WOW, I never knew a horse could get SOOOO big! That is amazing!!! ~Declan
Now that's getting on your high horse: He's 10ft tall, weighs a ton and is so big no saddle fits himBy Robert Hardman
The main challenge when it comes to riding Sovereign is not the riding bit. It is the simple business of clinging on.
For Sovereign is not just Europe’s tallest horse. He also has no saddle. ‘We did have one once,’ says Sovereign’s owner, Paul Evans. ‘But then he just got too big around the girth and it didn’t fit any more.’
Oh great. I am about to ride bareback on something the size of an entry-level elephant. At that height, I am going to need a parachute rather than a helmet.
Uneasy rider: Robert Hardman bareback astride Sovereign, the four-year-old Shire horse who is, at 10ft tall, believed to be Britain's biggest, at the home of his owner Paul Evans, 39, in Werrington, Staffordshire
But how do I get up there in the first place? With no saddle, there are no stirrups and with no stirrups it’s like climbing a ladder without any rungs. Paul produces a stepladder with plenty of rungs but even that is no use. Sovereign is almost 10ft tall at the tips of his ears and nearly 7ft tall at the shoulders.
So, we create a makeshift set of steps involving a crate and an oil drum and Paul gently heaves the behemoth alongside. Finally, it’s just about possible to sling a leg over this colossal spine and I am on board. Because Sovereign is so broad, it is particularly uncomfortable, rather like trying to sit astride a van.
Now what? With a leading rein in one hand and a clump of his mane in the other, I give him the gentlest of nudges with my heels. No response. Maybe he hasn’t felt a thing. Given that he weighs more than a ton, perhaps he is not even aware that he has this lump sprawled on his back.
Oh dear. I don’t want to try anything more than a — very short — walk but if I kick any harder, he might take off. Because Sovereign is not some slothful old nag. He’s a four-year-old Shire horse, full of beans and still growing.
Fortunately, he is also a softie at heart. He gets the message and starts plodding around the yard for a few minutes before coming back to an obliging halt next to the oil drum.
And after a well-deserved carrot or eight, Sovereign returns to his field and his best friend, Poppy, who has been keeping a jealous eye on everything.
The only way aboard: With no saddle that will fit Sovereign, thus no stirrups, Hardman had to clamber up this makeshift set of steps involving a crate and oil drum as owner Paul gently heaves the horse alongside
It’s a contented, quiet life in a pretty bit of Staffordshire, just beyond the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent. And this could easily be the happy ending to a sorry tale.
Two years ago, Sovereign was a neglected wreck with rotten teeth and a hoof infection when Paul first came across him. Now he is in tip-top condition with a loving owner, a devoted companion and all the grass he can eat.
But this story is about to head off in a new and completely different direction. World stardom beckons — not that Sovereign or his owner seem remotely bothered. A few years from now, Sovereign might not only be the tallest horse in Europe. It’s highly likely he’ll be the biggest horse on the planet.
‘He was big when I got him but, seeing him every day, I suppose I never noticed he was that big,’ says Paul, 39. ‘Then the other day, a friend who knows his horses said to me: “You know, that really is a big horse”. So when the vet next came round, I asked her to measure him properly.’
Horses are measured in ‘hands’ (one hand equals 4in or 10.16 cm) from the floor to the withers — the top of the animal’s shoulder blade. Anything under 14.2 (14 hands and 2in) is a pony. Anything over that height is a horse. The average racing thoroughbred is 16 hands. For a heavy horse breed like the Shire (formerly known as the English Cart Horse), the average height is a little over 17 hands.
To everyone’s astonishment, Sovereign measured 20 hands and 2in. Until then, Europe’s tallest horse had been Digger, a 19.3 Clydesdale serving with the Household Cavalry. So the Sovereign’s record has been snatched by a horse called Sovereign.
Rescued: Sovereign was a neglected wreck with rotten teeth and a hoof infection when Paul first came across him. Now he is in tip-top condition
What’s more, he is only three-quarters-of-an-inch short of the current Guinness world record, held by Big Jake, an 11-year-old Belgian draught horse who lives on a farm in Wisconsin in the U.S.
Like the Shire, the Clydesdale and the Suffolk Punch, the Belgian is another well-known breed of heavy draught horse; in medieval times, the Belgian was the mount of choice for a heavily-armed knight in shining armour.
Both Big Jake and Sovereign are geldings. But the former was measured without shoes whereas Sovereign had his old horseshoes on when the vet produced her tape. In other words, Sovereign will need to grow another inch or so to take the crown. But he has age on his side. Shire horses can carry on growing well past their seventh birthday. And given that he has grown by more than a foot since Paul bought him, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that Sovereign will grow a little taller still.
And he is already taller than two British Shire horses which previously held the record for the world’s tallest living horse — Cracker and a predecessor called Goliath. Both were 19.2.
Eight years ago, I had the honour of riding Cracker at his Lincolnshire home. It was a hell of a job getting on board him, too, although, mercifully, he came with a saddle.
Even though he had reached the age of 15 — a senior citizen in equine terms — he would happily lug a horse-drawn bus carrying 20 people on a three-mile tour of his farm, near Spilsby. His owners had a favourite joke about the day Cracker brought the house down. It wasn’t anything he said. But when someone tied him to an outbuilding and he spotted a tasty-looking bale of hay, he just wandered off. So the building came, too.
Paul Evans tells a similar story about Sovereign. ‘When I took him to the Leek Show the other day, I left him tied to a seven-ton lorry. Next thing I knew, it was leaning over with two wheels off the ground.’ Paul has already had a painful experience just trying to attach a bridle. ‘One day my T-shirt got caught up in it, he lifted his head and there I was dangling in the air.’
He is in no rush to submit an application to the Guinness World Record judges and says he doesn’t much care for the idea of owning a celebrity horse. ‘I’m just an ordinary countryman,’ he laughs over a sandwich in his local, the Red Cow in Werrington. ‘I never bought him for his size.’
In Wisconsin, Big Jake is a local celebrity. Visitors to Smokey Hollow Farm pay £8 for a half-hour tour of his barn while Big Jake is a popular feature at shows and fairs across the mid-West.
Back in Staffordshire, Paul takes Sovereign to the occasional charity event and has recently started offering his services for local weddings (he was pulling a bride and groom this weekend). He rigs up the shiny French-style ‘vis-a-vis’ carriage which he uses for such occasions. It’s quite an operation attaching all the harnesses and straps.
And it’s not easy reversing this particular engine on to the wagon.
I climb on to the driver’s seat alongside Paul and off we go for a short training run. Sovereign is surprisingly nimble, but then we must weigh little more than a handbag. Given that a pair of Shire horses have been known to pull a load of up to 45 tons, he would have no problem hauling an entire wedding party of Sumo wrestlers.
Surprisingly nimble: But given that a pair of Shire horses have been known to pull a load of up to 45 tons, Sovereign would have probably have no problem hauling an entire wedding party of Sumo wrestlers
It’s not all wedding work. ‘I got asked to do a school prom this summer and we’re about to do a ruby wedding,’ says Paul.
But any bookings have to fit in around his day job as a gas engineer and his young family. Keeping a couple of gentle giants like Sovereign and Poppy is expensive, but Paul gets sponsorship from the Red Cow and free use of a friend’s field.
As a boy, Paul enjoyed hearing his grandfather’s stories of life as a rag-and-bone man and liked to help out at a friend’s stableyard where he got to know a pair of Shire horses. He went on to own a few himself. ‘About two years ago, I got a call from a friend who said he knew someone with a Shire in a shed.’
He found Sovereign, then aged two, in a dreadful state. ‘He was about 16 or 17 hands, with no meat on him at all. This lady had bought him to go carriage driving but he got too big and just started pushing back when she tried to control him. The more he pushed back, the more afraid she became, so she just ended up neglecting him.’
Paul paid £200 for the horse — but considerably more in vets’ bills as he restored Sovereign to health. His new horse came with an impressive pedigree in Shire horse circles; Sovereign’s father, Walton Supreme, was four-times national champion. But the memories of that unhappy start in life have not gone away.
‘He can be suspicious of strangers. He needs to get to know you,’ Paul warns me. The photographer wants to find a familiar landmark in order to show the true scale of Sovereign’s size.
Scale: The Mail's man holds Sovereign next to a phone box to give an impression of his prodigious size
There is an old phone box and postbox half a mile up the line, so we take Sovereign out for a walk. But when I start to lead him, he looks flustered and refuses to budge. It takes a while before he trusts me enough to put one hoof in front of the other.
By the end of our afternoon together, though, we are getting on fine (although this may have something to do with the sack of carrots in my hand). Even so, this is one horse to which I would never say: ‘Giddy up.’
I feel quite giddy enough just looking down.