AN INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP RYDER-DAVIS, PROFESSIONAL VET & SECRETARY OF THE SUFFOLK HORSE SOCIETY
The History of the Suffolk Horse
The Suffolk horse’s history is better documented than any other breed. There is no doubt that the breed existed in East Anglia in 1300 because in 1500 Campden in his Britannica, which was a gazetteer of Great Britain, described a Suffolk horse exactly as we would recognise it today and it will have taken two hundred years to create it. It is almost certain that the genes for its very large size came from Belgium. Once the breed had become established the written history is very complete. The pedigrees are the longest unbroken pedigrees of any breed in the world, because they go back to 1768, and we have the records of every Suffolk since then. Which means that any Suffolk that is alive today can trace his/her parentage back to 1768 in an unbroken line.
The Suffolk Stud Book is housed at the Suffolk Horse Museum in Woodbridge, Suffolk and is an extraordinary series of volumes, especially Volume One. It was written by the first secretary of the Suffolk Horse Society, Herman Biddell, who spent two years of his life just researching the breeding of every stallion that he could trace alive or dead. He recorded the breeding of every mare that was alive in 1880 and put all this information together in one volume and prefaced it with an extraordinary account of the people of the day and all the history he could find about the breed. It’s a very humorous and fascinating read and it’s a lovely book.
The Suffolk Horse & East Anglia
The Suffolk horse was the most important thing in the whole of East Anglia because nearly everything was moved by it one way or another and it affected the lives of so many people. There were hundreds of these horses and they were very labour intensive so there were probably thousands of people who worked with them. Even today, if we have a Suffolk horse event, people will come up who live in town somewhere and tell us about their father or their grandfather who was a horseman. It touched the lives of everyone.
The horseman was the most important man on the farm. There were grades of horsemen. On a very big farm, which might have forty working horses on it, there was the head horseman. He was absolutely in charge of everything to do with the horses - he fed the horses and was responsible for them. Veterinary medicine was at a very low level at that time and all the vets really did was things like castrating horses. It was the head horseman who would actually treat their illnesses. He would have had a little notebook and we have one or two here at the museum. They were deadly secret these books because in them they recorded treatments and secret ways of handling horses and controlling them with concoctions that they made up. Each book would have recipes for lotions, special oils and aromatic herbs used in the caring and treating of the horses. These little books were the passport to a job and jobs were very difficult to get at the time. If you had a job you had to look after it, especially if you were a head horseman, because that was the peak of the whole farm labour force. They were very often passed down from father to son and once you had the book you kept it and no one else was allowed to see it.
Very few people are seriously working with cart horses in this country nowadays. There are some town councils use them in parks which is a very suitable use for them. But there are very few people seriously using them commercially. On the other hand, in the last five or six years, Suffolk horse members, have shown an increasing interest in breaking Suffolk Punches for work. Until five or eight years ago probably, there weren’t that many Suffolks actually broken. We now have a society ploughing match every year, a Suffolk ploughing match not open to any other breed. The members of the society between them now have a huge collection of restored horse drawn vehicles, heavy horse drawn vehicles and implements.
Are the skills of the old horseman skills being passed on to a younger generation? Oh yes they are and of course this is as important as keeping the horse going because without the people it’s no use having the horses. At our main fund raising event each year, the Suffolk Punch Spectacular in September, we have a young handlers class. I always think that is possibly the most moving thing I ever see in a year because we have very young people handling these horses. Frequently they’re horses which they’ve borrowed for the day and a lot of them don’t know the horse they’re handling. But when you watch this class it is quite remarkable, because they all look like seasoned tradesmen at it.
How important is the work that Paul Heiney is doing?
Intensely important, we rely totally on those people. Paul in particular is one of those who actually does things with his horses and that is really the most important thing we can do. There are two sides of this, of course. Paul has geldings which he works and that’s crucially important. But then of course we must not forget the most important people who are the breeders. It is the breeders that we rely on to continue the breed but they have problems because heavy horses today of any breed are not particularly saleable and are not worth a great deal of money. So if you breed heavy horses you are going to lose money and you have to accept that it has to be a hobby and an interest.
One of the most important uses of the Suffolk horse nowadays, from a purely commercial point of view, is crossing Suffolk horses with thoroughbreds to produce hunters. Now that cross of breeds is worth a lot of money and this is very important for us because those mares which produce a Suffolk foal every year produce something which is difficult to sell. But if every other year, owners of mares produce a hunter foal that is saleable for a lot of money that will subsidise the following year’s production of a Suffolk foal.
Our biggest problem is with Suffolk stallions. A stallion needs a lot of care - it’s an individual animal which must be handled by people who know how to handle them. You need substantial housing and substantial fencing. If you’re going to cover mares, and of course that’s the whole point of having the stallion, it is extremely time consuming and all our breeders today have proper jobs and other things they have to do. Now if Suffolk stallions can be used for breeding hunters that is a serious commercial use for an animal which will make it possible to keep it.
The decline of the Suffolk Horse
A hundred years ago there were thousands of Suffolk horses. Now we have 70 breeding females, so it is an excessively rare breed. In 1963, only twelve foals were born and the breed was in the hands of five people. If it wasn’t for those five people of course the breed would have become extinct. We rely on people who wish to keep them as a hobby, and without those people the breed would become extinct.
East Anglia was the prime place for working horses before the Second World War. There were large arable farms and a lot of them had forty or sixty horses working on them. But because they were big farms and were relatively level the early tractors were able to work on these farms. Once mechanisation came in these horses disappeared at a dramatic rate. All of a sudden there were so many being sold, there was no outlet for them other than to the slaughter houses. So farms sent off forty horses in a day and they were all slaughtered. The other breeds of big horses, such as the Shire and the Clydesdale, were largely employed on smaller farms perhaps in Wales and in Scotland. They didn’t have the money to buy tractors at that time, and the land wasn’t particularly suitable for early tractors either, so the decline was much less gradual. So as those two breeds declined it was much easier to pick them up and start again, but the Suffolk dropped so dramatically it’s been extremely difficult to build those numbers up again from the very low levels of the early 1960s.
Horses as a species are very inefficient reproducers of themselves. They have a very long gestation period and are seasonal breeders. The mares also have a uterus which is rather fragile. So if you take these things together with a horse that has got very low in numbers indeed, it’s a very difficult job to build those numbers up.
What other breeds are unique to Suffolk?
Suffolk is renowned for something called the Suffolk Trinity - the Suffolk horse, the red pole cow and the Suffolk sheep. The Suffolk sheep is a huge world-wide breed with probably millions of them all over the world so that’s not a rare thing. There’s also the large black pig which is an interesting creature, because that appears to have been developed in Suffolk and in Cornwall almost at the same time. So these two large black pigs were developed in two very distant areas and in the 1920s the breeders in Suffolk decided they would create a breed with of something which until then had been more of a type, and three or four of them got together and brought up a train load of black pigs from Cornwall and they amalgamated the two in east Anglia and made the large black pig. So that’s the fourth breed of Suffolk.
Are we in real danger of losing any of England’s rare breeds for good?
The Suffolk is one about which we’re very worried about. The Suffolk Horse Society now has 640 members and the membership goes up all the time. The vast majority of those people don’t have Suffolks, they’re just very keen to be involved in saving something which is really so important. In my lifetime I’ve taken photographs of the last Lincoln curly coat pigs that ever existed on a farm in Lincolnshire where there were the Lincoln curly coat pigs, Lincoln red cattle, the Percheron horse which really was the heavy horse breed of that area and the Lincoln sheep. But the Lincoln curly coat pig disappeared very shortly after I photographed them. There was the Norfolk horn sheep which was created by crossing the Norfolk horn sheep with the South Down, which is really the sheep of Sussex, but which was perfected in Cambridge. Those two breeds were amalgamated to form the Suffolk. But I have photographs of the last pure Norfolk horn sheep.
What can people who would like to get more involved in trying to help preserve the Suffolk horse do?
We welcome as many people as possible to come and help us one way or another. There are all sorts of ways they can do it. If they just join the society then that is of huge importance to us because our membership provides a great deal of financial support, and a great deal of moral support which is very important at times as well. Of course we’re also very keen to have new breeders, so anybody who has the land and the inclination to do it. we’d be very pleased indeed. It is of course a great commitment, it’s not so much the cost, I have two of my own and it’s not exactly cheap to keep them but it’s not that expensive either. I could spend far more money playing golf or going sailing or whatever. But it is the commitment. Mine come in every single night, they’re fed twice a day and someone has to do it day in day out. So if I’m away someone else has to do it. Now, as long as you have that commitment and you have somewhere to keep it, anybody who kept one would get a huge amount of pleasure out of these animals, because they’re such nice things to keep. When we meet together at the Suffolk punch spectacular, that’s a huge pleasure, for everyone whether they own a horse or not.