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What Is the Tallest Horse in the World?

From their impressive stature to their gentle nature, learn what sets these equine giants apart from other horses.
A bay shire horse with white leg feathering grazes in a peaceful green pasture
Getty Images

A common question among horse lovers everywhere is, “What breed of horse is the tallest?”

The answer? Undoubtedly, the Shire.

The History of the Tallest Horse

The Shire is a type of draft horse—in fact, it’s one of the oldest draft breeds. These horses were originally bred in England, and it is widely believed that Shires originated from the English Great Horse of medieval lore.

Shire horses are known for their impressive weight-pulling and -carrying capabilities. Historically, they’ve been used as war horses to carry knights in heavy, 400-pound armor. They have also excelled in jobs such as agriculture, pulling carts, pulling beer delivery drays, and even towing barges back when canal systems were an imperative means of transporting goods. Later, they came full circle as war horses, pulling heavy artillery in the First and Second World Wars.

The shire horse almost disappeared after the Second World War, declining from more than a million horses worldwide to a few thousand by the 1960s. Thanks to a dedicated group of breeders, however, they are increasing in numbers each year. The Shire Horse Society, first called the English Cart Horse Society, formed in 1878 as the breed’s registry.

The Shire’s Physical Traits

Shires typically come in colors of black, bay, or gray. The horse’s body is normally dark, while the lower legs are light-colored or white.

Shire stallions are best known for their size, often standing over 18 hands and weighing up to 2,200 pounds. While mares and geldings tend to be a little shorter and lighter, at an average of 17-plus hands, they are still much bigger than even most other large draft breeds.

Shires are identifiable by their regal appearance, broad shoulders and barrel, expressive eyes, Roman nose, large feet, and feathered lower limbs. They are also known for their temperament. Shires are considered “gentle giants”—they’re calm, friendly, and eager to please.

What Are Shires Used For?

Two handsome bay Shire horses pull in cart across a field in full formal harness.
Shires excel in jobs such as agriculture, driving, and even various riding disciplines. | Getty Images

The primary use of the Shire breed has always been pulling heavy loads. In the 1920s, a pair of shires reportedly pulled more than 45 tons (that’s 90,000 pounds!), although the exact weight could not be determined because it exceeded the scale’s capacity.

Today, horse owners use Shires for driving carts, as an alternative to tractors pulling agriculture sleds or plows, logging operations, and various riding disciplines.

Other Record-Breaking Tall Horse Breeds

It should come as no surprise that Shires have held the world record for tallest and largest horse many times over the years.

A Shire named Sampson (although later he was appropriately dubbed Mammoth) was foaled in Bedfordshire, England, in 1846. He measured over 21.2 hands, weighed more than 3,000 pounds, and still holds the record for tallest and heaviest horse to date.

Goliath is one of the most famous Shires, measuring 19.5 hands. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized him as the tallest living horse in the world in 2000.

A few other horse breeds, however, are known for their impressive size, frequently measuring over 17 hands and even upward of 18 hands. The top breeds that tend to produce record-breaking horses in addition to the Shire are the Clydesdale, Belgian Draft, Percheron, and Suffolk. A Belgian Draft horse that lived in Wisconsin, named Big Jake, was close to 20.3 hands, making it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest living horse in 2011.

Related Reading: How To Measure Your Horse’s Height

Sarah Welk Baynum attended Otterbein University for Equine Business & Facility Management and has spent many years working various jobs in the equine industry, including as a veterinary technician. Sarah is a Columbus, Ohio-based freelance writer and published equestrian fiction author. She also actively competes in show jumping and eventing with her two mares: a spicy Warmblood named Tilly and an equally spicy OTTB named Letty.

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