Suffolk Punch - Horse

'Colony Gina Maxine' a Suffolk mare owned by miss Lesley Mil

Suffolk Punch Details

Draught horse
East Anglia, England
Heavy, draught horse
1768 A Stallion named Crisps horse of Ufford and selected native heavy horse types.
Breed Club

Suffolk Horse Society
Tel: 01394 380643

Suffolk Punch Description

The Suffolk Horse or Suffolk Punch as it is also known is the traditional working horse of East Anglia. Once numerous, especially in the county of Suffolk, from which the breed derives its’ name, it is now the rarest UK heavy horse breed. In 2009 there are were only about 450 horses left in the country.

The breed itself differs from the other recognised British heavy horse breeds in that it is clean legged. That is not carrying feathering on its legs. This was ideal for working on the land, particularly in heavy clay where the legs could be caked with mud and create extra work cleaning off after a day’s work.

The Suffolk horse has noticeably shorter legs in comparison to the size of its body, which itself is well muscled. This anatomical difference helps give the horse its tremendous strength, for which it is famous. An old farmers saying refers to the ideal Suffolk horse as having the face of an angel, the body like a barrel and the backside like a farmer’s daughter. Not politically correct nowadays, but it gives you a picture!

The breed only comes in one colour and that is chesnut. There are seven shades. Yellow, golden, bright, red, light, dark and dull dark. The word chesnut is traditionally spelt without a central ‘t’. It is the only time the word is spelt this way, when referring to the Suffolk horse.
It is only permissible to have white on the horses head, in the form of a star, stripe or blaze. White elsewhere is a fault, although a few white hairs blending in with the body colour are allowed. This is romantically referred to as being ‘shot with silver’. The white body hair must not be so profuse as to make the horse appear roan.
The Suffolk horse is also known for its’ calm temperament. This is a particular trait bred into the breed over many centuries, giving the breed the reputation of being a gentle giant. Weighing on average one tonne and standing between 16 and 18 hands. A farmer or someone working with such a powerful animal would need to know it could be safely handled and controlled, so a good temperament would be essential. Any horses of dubious character would not be included in the breeding.

The origins of the Suffolk horse can be traced back many hundreds of years. It is the oldest of our heavy horse breeds. A horse of similar substance and appearance was referred to in the middleages and it would have been of a type needed to carry a man in a heavy suit of armour or move heavy artillery as well as farm the land. A real multi-tasker, the farming community would require such an animal to carry out many domestic chores, like taking produce to market as well as being the farmers driving transport.

Although reference to such animals can be found in earlier history, the present day Suffolk horses can trace their ancestry back to one particular stallion bred in 1768 and known as ‘Crisps horse of Ufford’. Unfortunately after centuries of loyal and valuable service to us, the 1900’s were to see the decline of this magnificent horse. Traditionally grooms travelled weeks at a time with a breeding stallion on pre advertised routes so farmers and  in-season mares could have them mated with a suitable stallion. This was known as stallion walking and enabled people in remote areas to breed their animals and avoid inbreeding, locally. Technically the breed is one developed over many hundreds of years by the use of many selected native heavy horse types. First World War saw many Suffolk’s conscripted by the army along with other heavy horses where they were sent to France to aid the war in the trenches.
After the Second World War the mechanisation of the farming industry and in particular the introduction of the tractor saw the end of the Suffolk’s useful working life. It was in the 1960’s that their numbers reached an all time low, with only 9 foals being bred in 1966.

It is only thanks to a few dedicated breeders and conservationists that the breed survives today. Although its’ numbers are still low, they are slowly increasing. There were 42 foals born in 2009. 50 were born in 2011 and 40 in 2012. Unfortunately the down turn in the economy is affecting the market for all horses. As a result there appears to be a cutback in the number of mares being sent to stud. If older horses are not replaced by young stock we may see numbers dwindling. Currently in May 2013 there are about 485 registered Suffolk horses.

The Suffolk horse can nowadays be seen at country shows and fairs where it is seen being shown in traditional working or show harness, demonstrating its’ versatility working in ploughing matches, or pulling various farm implements and machinery. It can also be seen being exhibited in its’ own ‘in hand’ breed classes. There is luckily a growing demand for the Suffolk as a working as well as show horse. Forestry Commissions have now realised a heavy horse causes less pollution and damage to the environment, so it can be found logging. Back on the farm in its’ original working environment, there are many rare breed centres and conservation farms using the horse.
The Suffolk horse is an ideal outcross to create a weight carrying riding horse. Suffolk mares that breed should not be wasted breeding cross-breeds, but a Suffolk stallion used on thoroughbred or similar type mares creates a very useful and versatile horse.

The number of breeding mares is unfortunately low in comparison to the number of mares of breeding age. One of breed’s major difficulties is fertility, with quite a few mares needing artificial assistance to breed. Years ago when horses were worked, they were a lot fitter and this combined with the reduced gene pool from which the breed has to recover, I believe has lead to these problems.

There are however three different stallion lines so all is not lost. With the aid of organisations like the Animal Health Trust and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the Suffolk Horse Society is being assisted in helping to bring back this magnificent horse from the edge of extinction. It is also thanks to many individuals who own and support these animals, that there is a light on the horizon for an animal that has been so much of our heritage. It is important to recognise that all stallions from the varying lines should be widely used. Focus on using only one or two stallions will only result in an even more restricted gene pool for the future.

There are a number of Suffolk horses abroad, which are descendants of our exports long ago. Most numerous in the USA, where communities like the Amish still use them as an everyday working horse. A couple of examples have recently been re-imported to this country by a few dedicated individuals. These are being used to cross with British registered Suffolk’s to help widen the gene pool. These horses can now be registered on an international or grade up register with the Suffolk Horse Society.
The registration and pass porting of Suffolk horses and part bred animals is carried out by the Suffolk Horse Society who are responsible for promoting and monitoring the breeds welfare and breeding strategies.

This article and the Suffolk horse pictures were kindly composed and donated by Mr Clive Greatorex of Cambridgeshire.
Clive is a past breeder of Suffolk horses and still an admirer. (19/10/2009). Updated 24/05/2012. 

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