The Suffolk Punch is among the oldest of the heavy horse breeds in the UK, and sadly is a dying breed. In 2008 the animal was listed as an endangered species, and actions were taken to try to preserve this magnificent horse, which can stand in at a height of between 15 to 16 hands (5ft 6in) and weigh in excess of three quarters of a ton. Its colour is usually a varying shade of chestnut brown and, like the Shire horse, the Punch is known as a gentle giant having a broad head, thick neck and a short muscular body.
A Brief History
The earliest recorded date for the Suffolk heavy horse goes way back to the 16th Century. The animals living today can actually have their ancestry traced all the way back to one stallion, a horse called Crisp's Horse of Ufford, which was foaled in 1768.
The Suffolk Punch heavy horse was generally only to be seen in the eastern counties of England, where it worked on the land. It only became known elsewhere when farms became mechanised, and the use of heavy horses declined. The breed then started to move out across the UK where it could be seen at country fairs and shows, or pulling brewery drays.
But, despite being commercially viable, the Suffolk Punch didn't venture far from its home county. One reason is that at the height of the horse's popularity, East Anglia was a remote part of Britain, almost totally isolated, with little in the way of road or rail networks. It was not until the late 1930s that the Punch started to be introduced more widely around the country, but by then it was too late to expand the breed in any large numbers or to make it commercially viable to sell - mechanisation was rapidly taking over in and on farms.
Another problem that led to the rapid decline of the breed was the onset of the Second World War. A rapid increase in food production was needed, and the flat lands of East Anglia made it easy for new machines to do the job more quickly and efficiently than the horse. Farmers got rid of the horses, some selling as many as 40 in one day. Sadly the only buyers around at the time were mainly slaughterhouses, and as late as 1966 there were only nine Suffolk Punch foals born nationwide.
It became clear that they were nearing extinction, and if the breed were to survive then new breeders were needed. This started to happen in 1967 and the numbers have steadily grown since. There is still some way to go to secure the breed, but at the beginning of the 21st Century stocks are at the highest they have ever been.
Today the horses are still used mainly for showing at country fairs and shows, or by some breweries to pull drays. Others are kept as pets, or on stud farms.
Suffolk Punch Trivia
There is a book called The Suffolk Stud Book Volume 1, which is considered a classic among livestock books. It was written by Herman Bidell, who was the first secretary of the Suffolk Horse Society back in 1877. He spent two years tracing the ancestry and pedigree of all the horses alive at the time. The book was illustrated by a local artist called John Duvall.
In March 2008 a BBC news report stated that there was a renewed threat to the heavy horse breeds, with the Suffolk Punch numbers being reduced to just a few hundred. Efforts are being renewed to preserve and maintain the breed,with the help of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Other Heavy Horses
Below is a list of Heavy Horse Breeds, the Shire at the top of the list, being the most popular and best known.
- The Shire
- The Suffolk Punch
- The Clydesdale
- The Percheron
- The Flemish or Belgian
- The Friesian
- The Dutch Draft
- The Jutland
The numbers for each of the above breeds varies (as of 2008) but overall, they are historically very low. There are renewed efforts underway to preserve the various breeds via an assorted array of clubs, societies and individuals.