The English Shire horse is a breed from England whose original purpose was to carry knights during the Middle Ages. In the U.S., the breed has historically been used for pulling heavy loads and difficult farm work. Today, this breed has been nearly wiped out due to the invention of tractor and other machinery.
Ree Zaphiropoulos, of the Diamond Z Ranch, owns the English Shires of the Diamond Z English Shire Hitch and has been working with the breed for at least 20 years, doing exhibitions, rodeo performances and educational programs and participating in parades throughout the country.
“I love the fact that the FFA kids come out,” Zaphiropoulos said. “We do some demonstrations off and on at the elementary schools.”
Although she wants to enjoy her horses, Zaphiropoulos said part of her goal is to promote and preserve the English Shire horse breed and to demonstrate the breed’s significance.
“Just the whole idea of harnessing and the old way of life needs to be seen by young people,” she said. “Every year we have about three to five young people working at the ranch and they work with the horses … and they learn how to hitch them up and harness them. So it’s a really good experience for them.”
Though these horses are quite large, usually standing over six feet and weighing around 2,000 pounds, Zaphiropoulos said English Shires have calm dispositions.
“The English shire horse is known for its quiet, gentle personality,” she said. “They don’t want to hurt you and they want to please you and it’s just wonderful to be around them. And they’re sweet. They give you love.”
Zaphiropoulos and other personnel of the Diamond Z Ranch have obtained a significant reputation throughout the country with these Shire horses.
“People know us,” Zaphiropoulos said. “We go all over the country … and people love to see those big black horses, and what I’m really proud of is they say that the Budweiser people have nothing on us.”
Despite their reputation, Zaphiropoulos said it is still difficult to find English Shire horses for the hitch due to their small numbers – there are only about 4,000 registered English Shire horses.
“For us it’s very difficult to find nice big, black geldings,” she said. “So it’s hard for us to keep our hitch going.”
The Diamond Z Ranch and Zaphiropoulos have also managed to improve the life expectancy of their Shire horses. A large part of this achievement has to do the horses’ feed. In England, Shires only live to be around 12 years old.
Zaphiropoulous had a nutritionist help determine what nutrients were in the feed the ranch uses and what nutrients needed to be supplemented, and now her horses are living well past 12 years. Duke, who is 18 years old, is currently her oldest horse, though a previous horse lived to be 24 years old.
Through events, demonstrations and lots of hard work, The Diamond Z Shire Hitch continues to do a lot for the English Shire horse breed. Though it’s expensive and difficult, Zaphiropoulos says she enjoys it.
“It is (worth it) to me,” she said. “They’re beautiful.”