This article is an extension of one published in Rare Breeds NewZ for August 2009.

Shire Horses in New Zealand

By Michael Trotter

If you look into the history of horses in New Zealand, you won’t find any reference to the Shire breed being here until towards the end of the nineteenth century. Initially this could be a bit puzzling as their very close cousins, the Clydesdales, were well established in the 1840s. And even today the two are often interbred. So why no early Shires?

If you broaden the scope of your search, the answer is not hard to find. The name “Shire” was not adopted by its breed society in Great Britain until 1884 and it was not universally in use until well into the twentieth century. (The Shorter Oxford Dictionary records the first use of ‘shire horse’ as being in 1875.) The website of the Shire Horse Society in the UK tells us that the breed was previously called the Black Horse or the English Cart Horse. However there were other names too, particularly the Lincolnshire – which in New Zealand was sometimes known simply as the Lincoln.

For the researcher, there is still a bit of a problem. If we find an historical reference to a Black Horse, can we be sure that this isn’t just a description of its colour? For instance, on the front page of the Auckland newspaper, the Daily Southern Cross for 16 September 1843, there is reference to the ‘celebrated Black Horse "Lucifer."’ Does the word ‘black’ as used in this context refer to the colour or the breed? I’ve looked at a number of advertisements published around this time and it’s not always easy to tell for sure one way or the other.

Newspaper advertisement

There is less ambiguity with the other early name, English Cart Horse, which also appeared here in the 1840s. The advertisement reproduced on the left is from the Daily Southern Cross of 26 December 1855. And although the name Shire was being used in this country at least as early as 1892, it is interesting that both Lincolnshire and Lincoln were still in use as late as 1905.

So when can we say the first Shire horses arrived in New Zealand? Was it in the 1890s when they began to be referred to by that name, or was it much earlier in the 1840s and 50s when they were being called something else? I suppose to some extent it depends on exactly what we mean by the term ‘breed.’

Menestrel Royal Harold

In 1901 the New Zealand Department of Agriculture made two imported Shire stallions available at stud with view to improving farm draught horses – one in the South Island and one in the North. These two stallions, named Danger Signal and Hertfordshire Boy respectively, had been presented to the country by the well-known English breeder, Lord Rothchild, and other imports soon followed. To some extent the use of the stallions was being encouraged because of departmental officers’ reports of the widespread use of inferior draught animals. The stallion shown here is Menestrel Royal Harold, two years old, at the Department’s Moumahaki Experimental Farm in 1907.

An interesting comment was made in the Department’s 1908 Annual Report to the effect that while light draught horses being bred at that time were suitable for farm work, a heavier animal was required for cartage in the city. I would have thought that at least for some farm work, such as ploughing, the heavier animal would have been advantageous.

However, in a 1938 publication, The Breeding and Management of Live Stock, author A. W. G. Lipscomb, noted that “So far as can be ascertained, there are no Shire horses in New Zealand, although they are used to some extent in Australia. For average farm work in New Zealand, Shires are considered a trifle too heavy, and being less active, are not so well suited to walking on soft soil and uneven country.”

After the second World War, of course, the place of draught horses was largely taken over by the tractor and the motor truck.

Although some Shire blood may have survived, probably in diluted form, it was not until the 1990s that the breed became re-established in New Zealand, following the earlier importation Ruskington Harvester in 1985.


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