Heavy Horses Need Your Help!
For centuries, heavy horses have played an important role in British lives. These magnificent animals are iconic features of our nation’s heritage and have served us well in times of war. But their very existence is now under threat.
The Gentle Giants
Gentle giants, our heavy horses have a special place in our hearts and remind us of days gone by. It would be a tragedy if we were to lose them. Shire Horses arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066 and were intrinsic to everyday life by the Middle Ages. The obvious choice for knights bearing heavy suits of armour, these powerful horses were ridden in battle and then utilised by farmers when they began to cultivate larger fields.
During the industrial revolution, heavy horses pulled barges along the canals, carrying goods to and from factories and the docks. They pulled trams long the streets in urban areas and rubbish collection vehicles in towns and cities.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were some two and a half million heavy horses working in Britain. In the 1920s, lorries and tractors sparked a decline in the use of the animals.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) has warned that if efforts aren’t made to save them, our three favourite breeds – the Shire Horse, Suffolk Punch and Clydesdale – could disappear within the next 10 years. Suffolk Punches are now rarer than giant pandas and there are thought to be only 80 viable breeding females in the country. Just 240 Shire, 199 Clydesdale and 25 Suffolk pedigree foals were registered in the last year. As recently as 1943, almost 3,000 foals were registered. The decline is shocking.
New Roles for Iconic Horses
The challenge will be to find new uses for heavy horses as their traditional roles have long since disappeared. They can still play an important role in the Army, policing, commercial logging and equine therapy. These breeds are still ridden regularly in military pageants as they are the only horses capable of carrying the enormous kettle drums used by the Household Cavalry.
The horses are also great riding animals and could prove extremely beneficial at a time when riders are becoming heavier.
Heavy horses worked tirelessly and stoically on the land. They pulled royal carriages and transported beer. They played a crucial role in industry and agriculture and were everyday sites until after the Second World War. Mechanisation then took over and there was no longer a need to breed these fine animals.
Heavy Horse Appeal
The RBST has now launched a Heavy Horse Appeal with the aim of raising £375,000 to fund the breeding of heavy horses and the collection of genetic material from our rare breeds. This can then be held in the UK National Livestock Gene Bank. The idea is to place the semen of 25 unrelated stallions in the gene bank in case it is needed in the future to save the breeds.
The horses have disappeared gradually over several decades leaving many people unaware of the looming crisis. A wonderful feature of our heritage is disappearing and action is required to save the heavy horse breeds.