Suffolk horse enthusiasts enjoyed a rare treat October 5, 6 and 7, 2018. The Southern Suffolk Punch Gathering Group organized and put on the North American Suffolk Punch Spectacular (NASPS) at the fairgrounds outside Dublin, Virginia. They pretty much knocked the ball out of the park, drawing 32 Suffolk horses from eight states, more than 100 spectators from 18 states as well as Canada, Australia and England–as well as a certified Suffolk judge from the United Kingdom to evaluate the 19 classes that were held to showcase the horses and their abilities. The group also brought in expert speakers to encourage and instruct Suffolk Punch owners how to increase genetic variation in this too-rare breed of draft horse.
Jason Rutledge saw his first Suffolk horse in England some 40 years ago. The mare, Moulton Princess 3rd, made such an impression on him that he has built a life, a living and a legacy with Suffolk horses. His work to restore forests through “worst first” selective cutting and the use of horse power to minimize damage to the forest floor has resulted not only in a successful non-profit, the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, but also in the training of several young foresters with the skills and ethics to carry restorative forestry into a future that sorely needs them.
It had long been Jason's vision to see Suffolk owners and their horses participating in an exclusively Suffolk show, with the emphasis being on showcasing the horses for their usefulness rather than their “hitchiness”–Suffolk horses are beautiful, and make a spectacular hitch, but they do not lift their feet in a snappy, fancy fashion, as do some of the other draft breeds. Their ground-eating strides, rather, are characterized by a low-key efficiency. Jason hoped one day to participate in a show that would celebrate this.
Jason served as the self-described “idea man” for the project, while fellow Virginian and Suffolk owner and breeder Bonnie McCutcheon provided ideas of her own as well as the practical, yeoman effort necessary to bring a large project into fruition. The two collaborated with other Suffolk enthusiasts around the country and agreed on a concept: They would keep the event low-cost enough that participants could haul their horses to the show without breaking the bank.
The theme of the event was “Save this Breed,” an acknowledgement that the Suffolk horse is rare and that attention must be paid to its future. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy designates the Suffolk Punch breed as “critically endangered.” Organizers of the NASPS agreed to seek out speakers to address the issue and, if possible, offer solutions.
The resulting vision encompassed an event that would showcase Suffolk horses and demonstrate their value and usefulness. The concept was that it would not cost an exhibitor an arm and a leg to participate. The theme, "Save This Breed," summed up the innate value of Suffolks by acknowledging their past through pedigree information posted on each horse's stall, appreciating their present-day usefulness through classes in which they showed their strength, agility and calm natures, and working to guard their future by providing information as to how breeders can diversify the gene pool of the breed, thus preserving valuable traits.
The focus of the event was on building a bridge between the American Suffolk community and the Suffolk Horse Society of the United Kingdom, where Suffolk horses originated. To this end, Jason called upon longtime friend, Suffolk breeder, and judge Roger Clark and his wife, Fiona, of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk County, England. Roger agreed to attend the event and to place the classes. He was, however, unable to fulfill this promise because of health issues. In their stead, Neil Adams and Pauline Hayter, representatives of the British Suffolk community, made the trip. Accompanying them were Sam and Jadene Maloy, professional grooms for Lady Claire, the Countess of Euston, and Emma Marshall and family, the current owners of the property on which Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, the common ancestor of Suffolk horses, lived.
These principles inspirited the event as horses arrived from as far away as Louisiana (883 miles: Robert and Sherry Shivers), Saucier, Mississippi (751 miles: Dan Walker), and Alton, Missouri (697 miles: Matt and Cindy Malnory).
Friday morning's activities began with a shoeing demonstration by Mitch Goldman, graduate of the Montana State University Professional Farrier and Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Advanced Farrier programs. Mari Leedy, owner of The Stitch 'n Hitch in Crossville, Tennessee, talked about correctly fitting a harness to the horse and showed the difference between a standard work harness and the increasingly popular D-ring harness.
Jason Rutledge took a mature, distractible horse into the round pen, which was surrounded by people curious to see what would happen. Within a short time and with what seemed like very little effort Jason had the horse's ear locked on him. He stopped and started the horse with his gaze. The horse appeared calm, attentive, and at ease–as did Jason. “The horse mirrors your attitude,” he explained.
The afternoon's activities included a plowing demonstration by Clifford Cox and Bill West, a braiding demonstration by the mother-daughter team of Sam and Jadene Maloy, and a single-horse pull.
Friday evening, after a fine dinner sponsored by the Virginia Horse Board, the “Save This Breed” theme was addressed through talks presented by Virginia Tollman, executive director of Equus Survival Trust; Caitlin Castaneda, Researcher PhD Student for the Texas A&M University Animal Genetics and Cytogenetics Molecular Laboratory; and Kay Gschwind, of Bear and Thistle Farm in Kentucky. Appearing via Zoom from Britain was Dr. Frederic Barrelet, a veterinarian with Rossdales Veterinary Surgeons, of Newmarket, Suffolk. Dr. Barrelet, a trustee of the Suffolk Horse Society and member of its breeding committee, presented a series of slides regarding artificial insemination (AI), preparing the mare for AI, using fresh and frozen semen and stallion collection techniques.
The four talks focused, each with a slightly different slant, on preserving the breed by preserving its genetic diversity, while also conserving those traits common to the animals that actually make them true to the breed.
Victoria Tollman of Equus Survival Trust cautioned breeders against simply increasing numbers. Long-term goals for breeders should include retaining the inner and outer qualities of the breed that make it unique.
Because breeding and raising horses is a business, breeders must also look to the markets for their animals. If, however, the market favors taller, “hitchier” horses than the traditional Suffolk, it is tempting to breed horses to appease this demand. It's in all our best interests to support endeavors that require traditional Suffolks, such as horse logging or horse farming. This is another way to promote and protect the Suffolk breed.
Ms. Tollman also encouraged the establishment of registry reciprocity with the mother country–more specifically, the UK's Suffolk Horse Society. Currently, the Society doesn’t recognize horses registered through the American Suffolk Horse Association. Many ASHA members hope this will change, and the Spectacular was a hopeful step towards this goal.
Long-term goals for a responsible breeder and steward of the Suffolk breed should, in Ms. Tollman's opinion, include thinking beyond one's own stock to the global benefit of the species.
Caitlin Castaneda discussed her research on kinship (shared ancestry) analysis in horses. Kinship analysis reveals the structure of the breed population by dividing it into subgroups. Genetic relatedness of subgroups can be determined through cluster analysis. The small groups of horses most distant from the larger main groups are the most genetically valuable. According to Castaneda, understanding our breed's structure is critical. We need to know what the subgroups are, their size and relative isolation from each other, and then make breeding decisions. The best breeding choices are those with similar kinship groups. Breeders should keep in mind that a stallion loses genetic value with every foal produced. Over-use of a particular stallion reduces genetic variation in the herd. Breeding performed by the few, however, can have a significant impact on the herd's genetic diversity.
The American Suffolk Horse Association (ASHA) has been requiring blood typing and DNA analysis of the horses it registers for several decades now. Caitlin Castaneda's advisor at Texas A&M, Dr. Gus Cothran, has been doing that work for the ASHA. This trove of genetic information may be used to guide breeders as they make their decisions in the future. It will be important to do so, as the breed has, according to Castaneda's and Cothran's research, lost 4% of its allelic diversity since 1989.
Until there is an advisory breeding scheme, Suffolk breeder Kay Gschwind, of Bear and Thistle Farm, suggested using Wright's Calculator of Genetic Diversity. She gave a talk to explain it. This is a system in which one uses the pedigrees of the breeding animals being considered, assigning the horses of each generation a numerical value based on the number of times its ancestors are repeated in its pedigree, and then doing some math to determine the resulting foal's coefficient of inbreeding.
British attendees at the event included, as mentioned above, Neil Adams and Pauline Hayter. Neil is a certified judge for England’s Suffolk Horse Society. Throughout the events on Friday he looked like a normal guy. Saturday morning … who was this fellow? In his black suit and bowler hat?
A British judge of horses must appear in suit, tie and hat. Neil strode into Bud Walsh arena looking elegant, professional and somewhat intimidating. Luckily his manner quickly put to rest any doubt that he was still as nice a guy as he had been while wearing a T-shirt the day before. He doffed his hat to exhibitors as respectfully as if they had been wearing proper tweed and leading perfectly groomed, polished and shining Suffolk horses. Through the warm October-in-Virginia day he worked in the ring, encouraging and praising exhibitors and explaining how they could improve next time, talking to the crowd in the stands about why he'd chosen one horse over the other, always assisted by Pauline Hayter, the ring steward (also from England).
"From the start, Pauline Hayter, my steward and representative of The Suffolk Horse Society and I were warmly welcomed to the beautiful state of Virginia," Neil stated. "Having been told that most exhibitors had never shown their animals in halter classes and had only worked in fields and forests, I felt sure that all of us would be somewhat nervous of each other. 'What was this English guy with the funny hat going to say about how we were going to show our horses,' was on one side. My side was, 'What on earth is going to be put in front of me?'
"Well, I saw good working horses, with horsemen and women that had real enthusiasm. The nervousness was evident, but also the enjoyment seemed to be very obvious, from the youngest exhibitors to the older handlers. Things are done quite differently in the UK when it comes to preparing animals. Braiding mane and tail should always be done. Being shod is always helpful. There is an accepted dress code for handlers. Being on time for your class should be the responsibility of the exhibitor. But we all had to start somewhere! The animals that were put in front of me were mainly of a standard that I would be happy to take on. I do like a big horse, a horse that can cover the ground, but still have the bone and body of a true Suffolk. There was enough evidence of these basic qualities to give me a very enjoyable day of judging. With more experience in trotting in a straight line and shoeing, the locomotion of the animals would have improved, but there were some quality animals that I would have loved to show myself!
"The distance some people traveled to get to this show proves that the Suffolk Punch and what it stands for is very well regarded. I was overwhelmed by that heartfelt enthusiasm! It shows that these 'red horses' should have a good future."
Saturday evening, the ASHA held their annual dinner and meeting at the fairgrounds. Members showed a keen interest in the proceedings. The following morning the association board held their meeting, which was open to members.
Afterwards, the public was invited to view a logging demonstration by Jason Rutledge, Ben Burgess, Chad Miano and other skilled horse loggers. At its conclusion, the event itself came to an end–except for the clean-up, the packing, the loading of horses into trailers for the long rides home, all the hugs, handshakes, good-byes and the promises to keep in touch. The Southern Suffolk Punch Gathering Group still had work to do, loose ends to tie up, but if ever there was a time to pat themselves on the back, it was following this spectacular event.