Rarer than pandas - everything you need to know about the Suffolk Punch
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Throughout the course of history, certain animals have become strongly associated with particular areas or regions.
The United States has the bald eagle, Wales has its red dragons, and Australia has kangaroos.
But here, we have the incredible Suffolk Punch.
These equine wonders have been linked to our fair county for centuries now – but how much do you know about the four-legged creatures?
If you’re curious about Suffolk Punches, then Bruce Smith, former president of The Suffolk Horse Society, is your man.
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Bruce has been working with Suffolk Punches for five decades now, and with so many years' experience under his belt, he has come to learn pretty much everything there is to know about the noble steeds.
“I started working with them in around 1972 at Rochester Borstal down in Kent. They had three Suffolk horses there, which had all been bred at Hollesley Bay.”
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Shortly after in 1978, Bruce was then invited to take some of the horses down to Bristol’s Layhill Prison for the centenary of the Prison Service – which featured the Queen in attendance.
“When I was there, the stud groom at the time told me he was retiring so I asked him if I could take on the stud – and I went from there, really.”
That same year, Bruce moved to Suffolk and looked after the county horses until the prison service sold them in 2006.
“Back in those days I had to teach myself for the most part. But when I moved to Suffolk, a lot of people owned Punches in the area, so they were able to help me.”
Under the tutelage of the late farrier Roger Clark and veterinary surgeon Philip Ryder-Davies, Bruce soon became well-acquainted with the animal. “Thanks to the two of them, I learnt a bit more as the years went on,” he says.
Bruce estimates he’s been present for the birth of around 200 foals over his horsing career – making him one of the best in the field, and well-equipped to answer all of your horse questions.
So firstly, what are the origins of the Suffolk Punch?
Generally speaking, a stallion by the name of Crisp’s Horse of Ufford is widely regarded to be the first one.
“This foundation sire was foaled in the village near Woodbridge in 1768, but there are various rumours that the horse goes back before then – but they weren’t as they are today.”
Every Suffolk Punch in existence today however can trace its lineage all the way back to Crisp’s horse.
“Up until the 1960s, there used to be three breeding lines of Suffolk Punches, but they eventually died out, and there’s only one line left.”
But why is this?
In order to understand their decline, it’s important to note that the Suffolk Punch was bred as a working horse, thanks to a number of its characteristics.
“They worked on the farms of East Anglia, and were a great source of power,” explains Bruce.
“They’re what we call a ‘clean-legged’ breed, meaning they didn’t have hair on their legs. This suited the heavy clays of the region, as at the end of the working day, the horses wouldn’t have all of the clay and mud stuck to their legs, and you didn’t need to clean them.”
This, coupled with their size and stature makes them a great asset on a working farm.
“Suffolk Punches tend to weigh between 900 and 1,000kg, making them incredibly strong. That, paired with their short legs means they’re able to lean into the collar to move heavy loads, unlike longer-legged shire breeds. Similar to how someone short and stocky can probably move a heavier load than someone tall and lanky.”
“Back when they were regularly working on the fields, a pair of Suffolk Punches were expected to plough an acre of ground a day – meaning a farmer and his horses could walk the equivalent of 11 miles.”
In addition, their diet makes them ideal working animals, as they can survive on very little. A term commonly associated with the horse is ‘good-doer’, which essentially means they can retain a lot of weight while surviving off very little.
“That also made them incredibly useful here in East Anglia. They managed very well on a diet of rough grass, and some corn if they were working hard.”
But as the Industrial Revolution swept across England during the 17th and 18th century, the need for Suffolk Punches gradually receded– which in turn saw the decline of the horse itself.
“There’s no point breeding what you can’t sell,” explains Bruce.
“The farmers and brewers slowly started moving away from using horses for labour, and there was no work for them.”
Because of this decline, numbers started to dwindle over the years, and they’re currently classified as ‘critically endangered’.
“Back in the 1960s, two of the bloodlines died, leaving only one. That meant very few foals were born - but through a lot hard work from the Suffolk Horse Society, and breeders across the country, they were able to keep the Suffolk Punch breed going.”
Bruce estimates that there are between 130 and 140 breeding mares left in the country, and an additional 36 foals have been born this year.
So what is being done to help bring up their numbers?
“People keep them as they’re Punch enthusiasts, and want to keep the breed going. Some people are using them for work, such as in the forests, or promotional work for breweries. And obviously they can be found in various farms, parks and zoos. A fairly new market has also evolved, for people who wish to ride them, which is great – but we can’t forget they were primarily a draft horse, and we mustn’t lose that part of their heritage.
The Suffolk Horse Society also encourages people to become members, in order to help raise money and awareness around the breed.
“The cost of breeding a foal is very expensive once you’ve paid various fees and expenses, but the society often give breeders grants to encourage them.”
Thankfully just last week, Jimmy’s Farm near Ipswich announced that two of its mares are expecting foals, which is great news for the Punch population of Suffolk.
With number slowly but surely rising, we can only hope the majestic horse sees a resurgence.
After all, it’s arguably one of our county’s greatest contributions to the equine world.
Do you have any interesting Suffolk Punch stories, memories or facts? Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experiences and photos.
Suffolk Punch facts
- Suffolk Punches can only be one colour – chesnut. “They come in seven shades of the colour, ranging from dark to a very mealy chesnut, and the traditional spelling of the word ‘chesnut’ (as opposed to ‘chestnut’ with a ‘t’) is still used by the Suffolk Horse Society when refering to the horse,” explains Bruce.
- Suffolk Punches tend to stand anywhere between 16 and 17 hands, and are the oldest English breed of working horse.
- A Punch can proudly be seen in the centre of Ipswich Town Football Club logo’s, and the team’s mascot, Bluey, is a Suffolk Punch.
- A number of Punches were exported to Pakistan during the 20th century to help with some of their native breeds. The East Anglian horse was also crossbred with donkeys, leading to today’s Pakistani mule breed we see today.