At the turn of this century, the Suffolk Punch was the most popular working horse in England. These horses, thirty on each farm, worked the lands of eastern England. However, when mechanization came, these flat, open fields lent themselves to tractors. The great horses – the only purely British breed – were expenses that no farmer wanted.
“I know old farmers who can remember the horses coming in from the fields and being loaded onto waiting for lorries to be taken to the slaughterers,” says Dr. Phillip Ryder-Davis, Secretary of the British Suffolk Punch Society. “Literally thousands of horses were destroyed in a few years,” he continues with a toe of dismay, explaining that the breed almost vanished. By 1962, only twelve foals were registered, and the breed became endangered.
However, a few farmers and enthusiasts kept the breed alive and now the numbers are climbing. Currently, ninety breeding mares, twenty-five studs, and about sixty young horses are registered in the Society’s books.
“It’s a steadily increasing population,” according to Ryder-Davis. “Up to 40 foals are registered yearly now.”
In the United States, about 350 Suffolks are currently registered. Ryder-Davis says that many of those animals could not be registered in Britain. “Our book has been closed for over one hundred years. Therefore, to be registered, a horse must be a descendant of animals in the book. A lot of North American mares have some Suffolk Punch in them but have been crossed with other breeds. Therefore, they cannot be registered.”
However, a ‘grading-up” process was recently initiated which will allow more mares to be entered into the British registry. “Some mares look like Suffolks but are not pure. After five female generations of breeding with registered Suffolk stallions, the nearly pure offspring can be registered in Britain. That’s for females only. There is no ‘grading-up’ process for stallions.”
One problem with breeding within a small population is preventing defects caused by inbreeding. Despite the small numbers of Suffolk Punches, though, Ryder-Davis says that good planning guarantees many bloodlines.
“Each stallion services only one or two mares a year. That allows for a substantial number of unrelated bloodlines. It keeps the quality of the offspring and of the breed very high.”
Keeping a stallion is not economical, however, if it does not earn enough in stud fees to pay for itself. Many owners could not keep stallions if they did not receive financial help from Society.
“To ensure a large number of stallions, which we must have to maintain our current breeding situation, the Society subsidizes the owners of the studs. This money helps pay for the upkeep of the animals.” The determination to support a large number of stallions requires a financial commitment from breed enthusiasts, such as individuals and corporations. The Society got a big boost when Princess Anne became a sponsor in early 1986. “She contacted us and asked if she could become involved.” According to Ryder-Davis, it’s an immense help from a publicity and fund-raising standpoint when a member of the Royal Family supports an organization or cause. That interest is noticed and acted upon by a nation of royalty-watchers. And the individual, private support is needed because government support does not exist. Taxes maintain historic buildings and monuments, and zoning boards routinely deny permission to destroy ancient ruins or alter old structures but living history like the Suffolk Punch must survive on its own. “The Suffolk Punch is the only purely British heavy horse. The Punch breed originated before the Shire. By 1600 it was a recognizable breed, and it is totally pure.”
“In some breeds, you can’t tell the horses apart because of the extensive crossbreeding. That’s not true of the Suffolk.” He explains that now, although farmers own many horses, they are hobby animals – not working animals. “Few of those horses are even broken to harness.”
The breed does attract enthusiasts from other backgrounds. Most of these owners show them at fairs throughout Britain. A farrier owns the top harness horse, which isn’t too unusual, but a fish merchant, a butcher, and an engineering firm also own the horses – and they all show them.
Ryder-Davis, a veterinarian, owns one, too. “They are the ideal heavy horse for today because they have clean legs, a super temperament, cost less to feed than other heavy horses, and are unique in appearance.” He explains that in addition to these qualities, Suffolks can be driven by voice command. He owned Joker, a non-deceased champion Suffolk gelding that stood 18.5 hands and weighed 2,500 pounds.
Because of their size and stamina, the breed is attracting interest from non-heavy horse people. Princess Anne, for example, is best known as an eventer. “Eventers and show jumpers are starting to use Punches for breeding.” (Two stallions are breeding show jumpers in England and a stallion was shipped to Italy for breeding purposes a few years ago.)
For a relatively rare breed, the Suffolk Punch is well-traveled. The Pakistani Army uses them. One mare was exported to Australia to be bred with a Belgian stallion, and a Danish brewery uses one in its show team. However, few of these horses are exported to the United States or Canada, because veterinary costs and quarantine make exportation costly. The standards for admission to North America are among the strictest in the world. Plus, “the Suffolk Punch breed needs to be upgraded in America before exporting is worthwhile,” Ryder-Davis believes.
With intensive farming becoming increasingly important in England, the Suffolk Punch will probably never regain its place in the farming world. However, the danger of the breed vanishing altogether seems remote. With supporters such as Ryder-Davis and the Suffolk Punch Society, the breed will continue to rebound.