Planet Suffolk: Bringing together the Suffolks of the world

Suffolk Punch

His color 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 color.

Marguerite Henry (1902-97)

The Suffolk Punch, also sometimes known as the Suffolk Sorrel, or simply the Suffolk, is a breed of English heavy or draft horse.

The breed can be traced back to the early sixteenth century & is thought to have been a cross between the Norfolk Trotter & Norfolk Cob; later cross breeding also involving the English Thoroughbred. This produced the forerunner of the Suffolk Punch, known as the Suffolk Cob. The first description of the Suffolk Punch occurs in William Camden’s Britannia of 1586, which makes it the oldest breed of horse recognisable in the same form today.

By the 1760s, the breed had reached a genetic bottleneck, with all but one stallion having died out. The one remaining stallion, from which all other Suffolks derive today, was foaled in 1768 & owned by Thomas Crisp of Ufford near Woodbridge. Never named, this stallion was known simply as horse 404, but has become known today as “Crisps Horse”. 

The Suffolk is always chestnut in colour (or “chesnut” as it is commonly written). There are seven different shades recognised, however; bright, red, golden, yellow, light, dark and dull dark. White markings are rare, but can occur on the face or lower legs. The Suffolk generally stands between 16 & 17.2 hands tall & can weigh 2,200 lbs or more.

Although shorter than other breeds of draught horse such as the Shire & Clydesdale (in the Suffolk dialect “punch” means stocky or short), the Suffolk is more massively built, with a powerful neck, well muscled shoulders & a wide back . The legs are short but strong, with no feathering on the fetlocks; the latter feature being a distinct advantage on the thick clay soils of East Anglia. The Suffolk is renowned for its early maturity, longevity, good temperament, stamina & tractive power. They are also regarded as economical; needing less feed than other horses of comparable size. Traditionally, the Suffolk Punch was used for farm work as well as pulling brewer’s drays, omnibuses &, during wartime, heavy artillery.

The Suffolk Horse Society was founded in 1877 & published its first stud book in 1880. The first official exports (to Canada) took place in 1865, with the first exports to the USA taking place in 1880. More exports took place over the next few years, with the American Suffolk Horse Association being formed in 1907. During the early twentieth century, Suffolks were exported to many European countries, as well as several other parts of the world including Australia, New Zealand & Argentina.

The Suffolk Punch remained a popular work horse in Britain until the Second World War, when the increase in motorised farm vehicles coincided with the reduction in the use of horse power. From that time the numbers of Suffolks decreased, until in 1966 only nine foals were born. In the USA the American Suffolk Horse Association was revived in 1961, having become inactive some years earlier. In the 1970s & 80s the American Society allowed cross breeding with the Belgian Draught Horse, although only the fillies from these crosses were allowed to be registered with the Association. There are now estimated to be around 1,200 Suffolks in the USA.

Since 2001, horses with American bloodlines have not been permitted to be registered with the British Suffolk Horse Society, & consequently the breed is considered the rarest in Britain. Although numbers are on the increase, the Rare Breed Survival Trust lists the Suffolk Punch’s survival status as critical.  Suffolk Punch numbers are now in the low hundreds.

The Suffolk Horse Museum is located in the Shire Hall on Market Hill in Woodbridge. The museum documents the history of the Punch in more than 50 paintings & many old photographs, as well as displaying exhibits on the work done by the horses & the craft of the blacksmith & harness maker. The museum is open from April to the end of September on Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday afternoons.

Based on 200 acres of land on the Suffolk coast acquired from HM Hollesley Bay Prison, The Suffolk Punch Trust was formed in 2002.  Suffolks had been bred on this land since at least the late eighteenth century, & when the Prison Service took over in 1938 they agreed to retain the stud farm. When the prison decided that it was no longer feasible to carry on, the Trust came into being. As well as a breeding centre, the Trust has a visitor & educational heritage centre, & is open to the public from late March until the end of October. It keeps two stallions & around twenty mares & foals at any one time, as well as a collection of local breeds such as Suffolk sheep & Red Poll cattle.

Since 1972 , the Suffolk Punch has been the central image on the badge of Ipswich Town Football Club; designed by the then Treasurer of the Supporters Club, John Gammage.

See also The Suffolk Punch - A Poem by Henry Birtles on the Suffolk Misc. page

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