The last working shire horses
Tom Nixon, Edward MacDowell and Coral Hill with Heath (left) and Nobby (right)
Tom Nixon, trainer at Operation Centaur shire horse centre
‘I grew up on a farm in Ireland. I was 15 when I got my first shire and I’ve always had them since. I learned from my father. I did jobs on the farm and forestry work with my horses.
‘Five years ago a job came up at Operation Centaur. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life. It’s in the blood. It’s like being a priest and getting a calling.
‘There’s still a living to be made with shire horses. I train them gently for a few months. It takes another year of consistent work to get them used to doing all the jobs – carriage work, ploughing, cutting hay.
‘All the horses have their funny ways. Nobby is our youngest shire horse: he’s nine. He doesn’t like other horses, he loves people. In the field he goes off on his own. Heath is a fantastic worker but he doesn’t like to be brushed or pampered. He likes to get on with the job.
‘Shires are low-impact compared to tractors so they encourage the growth of wild flowers and meadow grass. I don’t worry about working shire horses dying out because they will always be needed.
‘I’m the luckiest man in the world to have this job. I go home from work and can’t wait to go back in the morning. I have to drag myself away.
‘I think in the future horses will play a bigger part in agriculture. We can’t afford to lose this craft, it would be a tragedy if we did. They’re a part of our identity.’
Coral Hill, rider and volunteer at Operation Centaur shire horse centre
‘In the 1800s, there were around 40,000 working heavy horses in London. Shire horses were the lorries of their day, pulling heavy vehicles. Once things became mechanised it wasn’t practical to use horses. We’ve got the last working herd in London.
‘Our horses work as therapists, do environmental work and carriage driving. My favourite bit is the equine therapy. The horses help all sorts, including kids with special needs or from difficult backgrounds.
‘It is a concern the breed could die out. We’re hoping to develop an apprenticeship so we can pass on these skills. It would be such a loss if these beautiful creatures didn’t keep going.’