Last week I enjoyed a lovely, albeit rather wet, day photographing some absolutely stunning shire horses for my Wild Hearts project.
The previous day had been fabulously sunny and, on the morning of the shoot, as I packed up the car ready to leave, the weather still looked promising. Then, as I headed further south down the M6, the mist and drizzle descended. By the time I reached the Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre in Cheshire it was well and truly raining and I started to regret my outfit choice! However, I received a thoroughly warm welcome and an equally warm coffee to set me up for the day. With my spirits revived and my toes warmed up, I felt that familiar pre-shoot tingle of anticipation as I was led round to meet Alistair King and some of his stunning horses.
The Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre is the home of Cotebrook Stud where Alistair and his dedicated team have been breeding Shire horses for over 40 years. It is a fabulous place which is currently home to 18 Shire horses, 6 of whom are expecting foals next year. Alistair and his wife Janet are incredibly passionate about the Shire horse breed and ensuring its preservation for future generations. Their primary aim is conservation and education about this majestic breed of heavy horse. Talking to Alistair I came to appreciate what a wealth of knowledge he has at his fingertips. It was fascinating hearing from him all about the history of the Shire, breeding lines and the ideal conformation for a Shire horse – in summary, what I learnt is that it is all about the derriere, in layman’s terms – the bigger the better!
In all seriousness, I felt incredibly privileged to be able to photograph these impressive animals. I was introduced first to Ben Alder who is named after a Scottish mountain and his name means “Hill of Rock and Water”. I also met his half-sister, Loch Anna who is named for a Scottish loch. I was in the very best of company because they are both national champions. Anna has twice been crowned Supreme National Champion female whilst Ben Alder was Supreme National Champion Gelding in 2017. I will be honest though, being close to these wonderful animals whose ancestors have carried us with bravery through countless wars, ploughed our fields and helped turn the wheels of our industry, all I saw was an awe-inspiring animal in whom strength and gentleness are combined. Both Ben Alder and Anna are well over 18hh with Anna actually just a shade below 19hh and yet their eyes shine with gentleness. Standing beside them and understanding the extent of their phenomenal strength makes their willingness to do all that we ask of them even more humbling.
Anyway, before I get too emotional, I’ll get back to telling you a bit more about my day. Because the weather was so awful, I wasn’t able to spend as much time outside with the horses as I would have liked but I did manage to photograph Ben Alder in the field and oh my goodness, what an exquisite movement he has! I also snuck off to see one of the babies, Arkle.
This adorable little chap is already a champion having won Champion Foal at the prestigious Nantwich show although I assure you he has not allowed it to go to his head! He was the sweetest boy and certainly inquisitive about what this strange human was getting up to!
As you know, I love all animals and I am especially fond of chickens, having been the proud owner of several who all had their own foibles and distinct personalities, so on my way back to the car I had to stop and have a chat to these little guys, who all came flocking – I felt a bit like the “chicken whisperer”!
At the end of the day, as I got set to leave, my thoughts were filled with the beautiful animals I met today and it brought into sharp relief the reality that this stunning breed almost became extinct after the second world war. It is still classed as “at risk” by the Rare Breed Survival Trust, meaning there are only between 900 and 1500 Shires left in the world. This really does reiterate, in the starkest terms possible, the importance of the work that studs like the Cotebrook Shire Horse Stud do in helping to preserve this wonderful breed. As always I hope that Wild Hearts will help, in its own way, to raise awareness and promote all of our native breeds of horses and ponies.