A day in the life of a Suffolk Punch owner: Caring for our precious county horse is not as difficult as you might imagine
- Credit: Archant
With more Suffolk Punches being bred for other disciplines, we see what its really like to look after Suffolk’s native horse.
Owning a horse is probably every equestrian’s dream, but turn that horse into a one-tonne ploughing machine of a critically endangered species and many people would probably avoid the responsibility.
However, Nigel Oakley has worked with heavy horses for the last 40 years and keeps 10 Suffolk Punches on his farm near Bury St Edmunds.
He has dedicated most of his life to the historic breed – from breeding foals, judging at the Suffolk Show, appearing with his Suffolk’s on TV shows, such as Countryfile, and going out of his way to help promote the breed, which has faced continuing concerns over its future.
But what does it actually take to own a Suffolk Punch? Well, not too dissimilar from your ‘average’ horse, you may be surprised to learn.
Apart from the Suffolk’s showing appearance, temperament and composition, you can still do the same things with them as you would any other horse – such as riding, tacking them up, lunging them and breaking them in.
Putting the plough harnesses on Nigel’s two geldings, Jasper and Captain, saw the pair keen to get outside to work, highlighting how much the agricultural industry is still imbedded into the breed’s instincts. The excitement and impatience of the horses can be misunderstood as “uncontrollable” by some, but when Nigel let me lead his older gelding, Jasper, out into the field at Rede Farm, near Whepstead, Jasper walked next to me at my pace very patiently – demonstrating the Suffolk’s passionate but beautiful working temperament.
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Historically known as the Suffolk Horse or Suffolk Sorrel, the draught horse’s “Punch” name originates from its solid appearance and strength.
Mr Oakley said: “Many people who breed Suffolks are older, so we need to get more youngsters involved and interested to carry on the breed. If we are going to save it, we need people to care for it.”
Despite their decline, many people are training Suffolks for the modern world with more being ridden and used for other purposes, such as funerals, in ridden shows, forestry and farming demonstrations.
With seven of his own trained to be ridden, Mr Oakley said: “I have also seen them being used for two-wheel-cart pulling, which is very popular with children as they are a lot less expensive compared to a larger standard cart or carriage. Although they take slightly longer to break in than other horses, the Suffolk is ridden a lot more now and if we can sell them for other disciplines like riding, then that is another one alive and breeding.”
Preparing a horse for show can take a lot of time and plaiting the mane with straw (raffia), adding ribbons (flights), but everyday grooming is virtually the same as other horses.
The breed is always chesnut in colour with seven shades – Dark Liver, Dull Dark, Light Mealy, Red, Golden, Lemon and Bright.
Suited to working in heavy clay, Suffolks have very little feather around their hooves, a breeding characteristic enabling them to move through the fields easier.
Developed in East Anglia during the early 16th Century, the Suffolk Punch was produced for farm work, and gained popularity during the early 20th Century.
However, as agricultural engineering and the mechanical farming industry took off, the breed sadly became left behind.
Mr Oakley said: “There is a lot of interest in saving the breed, and the Suffolk Horse Society has very good members and is very driven to protect the breed.”
Featured on the badge of the Ipswich Town FC, the Punch was at its peak a few years ago, but sadly numbers have continued to slowly decline with worryingly low numbers of breeding females.
Previous attempts have been made over the years to save the breed, including a ‘Save the Suffolk Punch’ campaign by The East Anglian Daily Times in 2001.
Speaking earlier this year, Chairman of the Suffolk Horse Society, George Paul, said: “We’ve made huge efforts to stimulate the breed and there has been a big interest with riders. When we advertise one for sale, they are immediately snapped up.”
After experiencing what its like to have the privilege of owning one of these horses, I think the breed is still misunderstood by some. With more Suffolks being ridden than ever before, it just shows the durability and the capability of these horses.
There is no reason why we should let numbers decline. If they go, a huge part of our Suffolk heritage goes with them.