Though there is, of course, no proof that the Suffolk Punch is directly descended from the horses of the Iceni, who fought against the Romans in the year A.D. 60, it seems inevitable that such a connection exists. The horses possessed by Queen Boudicca’s tribesmen were much smaller than the modern cart-horse, being little more than ponies. Excavations at Camulodunum (Colchester) have revealed the bones of horses about the size of an Exmoor pony. Nevertheless, they were powerful enough to pull chariots, and the Iceni had a reputation as skilful horsemen. Through all the vicissitudes of subsequent history, there is no break in the association of East Anglia with fine horses and superb horsemen.
Sea traffic, across the North Sea, established before the dawn of history, has made East Anglia a natural gateway, through which both ideas and commodities from the Continent have poured into England. Just when horses were first brought over is unknown, but some authorities think that there was a considerable importation by Norse and Danish settlers. Doubtless, too, there were contributions by the Romans and Saxons. Although the ancient practice of allowing horses to breed while running feral in the woods and on the heaths prevailed well into the Middle Ages, stud farms for breeding a better type of horse also existed. Certainly they did in Roman times, and, although the studs must have been dispersed when the Roman Legions left our shores, some of the horses probably remained and helped to improve native stock. By late Saxon times new stud farms had been established, as at Troston, in Suffolk, where an entire stud is mentioned in a bequest by a man named Aelfhelm in 1016.
So through the long and largely unrecorded centuries, “the great regional breeds such as the Suffolk must have been evolving or evolved,” as Robert Trow-Smith puts it, “but were little known outside their own counties”. He suggests that the rise of the Suffolk Punch may have been closely connected with the development of the light swing plough. Undoubtedly, too, the extent of early enclosures in the eastern counties helped, by reducing the facilities for allowing animals to run wild on common land and so compelling men to take a greater interest in the breeding of their stock. When Henry VIII issued his series of statutes on the subject, the East Anglian counties were among those first mentioned as areas in which no horses of less than 15 hands might be turned out for breeding. A distinct Suffolk type of horse is mentioned by Camden in his Britannia in 1506.
By the eighteenth century the Sandlings district of Suffolk the coastal strip was already celebrated as the home of good horses. Reverend Sir John Cullum, writing about the parish of Hawstead in 1784, refers to
a most useful breed of that noble 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 parts of the kingdom as their form . . . For draught they are perhaps unrivalled, as for their gentle and tractable temper . . . An acre of our strong wheat land ploughed by a pair of them in one day, and that not an unusual task, is an achievement that bespeaks their worth.
And Arthur Young, writing in 1797, recalls that when he was a boy in the 1750s there was even then much rivalry among the farmers of the Sandlings over the breeding of fine horses. In 1768 Thomas Crisp, of Ufford, near Woodbridge, achieved the triumphant distinction of breeding a horse from which every present-day Suffolk is descended. The stallion is known only by a number, 404, and is described as “a fine bright chestnut horse full 15 1/2 hands, . . . able to get good stock for coach or road”. It is worth noting, however, that this splendid animal was the best among a number of well-matched competitors and that he therefore had plenty of good contemporary stock on which to stamp his mark.
The eighteenth-century breeders were evidently more concerned with the performance than with the appearance of their horses. In particular they assessed an animal by its “drawing power”, for which purpose they organized “drawing matches”, one of which, at Ixworth Pickarel, is described by Sir John Cullum in 1724:
The trial is made with a wagon loaded with sand, the wheels sunk a little into the ground, with blocks of wood laid before them to increase the difficulty. The first efforts are made with the reins fastened, as usual to the collar; but the animals cannot, ,when so confined, put out their full strength; the reins are therefore afterwards thrown loose on their necks, when they can exert their utmost powers, which they usually do by falling on their knees, and drawing in that attitude. That they may not break their knees by this operation, the area on which they draw is strewn with soft sand.
In Suffolk ploughing-matches are still known as “furrow-drawing matches”, and prizes are awarded for the straightest single furrow rather than for the best completed rudge. And Suffolk punches are still extensively used for drawing heavy loads of sugar-beet up the inclines from the sunken fields of the Fens to the causewayed roads.
In spite of their prowess, the early Suffolk Punches were not handsome animals, and much intelligent breeding was required to produce the splendid horses we now know. Arthur Young, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, says:
I remember seeing many of the old breed, which were very famous, and, in some respects, an uglier horse could not be viewed; sorrel-colour, very low in the fore-end, a large ill-shaped head, with slouching heavy ears, a great carcase and short legs, but short-backed. . . . These horses could only walk and draw; they could trot no better than a cow. But their drawing power was very considerable. Of late years, by aiming at coach-horses, the breed is much changed to a handsomer, lighter and more active horse.
In breeding for better conformation, the Suffolk breeders did not sacrifice stamina or performance. By 1880, when the first Stud Book of the Suffolk Horse Society (founded 1877) was published, it contained registrations of 1,230 stallions and 1,120 mares, all conforming to the present type. One thing that breeders had done in the interim, however, was to eliminate bays and other colours.
“The Suffolk man will have none of this,” asserted Herman Biddell, first secretary of the Society, referring to the tolerance shown by other societies to a wide range of colours. “Chestnuts all, and all chestnuts, with white facings as few as possible.”
The present scale of points for judges of Suffolk horses describes clearly the type that has been consistently favoured:
Colour – Chestnut; a star, little white on face, or few silver hairs is no detriment . . .
Head – Big, with broad forehead . . .
Neck – Deep in collar, tapering gracefully towards the setting of the head . . .
Shoulders – Long and muscular, well thrown back at the withers . . .
Carcase – Deep, round, ribbed from shoulder to Hank, with graceful outline in back, loin and hindquarters; wide in front and behind (the tail well up, with good second thighs) . . .
Total for above four features – 25 points
Feel, Joints & Legs – The legs should be straight, with fair sloping pasterns, big knees and long, clean hocks on short cannon bones free from coarse hair. Elbows turning in regarded as a serious defect. Feet having plenty of size, with circular form protecting the frog . . .
Walk – Smart and true . . .
Trot – Well balanced all round, with good action . . .
Total for Walk and Trot – 20 points
The Suffolk is noted for both early maturity and longevity. A young horse will start light work when it is two years old and will tackle most jobs when it is three. As for longevity, it is recorded that one stallion, Julian’s Boxer, travelled for twenty-five years without a break. And a mare, the dam of a celebrated horse, Loft’s Cupbearer 824, produced a foal every year for sixteen consecutive years. The Suffolk Horse Society reasonably claims that their horse “from the time he is two years old till he is twenty-four, on every soil, at any work, can hold his own against all comers”.
The tremendous strength and draught power of the Suffolk used, in the nineteenth century, to be tested in extravagant ways. George Ewart Evans records that London horse-dealers attending Dunningworth Fair used to “get the owner to hitch his horse to a fallen tree, and then they watched the horse’s pulling or drawing power. The horse would not be expected to shift the tree, which was usually of a fair size; but if in his efforts to move it he got down almost on to his knees in the approved Suffolk Punch manner, the dealer was satisfied that the horse had the quality he was looking for.” Lady Wentworth states that “there were also crazy competitions, attaching the horses to growing trees and forcing them to pull till one of the horses collapsed.”
Testimony to the extraordinary tractability and amenability to control of the Suffolk Punch is provided by Arthur Young, who wrote at the end of the eighteenth century:
They are all taught with very great care to draw in concert, and many farmers are so attentive to this point that they have teams, every horse of which will fall on his knees at the word of command twenty times running in the full drawing attitude, and all at the same moment; but without exerting any strength till a variation in the word orders them to give all their strength; and then they will carry amazing weights. It is common to draw team against team for high wagers.
Naturally, in their heyday Suffolks did all the work on most East Anglian farms. A dictionary definition of the word “Punch” is “a variety of English horse, short-legged and barrel-bodied; a short, fat fellow”. The Suffolk Punch is now neither short nor fat. Its average height is now 16 or 16 1/4 hands, compared to the original 15 1/2, and any fat it once carried has become solid muscle. It is, however, still “barrel-bodied”, a characteristic which stood it in good stead when working full-time on farms, for it was able to carry a good load of food to sustain it through a hard working day from 6.30 am. to 2.30 pm. without a break.
In 1939, when the horse was still supreme, there were 18,238 horses, nearly all Suffolks, at work on Suffolk farms. As the process of mechanization speeded up after the war, so the numbers of heavy horses rapidly declined, and by 1958 the total had dropped to 2,235. In 1964 the Suffolk Horse Stud Book could register only 75 pedigree animals for the whole county.
Most breeders today have farms on which their horses do some work, if only to get exercise and keep fit. Many other farms keep a horse or two, not for the major ploughing jobs as in times past but for seasonal and occasional work. Sugar-beet, potatoes and vegetables, which are crops in which the Fens specialize, are harvested late, often after the summer has dissolved in autumn storms. Heavy horses are ideal for hauling loads from wet, sticky fields in which tractors too often bog down. They are often used, too, for ploughing headlands that have been left as temporary farm highways, and, of course, they do much of the hauling of fodder and litter for cattle. For this autumn and winter work on heavy soils Suffolk breeders will claim that their clean-limbed horses have a distinct advantage over the feathery-legged Shires.
Suffolks have long been in demand for town work, and, proportionately, the market for horses for city drays is probably greater than ever it has been. Formerly, heavy horses were used in coal carts, dust carts and the waggons of haulage contractors, but now brewers are the chief upholders of the old tradition. Apart from any considerations of economy, a team of heavy horses inevitably attract attention and so are good for publicity. The brewers take a pride in their extremely smart turnouts, which appear at the round of summer agricultural shows and at the London Cart Horse Parade on Easter Monday.
Before the First World War, the Suffolks were in strong demand for artillery horses, and great numbers were exported to certain continental countries, notably .. Germany and Russia. During the nineteenth century, too, Suffolks were shipped to all of the old Dominions. They are now established in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, United States of America, Canada and several of the South American countries, and have proved particularly adaptable to warm climates. In the U.S.A. there has recently been a revival of interest in them. Just as the Suffolk breed undoubtedly owes some debt to horses of other types in distant centuries, so the Suffolks have contributed to many of the non-pedigree horses alive today. In particular, Suffolk stallions have been extensively used, especially in Ireland, for crossing with smaller mares, to produce all-purpose animals. And many magnificent chestnut hunters are one-quarter Suffolk, being the progeny of a thoroughbred sire put to a half-bred mare (from a thoroughbred dam and a Suffolk sire).
A criticism formerly levelled at Suffolks was a tendency to bad feet and sidebones. Side-bones result from the ossification of the side cartilages of the hoof and is an hereditary weakness. It is aggravated by walking on hard surfaces, such as city roads, and produces permanent lameness. Consequently the Suffolk Horse Society took great pains to eliminate the fault and can now claim that it has been entirely eradicated.
Suffolks are economical feeders; indeed, they have a tendency to put on weight on very modest rations. Nor do they like being coddled. Arthur Young’s comments, are still sound:
In the east district, in winter, horses are never permitted to remain in the stable at night; but about eight o’clock are turned out into a yard, well littered with straw, and plenty of good sweet oak or barley straw to eat but never clover or hay. By this treatment, a horse is never swelled in his legs, or seldom has any ailment about him. . . . A horse turned out every night will hold his work several years longer than one confined in a stable.
A number of Suffolks can be turned loose in the same yard. Docile and placid, they seldom cause trouble by bickering.
The Suffolk Horse Society has been remarkably fortunate in its servants and officers and particularly in its secretaries. Since its establishment in 1877 it has had only four secretaries, each one of them giving outstanding service over a long period of years. Herman Biddell, the first of them, made it his life’s work to prepare the Society’s first stud books, a monumental operation which involved him in years of painstaking research. He was succeeded in 1889 by Fred Smith, a wellknown breeder, who retained the office till 1924, when he handed it over to his son-in-law, Raymond Keer. Mr. Keer then gave the Society forty years of his life until handing Over the secretaryship to his colleague, W. J Woods.