Farming family’s enduring love affair with the gentlest of giants

Penistone Show takes place this weekend. Chris Berry speaks to a stalwart of the show and looks ahead to the South Yorkshire event.

John Richardson and grand-daughter Megan with Tochill Lady Rosalind and foal Tochill Lady Florence

Shire horses are known as the gentle giants of the rural world and one owner whose personality matches the breed is John Richardson, of Malt Kiln Farm, West Bretton.

Laying aside the fact that he nearly crushed my little finger with a handshake, John is a man with not just a passion for Shires but very much a soft centre.

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“You know for all the pleasure we have had out of having Shires now for over 30 years and for all the achievements, there is nothing that can match one of the really special moments that means so much. We were showing at the Great Yorkshire and a mother came up to me with her severely disabled teenage son and just asked whether she could have a picture of him with our Shire, Tochill Lady Louise.

“I gave him the lead rope to hold and the enjoyment and pleasure I could see coming out of his face was just, well it was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

“We are really proud of what we have achieved, by way of breeding and success at the shows over the years but I don’t think we realised when we started just how much pleasure we give to others by bringing our Shires.”

Next weekend John and his family will be at Penistone Show but this year it will be an extra special occasion as the South & West Yorkshire Shire Hiring Society is staging its annual show too. John has been chairman of the society for the past 22 years having taken over from well-known and respected breeder Thomas Lodge, of Denby Dale.

In years gone by when these workhorses were the real horsepower on farms, Shire horse stallion men would roam Yorkshire offering their stallions to cover farmers’ mares. It was a lucrative trade back in the first half of the last century but as numbers declined those who kept with Shires on their farms formed what became a co-operative of farmers to hire just one stallion for the season.

“A group of between four and six of us travel all over the UK in September each year checking out the stallion that we are going to hire for next April. It then stays in our care from then until August and during that time it covers the mares in the society.

“Whilst we are all looking for the stallion to provide individual breeding characteristics we try to find one that is most suitable for us all. This year the stallion we have had, Cai Bethlyn Real Enterprise, has covered 14 of the society’s mares.

What we all want out of a stallion is for it to be easy to handle, but not at the expense of losing its presence. Stallions are full of testosterone and you wouldn’t want that any other way, but you have to make sure you’re the boss right at the start and that he knows this. You want your stallion to have something about him and the best are seldom easy to handle.”

Shires were used at Malt Kiln Farm two generations ago when John’s grandfather John Demain moved here from Priestley Green, near Halifax and John remembers them being used whilst he was still at school. Today’s farm runs to 140 acres and includes a 40-strong commercial suckler herd with 50 acres of feed wheat.

“We came out of dairy farming eight years ago. We certainly don’t miss the getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning, but we went into sucklers because we missed having new life on the farm.”

New life is also evident in their paddocks as one of their latest foals, Tochill Lady Florence, came padding up to mare Tochill Lady Rosalind whilst John and his 11-year-old granddaughter Megan began preparations for Penistone. “We started with Shires when we attended a reduction sale in Howden and bought three foals. One of those was Hasholme Olive that ended up being our foundation mare. Since then we have never bought another mare.”

Attendance at shows started in 1992. It was at the behest of John’s eldest daughter, Emma, who knew they had something special.

“We had this filly foal and I told Dad that it was too good to just stay at home. We’d never shown before so we had to get friends to show us how to plait and make it look right and we went to Otley Show. When we won it was as though we had been at the Horse of the Year Show and won the overall championship. We were ecstatic,” Emma said.

Buoyed by their early success the family, including John’s wife Margaret, daughters Emma and Helen and son Edward, began attending even more and with similar success. In the years that have followed they have won the English Stallion Championship with Tochill Sir Alfred; one of their colts that was bred at Malt Kiln has won the American Grand Championship at the Calgary Stampede; and they have also won at the German Stallion Championship.

“My preference when showing has always been stallions and pairs. I well remember being at Penistone one time and my pair had given a flawless demonstration; but Emma and Helen had taken in a pair of foals too. The judge then decided he wanted to see the foals perform as well and blow me if the foals didn’t eclipse mine! That’s family for you.”


Penistone Show takes place next Saturday and is South Yorkshire’s premier agricultural show including classes in sheep, cattle, pigs and an excellent poultry competition.

Emma will be taking part in the Ridden Shire classes this year and was getting in some practice on gelding Joseph Jebb when I visited earlier this week. John tells of how there is an increased popularity in the breed as a ridden animal.