Shire horses

Shire horses are big. The minimum size for a registered Shire stallion is sixteen and a half hands. That’s 66 inches at the withers just above the front shoulder. The average size of a registered Shire is seventeen and a half hands and the largest Shire horse on record was a friendly brute named Mammoth. He lived in Toddington Mills, Bedfordshire, England in the late 1840s. Mammoth, or Sampson as some called him, measured just over a whopping twenty-one and a half hands.

Gene Loxtercamp’s first two Shires came from England and from the same general set of genetics that produced Mammoth.

“I was eight years old when my Dad sold our draft horse,” Loxtercamp, a Sauk Centre area farmer, said.

Years later, a neighbor suggested to Loxtercamp that he should get some draft horses. At the time Loxtercamp had started collecting vintage horse-drawn implements and he didn’t need much urging to get some horses to put them to work. He began a search for a team.

“I visited with a fellow from Litchfield that had Shires,” Loxtercamp said. “He started looking for horses for me and he found a pair in Ohio. They were 18 hands and had been imported from England.”

That was in 1986 — more than 30 years ago. And with that purchase, Loxtercamp and his wife Pat found themselves in the Shire horse breeding business.

“Since that pair came from England, I registered them both with the Shire Horse Society in England as well as the American Shire Horse Association,” Loxtercamp said.

According to the American Shire Horse Association, registered Shires’ colors are “black, brown, bay, gray, or the rare chestnut/sorrel are the preferred colors.  Excessive white markings and roaning are undesirable.”

The Association describes a registered Shire stallion as follows:

“He should possess a masculine head, and a good crest with sloping, not upright, shoulders running well into the back, which should be short and well coupled with the loins. The tail should be set well up, and not what is known as “goose-rumped.” Both head and tail should be carried erect. The ribs should be well sprung, not flat sided, with good middle, which generally denotes good constitution. The most essential parts of a stallion are his feet and joints. The feet should have open necks, big around the top of the coronets, with plenty of length in the pasterns. When in motion, he should go with force — using both knees and hocks, which the latter should be kept close together. He should go straight and true before and behind.”

Shire horses fitting that description were very rare throughout the world when Loxtercamp purchased his first pair. They were especially rare in the United States. American horse breeders developed a strategy to increase Shire numbers.

“We started a breeding program,” Loxtercamp said. “The idea was that you’d cross a Percheron horse with a Shire. Then you’d cross the off spring from that mating with a Shire. After four generations, you could register your horse as a Shire.”

The Percheron/Shire breeding up program was discontinued when the number of Shires in the U.S. had increased. Shires are still not common, however. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy estimates that there are fewer than 2,000 of the horses in the world and around 200 per year are registered in the United States.

“There are more than there used to be,” Loxtercamp points out.

Gene and Pat sold registered Shires for a quarter of a century. But, due to some joint replacements, Gene has discontinued that work.

“I hardly have enough time to run the farm,” Gene says of his 500 acres of prime Stearns County land.

Shires were famous for their pulling capabilities in England. A Shire is said to have pulled a 45- ton load at an English exposition in 1924. The exact amount is unknown since the weight that was pulled exceeded the maximum reading on the dynamometer used to measure the amount of the pull. Because they are capable of pulling heavy loads, many Shires were dedicated to pulling beer carts from breweries to thirsty customers at public houses. Some English breweries still use them this way.  

Loxtercamp still has four Shires, but he doesn’t use them for extreme pulling events or for beer deliveries. Instead, he’s joined his love of Shire horses with his passion for 19th-century horse drawn implements and wagons.

As a long-time member of the Northern Minnesota Draft Horse Association, Loxtercamp has plenty of opportunity to hitch his horses to his implements. Each time he does that, he’s creating a living history demonstration.

“The Draft Horse Association has a field day every year at the Stearns County Fair in Sauk Centre,” Loxtercamp said. “We have a lot of demonstrations there.”

The Association also holds annual spring and fall field days at a member’s farm.

“Everything gets used at those field days,” Loxtercamp said. “We plant and harvest potatoes and grain, make hay, and use lots of different wagons.” 

This year’s Stearns County Fair will be July 25-29 and the Draft Horse Association fall field day will be on the Greg and Sandy Walz farm near Richmond, Minn. on Sept. 22. Loxtercamp plans on being at each of those events to demonstrate implements with his Shire horses.