Driving a pair of shire horses through the rush hour traffic in Cardiff city central is no mean feat.  Neither is steering them over a road-bridge directly above the M4, with just a three-bar barrier to the side.

But if your shires happen to be from the Gentle Giants fold in Moylegrove, you can rest assured your journey will be a calm one.

“Our horses have to be exceptionally well trained to handle and deal with just about anything that comes their way,” commented Gentle Giants owner, John Fletcher from his home at Penrallt Uchaf.

“And this is why we like to buy them when they’re young. We can start schooling them and prepare them for everything that lies ahead.”

Seven weeks ago John began schooling his latest recruit – Sam, who's 5 - and already Sam is showing signs of being able to join the professional shire team in 2024.

There is little doubt that the respect and understanding that the Fletcher team shows for their shires is exceptional.

“This is what it’s always been about,” says John. “The way in which Gentle Giants has evolved and grown over the last 20 years is nothing to do with me but with the horses that we’ve had and everything they keep giving back to us.

“Shires are extremely responsive and a lot of what they do is voice trained. But they’re also very placid animals, very calm to be around, so they really are gentle giants.”

John was given his first shire as a nine-year-old boy growing up on his parents’ farm at Penrallt Uchaf. His father had previously done some ploughing with a shire and was keen to introduce his young son to the breed. As a result, he has ridden, worked and learned how best to understand horses for the past six decades.

“We’ve always had horses on the farm so in many ways, when I decided to sell the milking cows back in 2003, it seemed like a natural progression to form Gentle  Giants to continue building on the work that we'd already started with the shires.

“I was already doing some local events such as ploughing demonstrations and taking the shires to the local school with Father Christmas, but in 2003 we decided to start marketing the idea just a bit more even though we didn’t have a clue how things would turn out.”

Tivyside Advertiser:

Twenty years on, the Gentle Giants Shires have a Facebook following of almost 57,000 from all over the world and are in demand for weddings, funerals, demonstrations, and other events all over the UK. They have carried top names such as Cerys Matthews and former Royal harpist Clare Jones to their respective wedding ceremonies, and have also made star appearances on tv shows including Don’t Tell the Bride, Coast and Country, Ffermio, Cefn Gwlad and the award-winning film, Calon Gaeth.

Tivyside Advertiser: John's daughter Stacy, on her wedding day to Dafydd VaughanJohn's daughter Stacy, on her wedding day to Dafydd Vaughan (Image: Gentle Giants)

“People just love having the opportunity to see a shire in action and to get up close to them, because despite their size, they’re such calm animals to be around,” says John.

John prefers working with an average sized shire that stands between 17.2hh and 18hh and his preparations for every event are lengthy and precise, as John insists on the highest standards for every appearance they make.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a wedding, a funeral or a ploughing demonstration,” he explains. “Every time they go out, they’re turned out to the best of my ability. 

Tivyside Advertiser: John, plaiting a mane ready for an eventJohn, plaiting a mane ready for an event (Image: Gentle Giants)

"And this involves quite a bit of preparation, not only on the day itself but in the days and weeks leading up to it. They need to be fed well, their coats need to be in excellent condition and naturally they need to perform well.

“And also the support I get from my friends and family who help me with all this preparation work, and also on the day itself is incredible – I really couldn’t do it without them.”

John’s workload can often be intense and on one occasion, he was even asked to carry out four weddings in one week.

“We travel all over Wales and across into England but watching the way in which people respond to the horses when we get there is so fulfilling. We know that they’re helping to make somebody’s day that little bit more special.”

John currently has four shires at Penrallt Uchaf - Ned, who has recently retired at the age of 18, Joe, 7, Franky, 6, and the new arrival, Sam.

Anyone who has met John will now just how unassuming and reserved he is. So one can’t help wondering how he feels when he has to wear a top hat and Victorian coat virtually every time his horses make an appearance.

“This isn’t me,” he laugh. “And this is why I don’t mind dressing up one bit. The top hat and tails are hiding me. That’s not John Fletcher.”

Last week The Gentle Giants Shire Horses received the Unsung Hero Award at the British Horse Society’s prestigious event at Newbury Racecourse, which was attended by John and his daughter, Stacy Vaughan.

“Yes, receiving awards like this is obviously a great honour but the award has got absolute nothing to do with me,” he said. “It’s all down to my horses and the way they capture people’s respect, each and every time they’re seen.

“What the Gentle Giants have given me over the years really is quite special.”