Why Heavy Working Horse Breeds Are Under Threat

One of the most popular symbols for a weathervane or wrought iron farm signs is the heavy working horse. These gentle giants have assisted in the endeavours of mankind to farm the land for centuries. However, some of the most iconic British heavy horse breeds are under threat of extinction. 

The Working Horse Trust explains that in Britain during the late 1800s, it is estimated that there were about 4 million heavy horses working on farms, and also in the military, forestry, and transport sectors. However, by the 1960s, numbers had plummeted to such low levels that some breeds were under threat from extinction. 

One of the most endangered heavy horse breeds is the Suffolk Punch. According to the Suffolk Horse Society, there are fewer than 500 pure-bred Suffolk Horses registered in the UK, with 32 foals born in 2022. The horses were bred specifically for ploughing and pulling work on farms, and were also used to pull guns and wagons during WWI. 

Suffolk Punches are always chestnut in colour, and as the name suggests, they are native to the county of Suffolk in south east England. They were favoured over the ox as a plough horse, because the collar gave them more pulling power than a yoke. Horses are also easier to shoe, because they can stand on three legs whereas oxen cannot. 

As the tractor became more widely used on farms after the second world war, the number of heavy farm horses declined sharply, with many sadly being sent for slaughter abroad. Only a handful of enthusiasts kept the Suffolk Punch on working farms, and now they are listed as a critically endangered breed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST).

However, there remains a strong affection for the breed, and the horses are in demand for local shows and eco-friendly logging work. There is also some demand for heavier riding horses, as lighter horses can only safely carry riders up to 13 stone. 

When asked to name a heavy horse, most people will think of the Shire, which was once known as the Old English Breed of Cart Horse. This breed is considered to be ‘at risk’ by the RBST, with insufficient numbers of foals born to replace the existing population. 

However, there is some positive news, as there are a number of Heavy Horse Centres and working farms around the UK that are dedicated to preserving this much-loved breed. As well as ploughing work, Shires are also used for obstacle driving competitions, logging, and pulling traditional gypsy caravans and barges. 

Other at-risk heavy horse breeds include the Clydesdale, which originates from Scotland, and the Percheron and the Ardenne, which are native to France and Belgium. 

In France, heavy horses have enjoyed a revival in popularity as an eco-friendly alternative to motorised rubbish trucks and school buses. As well as saving on fuel and emissions, people enjoy them as they bring a quieter and gentler way of life to busy towns and cities.