The Last Punch – A Memory of Disappearing Heavy Horses

This was originally written 18 March 2016.  The Suffolk Punch is one of our most endangered horses, the RBST thinks we have just 10 years to save them.  Already the gene pool is so diminished there are breeding problems.  This is especially devastating in the light of new genetic information which points to Suffolk Punches being the closest thing we have to medieval warhorses, rather than the more usually substituted shire.  Warhorses were clean-legged (no feathering), 15-16hh and predominantly chestnut.  Much, much more similar to a punch than a shire, so it seems the warhorses found employment in farming when warfare moved on.  In losing the Punch, we not only lose all that agricultural heritage, but also a last living remnant of the medieval warhorse – on our watch after circa 500yrs!  Appalling!

When I was down in Suffolk I met Graham, the latest in a line of farmers with clear memories and photographs of the transition from Suffolk Punches to tractors – I was keen to document what he had, and here it is!

 

My ears pricked up when Graham mentioned that his great, great grandfather John had been an oxman for the Somerleyton estate when he had moved across the river to settle in Aldeby with his two brothers, Jimmy and Aaron in 1837. Sadly, any further information about John or the oxen he worked has been lost and the family memories only begin in detail with the next generation, William, John’s son.

William worked on the railway as a ganger and Graham relates how he would cut the grass growing on the sides of the tracks for hay for the horses – nothing was wasted. William’s son who was also a William must have been ill-at-ease with his father’s change of direction away from their farming roots as he left school at 14, determined to be a farmer. It seems to have been a familiarly difficult ambition for him, as he took work as a rook scarer, a postman and a coalman with two waggons and horses to fund some rented marshes and cattle. Finally, in 1912 he took on a full tenancy on Blocka Farm and had his 90acres.

He married a lady named Jessie who promptly added dairy to the enterprise, handmilking the cows and making butter before taking it to market via horse and cart (picture below); a 22mile trip, each way. The horse pictured is called Dolly and her breed isn’t known but it’s likely she had a good dose of Hackney blood given the period and grahamshackneylocation in question, Yorkshire and Norfolk being the heartlands of the breed and their purpose being a fast roadhorse. As a firm Hackney fan the previously unpublished picture from the ’20s which Graham showed me is the stuff of dreams!

At this time the farm worked what Graham says were known as ‘Shirbreds’ – shire horses, though they were blended with Clydesdales. Back then, pedigree was less important than it is for the showring thesedays, the important bit was how well the horse worked. The picture below show Beauty, Prince and Blossom at work. Strangely, they were not Suffolk Punches, the local breed of the area. It’s unknown why this was the case, but by the 30s the farm had switched to Suffolks and was using Lord Somerleyton’s Suffolk stallion.

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Graham told me a few tales of the more memorable events of his grandfather’s life breaking and working heavy horses. The best was possibly the mare who would not go forwards. In the training process she quickly figured out what was wanted and decided to avoid work by going backwards instead. A heavy horse’s backside moving towards you is hard to combat without use of the whip but William was not the type to use one; instead he stood her in front of a haystack and asked her to go forwards. The stubborn mare insisted on going backwards, and Graham says she heaved and kicked for a full hour, until the ground under her feet was churned into mud and she had exhausted herself with her efforts. Finally, she gave up and walked forwards, found it easy in comparison and was never a bother again!

The horses were traditionally turned onto the marshes between ‘haysel’ (haymaking time) and harvest to eat the aftermath of the haymaking and presumably build themselves up for the heavy work of harvest – pulling the binder was the hardest job and would have to be done in 3hr stints only before switching the horses. Mares would work whilst in foal, almost up to their time, and when the foal was born it would run alongside its mother as she worked. I know from experience that oxen learn a lot through example and mimicry, so this is probably an ideal start for a working horse!

The horses were often not too keen on returning to work after their holiday and William had another problem to fix when one mare figured out that putting her hefty leg over the trace and refusing to budge meant the men having to undo everything and set it right before they could start, whereupon she would simply move her leg again and delay everything further. Many would have been tempted to take a whip to the animal perhaps, but William decided to give the mare a taste of her own medicine – if she was going to keep him waiting and from his work, he would do the same! He walked her front feet to the top of a bank, tied her head high up to a branch and sat down for lunch, leaving her stood still. When he returned, she was suddenly keen to be on the move and never tried her trick again!

Time marched on and William’s son was keen to move on to tractors. William Snr refused point blank to have anything to do with them however, and the farm continued to work horses throughout the war years. No horses were lost to the front in the First World War, only a stack of hay – one of 800tonnes required every week to feed the horses on the front! During the Second World War William was caught out by a ‘nuisance raid’ while ploughing. He managed to unhitch the horses upon hearing the warning siren and by the time the two planes burst over the treeline, firing bullets randomly, he had run and hidden them behind a haystack and had the presence of mind to walk them around it as the planes passed so that they would not see the planes and take fright. His neighbour meanwhile had jumped from his tractor and into a ditch for shelter, leaving the tractor in gear, trundling away by itself!

Another wartime adaptation was having to make stacks with the grain crops rather than filling a stackyard back at the farm, near the giant new threshing machines, to avoid the risk of fire when incendiary bombs were dropped. It was quickly realised that the machines were too heavy to be moved nearer the stacks and would damage the ground too much in the process, but Grandad William was confident his horses could do the job, so he took it apart a little and hooked up ‘Smiler’ (pictured).grahamsshire Smiler had very broad feet and was an extremely strong horse; he carefully and successfully pulled the machine across the fields to the stack. Smiler was previously known as an almost useless horse, an ‘Old Stomper’. He not only had enormous feet but he banged them carelessly up and down as he walked, damaging many plants in the process if he worked any crops. In contrast, Graham says the other horses moved their feet carefully and neatly which was ideal.

The last foal born on the farm was ‘Smart’ (pictured with family below) in 1938, out of Blossom and by Lord Somerleyton’s stallion. She was clearly a well loved member of the family. Graham says she was so good natured she never actually required any formal kind of ‘breaking in’, she naturally took to work.grahamssuffolk

Unfortunately Grandad William died in 1952, still steadfastly refusing the drive the tractors. His son William was pleased with the switch to tractors as he regained a third of his land which had previously been dedicated solely to maintaining the horses. The horses were allowed to live out their lives on the farm however but eventually only Smart was left. She befriended a goose in those solitary days and they went out on the marshes together to graze, the goose bedding down on the muckheap outside her stable when they returned together at night. The goose laid her eggs on that muckheap but never needed to sit them, they hatched from the heat of the muck!

Smart’s last job was harrowing for a kale crop, driven by Graham’s dad. After this she developed ‘bad feet’ and finally in 1957 it was considered kinder to put her out of her misery. William could not bear for her to be killed on the farm, so she was carted to the slaughterhouse. Though a tractor fan, the experience moved him enough to write a poem on the passing of the horse days:

There’s a big tractor shed now standing
Where the old hay stacks used to be
And a big plough standing there outside
Not one furrow now but three
I’ve hung up the horse trees and the plough trace
Along with the whippletrees, saddles and bridles too
And I’m wearing greasy dungarees
For old grey mare is dead and gone
And there’s weeds around the stable door

– William Richmond

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6 thoughts on “The Last Punch – A Memory of Disappearing Heavy Horses

  1. Pingback: historyonhorseback
    1. So why is it that so many folks feel that the Suffolk Punch will be gone in 10 years? with the number of foals born each year over the last few years I would think you all would be very happy that things are moving up not down with this breed. Just asking as a owner and breeder for mover 42 years

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      1. As a non-breeder/owner with an outside eye on the politics I can perhaps speak more freely than most – I believe there is huge resistance within the UK scene to bringing in American/foreign blood. Madness in my eyes, if the stock has demonstrably stayed pure (and this could be verified via modern DNA testing surely?). Hence, our gene pool is shrinking and our stock is having problems breeding. Not all, obviously, but it means the pool shrinks further as these still-breeding animals come to dominate the future population. But, that’s only part of the story – where will they physically live once born? Heavies struggle to find homes, they are really expensive to maintain, we’re all hard up here, and our transport regs have got so restrictive that one of the major reasons I myself do not keep heavies despite having plenty of grass, is that I don’t have the correct license and, on top of the added costs of running a larger vehicle, gambling the £500+ on whether I’ll achieve the license or not is a step too far. You have to really just love the breed to go to all that expense to ride a heavy for fun, as they don’t have much of a place in sports (yes yes I know some can jump a bit but we’re dreaming if we think they can come close to a sportshorse!)

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