The phrase “Gentle Giant” is used of all cart horses, but I think it particularly appropriate when referring to the Suffolk Punch. In common with all breeds of draught horse, the numbers plummeted after the Second World War. They had a brief reprieve owing to the shortage of oil based fuels during the Second World War (even buses towed a trailer which generated coal gas to drive the engine). But after the war, had it not been for a few dedicated breeders who kept the horses going, they would have died out then. When I first remember things in the early 1950s, tractors did nearly all the work on farms. To see a horse working the fields was already a rarity, although not completely unknown. Now the numbers have recovered to a certain extent, but they do not work the fields for a living any more. The Suffolk Punch is still regarded as “critical” on the endangered species list. By contrast, in 1907 there were 32,186 farm horses in Suffolk alone, and the majority of these would have been Suffolk Punches.
One establishment that held onto the Suffolk Punch through the lean years was Hollesley Bay Prison near Shingle Street in Suffolk. Hollesley Bay is in the district of the Suffolk coast from the mouth of the Blyth to the mouth of the Deben, known as the Sandlings. This was the cradle of the Suffolk Punch. From the 1950s until the 1970s they were still used in the traditional way, for regular work on the prison farm. The prison, or the Colony as it was known locally, then had the oldest stud of these horses in the world. Caring for these beasts must have done much to make the prisoners relate to the wider world and these gentle giants with their non-judgmental attitude and regular needs would have been of great value to the inmates, who had known little of these things in their previous lives. Fortunately the horses were taken on by the Suffolk Punch Trust when H. M. Prisons (i.e. the Government) decided to dispose of them.
Unlike the Shire horse, which comes in a number of colours, the Suffolk Punch is always chestnut (or chesnut as it is spelled in the stud book). Another peculiarity of the breed that distinguishes it from other cart horses, particularly shires, is the absence of long hair on the fetlocks. Although they are known abroad (particularly in America), in this country they have never been as popular outside the Eastern Counties as they were in their native Suffolk. Elsewhere in this country the Shire horse and the Clydesdale hold sway, and even in East Anglia the Suffolk Punch seems to have been used exclusively for agriculture; the dray horses used on the streets of Norwich for example were shaggy fetlocked Shires. Even on Norfolk farms I gather the Punch was a rarity.
In the past the food given to horses – bait, in the horsemen’s language – varied greatly within just a few miles. One farm would feed beans, the next one oats, while another would think carrots gave the best result. Horsemen began their working day early, with the preparation of their animals’ coats for the day’s work. In the winter they would not be on the fields before daylight, and they would be home again by 3 p.m., ready for the horse’s main meal of the day. The book by George Ewart Evans, the Welsh author who adopted East Anglia as his home, where he made his dwelling in Brooke near Poringland, has a book devoted to the Suffolk Horse; The Horse in the Furrow (London 1960). For anyone who wishes to learn more this book is a must.
They are relatively short legged but they have strong muscled buttocks. In the horseman’s language they have the backside of a farmer’s daughter! This makes them ideal for ploughing.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA