When Ken and Marlys Knuth were looking at retirement, they wanted to be ready with a hobby. Raising horses on their acreage outside of Slayton seemed a possibility.

“I thought I wanted to raise Clydesdales,” Ken said. “My neighbor up the road came home with these Shires that he had found. I just think they look a lot nicer than the Clydes.”

So the Knuths purchased some grade Shires to see if they really wanted to get into raising horses. After finding it satisfying, they purchased their first registered horse from Carl Heitkamp of Adrian for $2,500.

That was 10 years ago.

Now they run 16 brood mares, have a stud that was imported from England, and currently have 27 Shires on the farm. They sell horses from coast to coast.

“We started as a hobby and it’s turned into a mini-business,” Marlys said. They call their horse farm Sudden Creek Shires.

The business portion helps pay for the hobby, since showing horses is an expensive proposition. Their success at showing in turn helps the business.

The year 2006 was a big one for the Knuths. They had the Grand Champion Shire Stud at the Minnesota State Fair. They also went to the National Shire Show, held that year in Columbus, Ohio. They wanted to see how they were doing compared to other breeders.

Their filly Sally won reserve national grand champion. They purchased the filly when she was less than a year old from Clark Jensen in Nebraska. While she wasn’t from the Knuth’s herd, it showed they had a good eye.

In the driving competition, their team won the Unicorn, which is a cart pulled by a three-horse hitch that has a pair next to the cart led by a point horse. (The Knuths do not drive in shows. Joe Biren of Slayton, the ag teacher at Murray County Central High School, has driven for them in the past.)

Those two prizes made a successful show, but they had the additional pleasure of seeing one of the horses from their herd take a prize. It was a horse they had sold to a woman in Ohio, and she won the National Shire Under Saddle award riding the horse, Sudden Creek Oprah.

People wanting horses for shows are the Knuth’s primary customers (followed by those with carriage businesses), so color and marking are important. Shires come in black, gray and bay, and the bays can be hard to sell, Ken said, unless you find someone who specializes in bays.

“People usually like them black black (i.e., dark black),” Marlys said. “They like four white socks and a nice blaze down the front of the head. If we have a mare that for three or four years produces a colt that is off-color, we may end up selling her just because we’re out to sell the offspring.”

They do their selling on the internet site of the American Shire Horse Association. Their buyers are nationwide, from New Jersey to California. These are serious customers.

“They don’t have a problem flying into Sioux Falls, coming out with their video camera and taking pictures,” Marlys said. And if they buy, some send “a horse trailer with their farrier to pick it up.”

Ken said that a typical price for a newborn or a weanling filly that’s really marked well is $5,000 to $7,000, though they have sold them for a lot less if they weren’t marked “correctly.” He said right now there is such a shortage of mares, a good mare will start at $6,000.

The shortage of mares is part of the general shortage of Shire horses in the United States. The breed is slowly rebuilding.

“The Shire breed was about dead in the United States 20 to 30 years ago,” Ken said. “At the end of the war, when tractors came in, the Shire breed in essence just about died out in the U.S.”

Ken said the United States was down to a couple breeders out West. In fact, he said, just about all of the Shire horses in the United States are only four or five generations removed from England, where the breed remained strong, and from where horses have been imported to revive the breed here.

“I’ve heard there are only 1,500 to 1,800 Shires in the United States,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s right or not, but that’s what I’ve heard.” Pamela Correll, secretary of the American Shire Horse Association, responded to an e-mail query saying that she thinks Ken is close. She said they have no way of knowing for sure since not everyone registers their horses, or reports a death.

While the breed’s origin is not crystal clear, sources tie its development to England. Like most draft horses, it was first developed as a war horse and is thought to have come from the English Great Horse. Size alone is not what attracts the Knuths.

“I like their looks, their feathering,” Ken said. “They’re very classy looking.” Marlys added, “They’re easy to work with. They’re very smart horses. Very docile.”

The Knuths’ stud is their fourth one. The first one died, and the next two did not throw good color. Their current stud was imported from England, an 18-hands tall, 2,200-pound fellow called Maggie. (You might think that a stud with a name like Maggie would not be taken seriously, but Maggie is actually a shortened form of Cyanbellam Magellan.) His first crop of foals pleased the Knuths.

Foaling is the busy time. To save a lot of middle-of-the-night trips to the barn, they mounted a wireless camera so they can watch the birthing pen on a monitor in the house. “If they’re laying down (foaling), we’re down there,” Ken said.

While selling is their main purpose, they will continue to show, especially given their success in 2006. Their busy schedule of family affairs in 2007 kept them from showing, but they plan to be back out there in 2008.

Marlys is fully retired from a career in education, the last 15 years of which she was director of an alternative school in Worthington. Ken is “transitioning into retirement” from his job at Finley Engineering Co., a communications consulting firm in Slayton. Retirement is no small matter for the Knuths. If you’ve ever stood near a Shire horse, you know they’ve gotten into something big.

ASHA’s current list of Shire horse breeders includes five other Minnesotans: Carl Heitkamp of Adrian, Russell Brand of Zimmerman, Caroline Rud of Dexter, Ken Letourneau of Stillwater and Danelle Kinney of Red Wing.

To learn more log on to The American Shire Horse Association, www.shirehorse.org; The Shire Horse Society in England, www.shire-horse.org.uk; or contact Ken and Marlys Knuth, Sudden Creek Shires, (507) 836-8758, knuth@frontiernet.net.