If you think about endangered species, chances are, you will probably conjure up an image of a dramatically striped tiger slinking through the forest; or perhaps you might ponder on the illusive and majestic mountain gorilla tucked away on a remote hillside? Maybe you might think a little closer to home and contemplate the frightening decline of the bee population or even the near eradication of our native hedgehog?
Whilst all these choices are sadly most definitely on the list of imperilled creatures; I can almost guarantee there will be one that won’t feature – and believe it or not, it’s a horse! But not just any horse! Oh no, I’m referring to one of the most unknown gentle giants of them all – the Suffolk Punch horse. The Suffolk Punch is a heavy (draught) horse and it’s also known as the Suffolk Sorrell; although to me they’ve always been Punches – punch being an old word for a stout person!)
These majestic equines were once a common sight in the area that was my birthplace (rural East Anglia, UK), working on the fields pulling ploughs, seed drills and the like, as well as being used for draught work. However, sadly, now they are rarer than the Giant Panda, with just 500 individuals remaining in the UK.
These guys (and girls) once earned their medals, playing a vital role of pulling artillery guns in the first world war (my grandfather rode with them). Like the troops that they served alongside, they showed enormous bravery and valour.
So, what makes a Suffolk Punch horse so special? Well to start with, they are attributed with the title of being the oldest native British breed of horse – dating back to the 1500s. More modern breeding records show that all current Suffolks can be traced back to one horse – the rather regally named stud, “Crisp’s Horse of Ufford” born in 1768.
They have a very attractive, graceful outline and are broad and strong; personally, I think they are a really pretty horse, with a demure manner – they have such a sensitive expression about them, which I find makes them so endearing.
When it comes to these horses, you can have any colour you like as long as it’s chesnut (that’s not a typo, but the traditional Suffolk way of pronouncing the shade ie without the ‘t’). Size wise they tip the scales at a substantial 2,000lbs (900 kg) and should be between 15.75 and 17 hands (for those equestrians out there) that’s between 5.25 and 5.6 feet (1.6 to 1.73 metres) – making them the shortest draught horse there is – although they make up for this in their sturdiness.
Suffolk Punches were bred primarily to work on farms and therefore needed to be strong and hardworking, with good stamina and also a docile nature. As the horses were bred and kept on the same farms, their bloodline remained pure.
They were a much-valued breed in agricultural work and whilst they hailed from a relatively quiet and isolated part of the world, in the early 1900s they found themselves in demand and were exported to many countries, travelling as far afield as Canada and the US, South America, Africa, Pakistan and New Zealand as well as to many areas of Europe. They tended to be interbred with native horses, whose owners were eager to improve their stock – in Pakistan they were even crossed with donkeys to produce a Pakistan Mule!
After the second world war, mechanisation became more prevalent in agricultural work and the numbers of these majestic creatures began to fall to the point were there were just 80 breeding mares remaining. Fortunately, there was a resurgence in interest in the breed from the late ‘60s and this has helped numbers to modestly improve. From the early 2000s onwards, we are seeing around 30-40 new foals being born annually in the UK; however, whilst improving, their numbers still remain critically low.
Gladly, it’s not just me that sees the beauty in these gentle giants and they are beginning to make a quiet comeback, being used again in conservation areas for agriculture and forestry work; as well as being enjoyed by riders who value their quiet temperament, sweet nature and ease of training. They’re now even putting in an appearance or two in adverts!. Hopefully this means that these rare beauties will remain with us to be enjoyed for many years to come.