The Suffolk Horse
Colour, quality, compactness, and a hardy constitution.
Suffolk Horse – painted paper and gold leaf on panel 60 cm x 70 cm
The counties of Norfolk and Suffolk originally comprised the ancient Kingdom of East Anglia on Britain’s east coast. Surrounded by wetlands to the west, sea to the North and East, and the Thames estuary to the South, much of the land was marshland and it was thus relatively isolated from the rest of Britain. But the land there was fertile, and the area was densely settled and actively farmed first by the Angles and the Saxons who arrived at the end of the Roman period around the year 410 CE, then by the Danes who invaded in 865. The Danes almost certainly brought horses of a type similar to the modern Jutland breed with them, and it is thought that these horses are the foundation breed of the Suffolk Punch.
Viking stone stele showing a horseman circa 800 CE (kulturbilder.wordpress.com)
Enclosure happened early in East Anglia. Enclosure was a legal process in England wherein communal land was bought up by farmers and consolidated into large, privately held farms enclosed by fences. This practice happened as early as the 13th century in some parts of the country, but it became more widespread during the Tudor dynasty. Because Suffolk land was already agriculturally developed and enclosed earlier than other places, they made the shift from ox-power to horse-power earlier as well. Large farms meant hired labour, and farmers soon realized it was cheaper to plough with horses because they got the job done faster than oxen. Enclosure also gave farmers much greater control over the breeding of livestock than they would have had in a system of commons where animals bred freely. The earliest recorded evidence of a distinct “Suffolk’ type of horse occurs at the beginning of the 16th century.
In the 17th century, East Anglian farmers embarked on a process of draining the extensive marshes to reclaim the heavy, rich soil for crops. But draining marshland required expertise, so Dutch contractors were employed to build dykes and drainage ditches. It is believed that the Dutch brought Flemish and Norman heavy horses to England with them. These imported horses were larger than the native Suffolks, and would have been used to increase the size and weight of the Suffolk type, bringing it closer to the animal we know today.
Historical photo of a Suffolk Horse (The Blog for Memories of East Anglia, www.josephmasonspage.wordpress.com)
The Suffolk horse, also called the Suffolk Punch or Suffolk Sorrel, is the oldest unchanged British draft breed, and it has the oldest Stud Book second only to that of Thoroughbreds. All modern Suffolks can be traced back to a single stallion called Crisp’s Horse who was foaled in the Suffolk village of Ufford in 1768. In 1784 Reverend Sir John Cullum described the horse type found in Hawstead parish :
“Having mentioned horses I must take this opportunity of doing justice to a most useful breed of that animal, not indeed peculiar to this parish, but I believe to the county. The breed is well known by the name of Suffolk Punches. They are generally about fifteen hands high, of a remarkably short and compact make; their legs bony and their shoulders loaded with flesh. Their colour is often of a light sorrel, which is as much remembered in some distant part s of the kingdom as their form.”
“Historical Sketch of the Suffolk Horse” from chapter 11, The Horse in the Furrow by G.E. Evans
Suffolks were called ‘Punches’ for their punched up, heavily muscled necks and bodies, or possibly because they were round like punch bowls. Suffolk Punches are short-backed, round, heavy, and deep. They have honest, intelligent heads, and few, if any, white markings. They are always chestnut in colour, ranging from dark liver-chestnut to light sorrel. The breed is taller now than it was in Rev. Cullum’s day as today they average between 16 and 17 hands. Suffolks are famous for their incredible strength in front of the plough as they were bred to pull, not for their showy leg action like Clydesdales. The soil of East Anglia is heavy clay, so their legs are free from feathering. Their short legs are also set close together to enable them to walk in the furrow without disturbing the crop. But this does not mean Suffolks are slow. On the contrary, they move quite briskly. And they can keep up a good pace all day.
‘According to traditional Anglian practice, the horses were fed very early, before dawn. During their work day, which was a good nine hours long, they took only short breaks, unlike the big midday break and feed of many other drafters. Because of their stamina and fast walk, Suffolk horses worked longer hours and were expected to accomplish more in a day than many other breeds. “ J.V. Dohner , Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry.
Suffolk Gelding (Mars) owned by Sylvie Denault, Beauharnois, QC
People who keep Suffolks love them because they are the ideal working horse. On the small side for a draft breed, they are more manageable and economical than larger horses. They are healthy, long-lived, and have a steady temperament. They are willing workers whether they are put to work in the fields or hauling trees out of the bush, or used as horses for pleasure driving. The Suffolk can also be crossed with lighter breeds to produce a heavy hunter type.
Suffolks first came to Canada in 1865. Their importation was centred primarily in Ontario where they were used for farming and logging. More Suffolk Punches were imported to North America in the early twentieth century, and a Canadian Suffolk Society was formed in 1911. But they were never imported in the same number as Percherons, Clydesdales or Belgians, and so were a little less common to begin with. When mechanization changed agriculture and machines took over the industrial jobs of horses in the mid-twentieth century, the Suffolk was in a weaker position than other breeds. In East Anglia, before the First World War, there were thousands of Suffolks. By the 1950’s approximately 200 Suffolk Punches were left in the entire world. Suffolk Punches remain endangered worldwide and are currently listed as critically endangered on the Canadian Livestock Conservation List.
American Suffolk Horse Association (www.suffolkpunch.com)
Dohner, Janet Vorwald, Encyclopedia of Endagered and Historic Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press, 2001
Evans, George Ewart , The Horse in the Furrow, Faber & Faber, London, 2012 ebook edition
Ford, Merlin, A Brief Overview of Draft Horse Numbers (www.rarebreedscanada.org)
The Kingdom of East Anglia, Jutland Horses (Wikipedia Entries, www.wikipedia.org)
Rare Breeds Survival Trust (www.rbst.org.uk)