions and installations leading up to the station’s official 150th birthday this October, the programme was launched in a highly nostalgic way. At the start of the year, a dray pulled by two heavy horses from Young’s Brewery rolled up to the forecourt with a delivery of St Pancras IPA, specially commissioned for the Betjeman Arms, inside the station entrance. As the terminal of the Midland Railway Company, St Pancras had a long association with the delivery of beer from Burton- on-Trent, and you’d have had to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this once familiar sight of two big horses in harness on London’s streets.

Sadly, not only are dray horses almost completely absent from the capital now, but the future of heavy horses in this country has probably never been bleaker. So much so, in fact, that the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) has launched a campaign to draw attention to their plight and to raise funds to safeguard the future. Pointing to a decline that began during World War One, when thousands of heavy horses died whilst hauling heavy artillery in the trenches, the charity’s chief executive officer Tom Beeston says: “These heavy horses were here for us when we needed them; now it’s our turn to save these iconic breeds.”

Without urgent action, the RBST fears the three British heavy horse breeds – the Shire, the Clydesdale and the Suffolk Punch – could be extinct within a decade. What a loss that would be. Heavy horses are as much part of this country’s heritage as oak trees, hawthorn hedges and village greens. As working beasts, they are steeped in history. Originally their size was necessary to carry knights of the medieval period, wearing up to 30 stone in heavy armour, into battle, and Edward I was just one of several English monarchs who tried to put a stop to Scottish knights utilising them for the same purpose, by imposing a ban on the export of horses of military value north of the border.

Best known of them all, the Shire’s origins can be traced back to Tudor times, to what in those days was simply referred to as the Great Horse. Along with their military service, these animals’ immense strength and resilience was required to draw cumbersome, springless carts along the pre-Macadamised tracks which, through persistent use, must have resembled bogs for much of the year, especially in parts of the country with heavy soil.

By the 18th century, breeders were beginning to specialise in developing slighter bodied, speedier types of horse for lighter work, and heavier sorts required for far more laborious farm duties, and it was now that the Shire, between about 16.2 and 17.3 hands (each hand is 4”” long), with its magnificently arched neck, came into its own. Capable of pulling a net weight of five tons, and with a docile temperament, the Shire didn’t simply become the farmer’s friend. It was used to pull barges along the country’s developing canal network, pulled the first omnibuses and trams, and, of course, went to work for the brewing industry.

The handsomely feathered Clydesdale is the Shire’s northern counterpart, though often a little longer in the leg and quicker across the ground. It was first developed in the Clyde Valley in the 18th century by crossing the local, tough, gig-pulling mares with the historically powerful Flemish stallions. The Clydesdales became immensely popular, not only bought by farmers in the north of England but also, after the Industrial Revolution, becoming the most in-demand top quality draughthorse in the world. They were exported in great numbers, and it was a Clydesdale that was used to deliver the first case of beer from the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St Louis, after the lifting of Prohibition in the US in 1933.

Despite being smaller than the Shire and Clydesdales, at about 16 hands, as a puller between the cart shafts, the Suffolk Punch is reckoned to have no equal, except perhaps the continental Percheron. Incredibly well muscled and short legged, its ability to do well on relatively poor feed, alongside a longevity which makes it able to go on working into its mid-20s, made it a great favourite for pulling brewers’ drays and railway vans. It is considered Britain’s oldest breed of heavy horse, its name having been traced back to 1506. It may even be a legacy of the Viking invasions, given its resemblance to the agricultural Jutland breed, and, despite its name, has long been considered native to the whole of East Anglia.

So when did it all start to go wrong for our heavy horses? The first tractors started to become available in the 1920s, but in 1936 there were still a million working horses on British farms. And they went on having their supporters for a while after that as the early tractors were unwieldy and prone to break down or get stuck in boggy ground. As late as 1960 there were still 46,000 working horses on farms. Of course, machine technology improved in leaps and bounds after that, so no-one bothered keeping records of the number of working horses any more. Whereas one man with two horses and a single furrow plough could hope to turn over about an acre in a day, today in a tractor with a five-furrow plough, he can expect to turn over 40 times that in the same amount of hours.

We maybe shouldn’t get too idyllic about the past, and the idea of horses on farms. I once knew a countryman who kept Shire horses, loving them and treating them like kings and queens. As a boy in the 1940s he’d worked on a farm and seen how they used to work the horses to death. “One afternoon it was raining like hell,” he told me. “We’d done two loads of cow carting with one of the mares, and I nipped into the granary to get her some oats. The farmer caught me and shouted: ‘Don’t give that mare all them oats, she’s not working hard enough to warrant that!’ When I thinks as how now I have these horses here, doing nothing, and feeding them three times a day – yet he’d begrudge that poor old bugger a mouthful of feed. Oh, they were mean to ’em.”

Even more reason to give them a hand now. The RBST reports that last year only 244 heavy horse fillies were born, with the Suffolk Punch’s continuing decline being the starkest, with only 14 born. The charity is trying to raise £375,000 for the UK National Livestock Gene Bank so that genetic material can be saved, to ensure genetic health within the three breeds and to make it possible to recreate them in the future, should the worst-case scenario occur and one or all of the breeds become extinct. The RBST is also campaigning to promote the modern uses of heavy horses for commercial logging, riding, showing and riding. In St Pancras’s anniversary year, we can at least raise a pint to the cause.

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