The Suffolk

History of the Suffolk Breed

The Suffolk horse is the oldest breed of horse to exist in a form which we can recognise today. It has the oldest breed society in England and the longest unbroken written pedigree of any breed of horse.

The long history of the Suffolk breed has enabled man to produce in it a perfect working horse. In the 15th century, John Campden wrote in his ‘Britannica’ of the native breed of working carthorse in the Eastern Counties, a description which can easily be recognised as our present-day Suffolk. The creation of the breed will have taken a minimum of 200 years.

The first secretary of the Suffolk Horse Society, Herman Biddell, undertook an immense amount of research to produce the first volume of the stud book. With illustrations by John Duvall, this book is considered to be one of the finest ever written on livestock history. Biddell’s researches produced written pedigrees back to a stallion called ‘Crisp;s Horse of Ufford’, foaled in 1768. This horse was not, of course, the first Suffolk, as is frequently, but mistakenly, thought. The reality is that at that date all other male lines had died out. Another genetic bottleneck occurred at the end of the 18th century.

These factors, together with the popularity of in-breeding by breeders throughout the breed’s history, mean that the Suffolk is probably homozygous for a large number of its characteristics. Early breeders have therefore bequeathed to today’s breeders a situation in which the in-breeding forced on us by the current rarity of the Suffolk has no obvious disadvantages. In-breeding concentrates genes, and this is equally important for useful characteristics as it is for damaging ones.

Management Regimes

Before the First World War there were tens of thousands of Suffolk horses in east Anglia. Harness was characterised by wooden hames and saddles with exposed wooden trees, and the plough harness was of extremely light construction. Larger farms had many working horses, housed at night in straw yards with shelters like bullock yards. The stable was a long building with a manger running the length of it, used for tying up horses in the morning and at the end of the day’s work for grooming, feeding and harnessing. There were no stall divisions; the excellent temperament of the breed allowed horses to be loose-housed in this way.

The Suffolk is capable of working for a very long period without a break. The standard working day in East Anglia in the winter was from 6.30 am to 2.30pm. Regular journeys by commercial horses at work on the roads were of astounding lengths. Agricultural work practices were carried out to exact routines and the head horseman on a large Suffolk farm was a master of his craft.


Mechanization had a dramatic effect on the Suffolk breed. The large arable and level farms of East Anglia were admirably suited to early tractors and the larger farms had the necessary capital. The Second World War stimulated a major increase in food production, and these factors together virtually eliminated the Suffolk horse. Many large farms sold perhaps 30-40 Suffolks in a single day, and the glut on the market meant that there was no sale for them other than to the slaughter man. By 1966, only nine foals were registered. At this lowest point in their fortunes, half a dozen breeders preserved the breed from extinction.

The revival of interest of Suffolks began in the late 1960s, and numbers have risen continuously since then. However, the breed remains extremely rare, with only 80 breeding females producing some40 foals a year. This figure is similar to the efficiency of foal production of all breeds of horse in the UK; horses as a species are inefficient reproducers.

The Modern Suffolk

The Suffolk Horse Society, with the aid of a grant from the Horserace Betting Levy Board, does all it can to stimulate interest in the breed. Today Suffolks are being used commercially in forestry operations, on farms and for advertising purposes. An important new use is in the tourist industry; a number of establishments open to the public keep Suffolks. An encouraging recent development has been an explosion of interest in breaking these horses to work.

The breed’s excellent temperament is an important factor; many people leading busy lives are still able to work their Suffolks in a modern situation with safety.

Conformation, Colour and Characteristics

The Suffolk is always chesnut (spelt without the ‘t’) in colour, although the shade can vary from lemon through to a very dark liver. The only white allowed is on the face. Its conformation is easily recognisable as the overall appearance is of a very large body on relatively short legs, which gives the Suffolk its tremendous strength. There is no superfluous hair on the legs, which is an advantage in a working horse as excessive hair can cause skin infections. This breed is alone in having foot competitions as a regular feature at major shows, a factor which has contributed to the unrivalled standard of food conformation in the Suffolk horse. Its temperament is outstanding.

Longevity is a noted feature of the breed, with horses working or producing foals, or both, well into their teens. Hardiness is another strength of the breed. The breed standard has never stipulated a height, but the preferred heights are in the region of 17.2 hh for a stallion and 16.2 hh for a mare.

The Suffolk makes extremely good use of his food. A maintenance ratio of a third of a bucket of wet sugar beet pulp, 2lb cooked, flaked barley, 1lb soya flakes and a bucket filled with chaff, fed twice daily with grass or hay ad lib, will keep a Suffolk in excellent condition. Hay can be replaced with good clean barley straw. This is an extremely cheap ration for a large horse. Teeth must be rasped annually and worming carried out at 3-monthly intervals for food to be utilised to best advantage. For a horse in work, the quantity of barley (or oats as an alternative) should be increased.

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