They are the darlings of the agricultural show world, the gentle giants that were the original workhorses before the farm machinery revolution made them virtually redundant in the 1950s. Heavy horses are no longer the force they were in the countryside and have now largely cast off their working class hero image in exchange for the glam and showbiz world of colour and splendour.
Their return to the days when hired travelling men would move from farm to farm hiring out a stallion to farmers with mares is extremely unlikely despite the hopeful lyrics of progressive folk rock band Jethro Tull in their 1978 song Heavy Horses, ‘And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry, they’ll beg for your strength, your subtle power, your noble grace and bearing.’
Shires and Clydesdales, Percherons and Suffolks all name checked in the song haven’t disappeared since their P45 came through from the arable community, instead they’ve found succour in arena entertainment bedecked in decorations that include flights, mane rolls, tail sprigs, tail buns and neck ribbons and pulling a brewery dray or farm cart turnout.
One of the best-known heavy horse breeders in the UK are the Bedfords. Thorpe Hill Farm between Whixley and Thorpe Underwood is the still relatively new home of Paul Bedford who usually has anywhere between 40-50 Shires and Clydesdales at any one time. Paul works alongside one of his sons Matthew who swapped roles with his brother Tom 18 months ago. Tom now works with Samuel Smith’s Brewery’s three Shire horses, where Matthew spent his previous nine years while also helping his father.
Breeding and showing are essential to the Bedfords’ success and Matthew’s wife Verity was responsible for the reinstatement of heavy horse classes to what is now their local show, Aldborough & Boroughbridge last year. It has had a nomadic existence in recent times and has a new venue again this year at Newby Hall between Boroughbridge and Ripon after a short sojourn at RAF Dishforth.
Verity is from Cheshire and met Matthew through the heavy horse show world. She was working for another breeder while studying for an equine degree at Harper Adams University. Verity clearly has her hands full right now with their 15-week-old son Reggie and is on maternity leave from her role as retail manager for Joules clothing at the McArthur Glen York Outlet. She has been the driving force behind the return of the heavy horse classes.
“I’ve been on the committee of the North West & Wales Shire Foal Show for a number of years and as there had been a move to bring back heavy horses at Aldborough & Boroughbridge, and as it is now our local show, I took it on. It’d been a while since they’d had classes as numbers had dwindled but there are two or three in the area who have Shires and Clydesdales in addition to us and the other Bedford family breeders including Walt, Richard and Bill, so entries were healthy last year and they’re looking good for later this month.
“Getting classes up and running is all about the show itself welcoming them back, looking after the exhibitors and attracting sponsors. We are fortunate to have some really good local people like Chris Peacock and Heath Darley and I’d like to think we can build on it.”
Paul and his wife Deborah bought Thorpe Hill Farm four years ago having lived at Sheepwalk Farm in Escrick and now trade as Thorpe Hill Shires and Clydesdales. He had what was widely regarded as the best heavy horse ever seen who sadly passed away last year.
“Metheringham Upton Hamlet was national champion and Horse of the Year champion three times,” says Matthew. “He was probably the most famous Shire for generations. People came from all over the world to see him and we sold his offspring to Australia and the States.
“We try to get a well-bred stallion and well-bred mare together all the time. Our market of buyers is such a varied mix. Some buy them as pets, others for ploughing matches or pulling a wagon. We tend to sell something like six out of every eight foals. Last year one of the biggest heavy horse showmen in America bought all the foals we had.”
The show season is under way and Thorpe Hill has already qualified for the Horse of the Year Show with three-year-old homebred filly Thorpe Hill Melody. Champion and reserve champion awards have been won at other shows and while Paul has won the championship at the Horse of the Year many times Matthew says nothing is taken for granted.
“You just never know, whether you’re being judged at Harrogate for the Great Yorkshire Show; at the Horse of the Year; or at Newby Hall you can never tell what will happen.”