Suffolk Punch Horses – Facts, Origin & History
We hope you’ve been following along on our Tally-Ho horse breeds mini-series and enjoying getting to know the unique history and characteristics of some of the worlds most beloved draft horse breeds. So far, we’ve featured four of our five breeds: the iconic Clydesdale; the majestic Percheron; knightly Belgian Draft and the impressive Shire. Last, but certainly not least, of our series is the very special, and comparatively rare, Suffolk Punch.
The Origin of the Suffolk Punch
Like the Shire, the Suffolk Punch (also known as the Suffolk Horse or Suffolk Sorrel) is a draft breed that is English in origin. This first part of the name is in reference to the County of Suffolk, which is located in East Anglia.
The breed was developed in the early 16th century and the Suffolk Punch registry is the oldest English breed society. William Camden’s Britannia, published in 1586 is said to contain the first reference to the Suffolk Punch, with a description of the eastern counties horse that leaves little question as to its identity as the recognizable breed.
An in-depth genetic study of the Suffolk Punch revealed it is closely grouped with both the European Haflinger and the British Fell and Dales ponies. Developed in (then) isolated counties of Suffolk and Norfolk for farm work, the breed had tremendous longevity and were rarely sold, which helped to keep the bloodlines largely unchanged.
This relative isolation, however, lead to a succession challenge in the 1760s when many of the male breeding lines died off, resulting in a genetic bottleneck – a challenge that bore its head again in the late 18th century.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Norfolk Trotter, Norfolk Cob and Thoroughbred bloodlines were strategically introduced to the Suffolk breed as a means of addressing the genetic bottlenecks. Additional breeds were introduced in an effort to increase the overall size and stature of the Suffolk Punch, but these efforts had negligible long-term impact on the breed, which remains much as it was prior to the introduction of crossbreeding.
The Modern History of the Suffolk Punch
The first official exports of the Suffolks to Canada took place in 1865. The Suffolk Horse Society of Britain published its first stud book in 1880, which saw the immediate export of Suffolks to the United States. Subsequent breeding programs saw the breed rise in numbers across North America. By 1908, Suffolk Punch exportation from Britain, included Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and various parts of Africa, amongst other countries.
With the dawn of the Second World War, the Suffolk sadly went the way of many other heavy draft breeds when increased mechanization and a shortage of both livestock and human food sources resulted in thousands of horses being sent to slaughter.
In 1966, only nine foals were registered with the Suffolk Horse Society. A revival of the breed began in the 1960s and numbers began to rise although the breed did remain rare. Even as recently as 1998, only 80 breeding mares were accounted for in Britain and their offspring were a mere 40 annually.
Following WWII, the American Suffolk Horse Association remained inactive for approximately 15 years and only became reinvigorated in 1961 with a resurgence of the draft horse market. To further support the breed’s revival and prevent inbreeding, the American registry permitted selective crossbreeding with the Belgian Draft in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Similarities between Belgian breed conformation and colouring, helped preserve the integrity of the Suffolk Punch breed. Furthermore, only fillies from these crosses were eligible for registration with the US association. Despite best efforts of their American counterpart, Suffolks with this new American bloodline, were not allowed to be registered with the British Association.
Although the Suffolk Punch population has come a long way since their lowest point in the early 1960s, both the Rare Breeds Survival Trust of the UK and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy list the Suffolk Punch as “critical”. Between 2001 and 2006 history was made when, for the first time, American breeding stock (one stallion and three mares) were exported to the United Kingdom.
As of 2011, there were reported to be less than 1,350 Suffolks registered in the UK and North America combined, approximately 1,200 of those from Canada and the USA under the auspices of the American Suffolk Horse Association. The Suffolk Punch is still considered the rarest of draft breeds in the United Kingdom.
Past and Present Uses of the Suffolk Punch
The Suffolk Punch is one of the few heavy draft breeds that was purposefully bred for farm work. While they were utilized to pull heavy artillery during wartimes, their foundation was in agriculture. Suffolks are still used today in commercial forestry operations and for other draught work and have also found a place in tourism and pleasure driving. They have been popular for crossbreeding to produce sport horses for use in the Hunter and Show Jumping rings, passing on their dense bone structure, physical strength, expressive gait and exceptional hoof conformation.
Suffolk Punch Horse Conformation and Colour
Despite selective crossbreeding throughout the ages, the Suffolk Punch has remained remarkably (and unusually) close in phenotype to its founding stock. They typically stand between 16.1 and 17.2 hands high (or 1.64 to 1.75 metres) tall and weigh, on average, between 2,000 to 2,200 lbs.
Unlike other draft breeds that vary in coat colour, Suffolks are always chestnut (or sorrel), many with flaxen manes and tails. Equestrian author, Marguerite Henry has been quoted as saying “His colour is bright chestnut – like a tongue of fire against black field furrows, against green corn blades, against yellow wheat, against blue horizons. Never is he any other colour.” Surprisingly, however, Suffolks feature a variety of shades within the chestnut pallet, ranging from dark liver chestnut, dull dark, red, bright red and light sorrel. White markings are rare and are typically limited to the face or present as a lightening on the lower, unfeathered legs.
As is a hallmark with many draft breeds, the Suffolk Punch has a powerful arching neck, well-muscled sloping shoulders, a short and wide back, and a wide and muscular croup. Legs are shorter than some with dense bone and broad joints.
In the past, the Suffolk was notoriously criticized for poor hoof quality, having feet that were thought to be too small to support the massive weight and structure of its body. The introduction of major shows and registries in which hoof structure and conformation was graded – a uniquely innovative practice among horse breeds – resulted in such positive impact that the Suffolk Punch is now considered to have some of the most desired hoof conformation, relative to their bodies, out of many heavy and light breeds.
Character Traits & Trainability of the Suffolk Punch Horse
While there is some variation between draft breeds and there will certainly always be exceptions from horse to horse, Suffolks live up to the calm, intelligent and hard-working characteristics shared by most heavy drafts.
One added benefit to the Suffolk Punch breed, is that they tend to mature earlier and be long-lived, and are also known as “easy keepers”, that typically require less feed than other horses of similar type and stature.
Tally-Ho and the Suffolk Punch Horse
While Tally-Ho doesn’t have any Suffolk Punch horses currently in rotation for our carriage tours, we’ve been privileged to work with this special breed of draft horse over the years. Delilah is our happily retired Suffolk Punch who is currently living the dream with her other draft horse friends on the farm. We hope to one day reintegrate another Suffolk Punch into our herd again.
If you’d like to learn more about members of our herd, you can choose to sponsor a horse or visit our tours page to book a tour to experience these majestic horses in person. Can’t get enough of our gentle horses? Take your very own plush horse home to love. Available in 7.5″ or 12.5″ heights, “Clyde” and “Rimsky” are available in our online gift shop. They come complete with pulling harnesses and make a wonderful keepsake!