‘Save the Breed II’ event designed to help revive Suffolk Punch horses
DUBLIN, Va. — Eight big beautiful Suffolk Punch mares stood in line facing the grandstand at the New River Valley Fairgrounds and the future of their breed Oct 5.
The mares were competing for a championship during the North American Suffolk Punch Spectacular 2019, an event to celebrate and find ways to keep the rare breed of draft horses.
The theme of the event was “Save the Breed II” as last year was the first gathering of the breeders in North America.
The announcer for the show, Jason Rutledge of Copper Hill, Va., called the class “historic” in its significance and these top mares will save the breed.
The group of owners, breeders, handlers and advisors got a wake-up call from Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, DVM, professor of pathology and genetics at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, who cautioned that they need to manage their breeding programs carefully to ensure genetic diversity.
“As soon as you all use the same stallion you could lose the breed in 10 generations,” the geneticist told the group.
“If you all are going to the same place for stallions you are putting yourself in a box,” he said.
“Everybody needs to be participating,” he said. “You need a broad base. Avoid trends.”
His comments were prompted by a horse owner’s question about using artificial insemination on the horses.
“A.I. is a good thing,” he said. “It depends on how you use it.”
Sponenberg was the guest speaker following the closing dinner for the event. He said his work within the Suffolk breed and its registries in both the United States and England.
While most draft horses trace their origins to great war horses of Medieval times, the Suffolk Punch breed looks to Suffolk County and its surroundings for its origins, the American Suffolk Punch Association reports.
The farmers there developed the breed of heavy horse to meet their needs.
“This one breed is today the least known to Americans, and yet perhaps has more qualities appealing to the American breeder and draft horse employer than any of the better-known breeds of draft horses,” according to the group’s website.
Weather played a significant role in what was planned as a three-day event. On Friday, Oct. 4, the area experienced record high temperatures in the 90s. By Saturday morning, the temperature was 57 degrees with a cold wind blowing across the hilltop home to the event. Event officials and participants shivered and persevered.
The horses appeared to be invigorated by the change. The logging demonstration was canceled Sunday morning due to damp and cold.
The event was not just a group of locals showing their horses, but a national and even international occasion. Horses, their owners, families and handlers came from across the United States. Two show judges, Neil Adams and Fiona Clark, and their steward, Pauline Hayter, journeyed from eastern England where the breed was developed.
The event was in no way a traditional horse show, organizers stressed, but a way for people who love their horses and want to see them continue for generations. They worked together to see that the show went on as it should, learning as they went.
The first day was devoted to classes and demonstrations of interest to owners and breeders of the big sorrel horses.
Some 24 classes of horses on the second day exhibited some of the leading stallions and mares as well as foals shown with their dams.
An obstacle course was set up behind the grandstand so horses could be worked in different settings as their owners chose.
When Sponeneberg asked if anyone at the dinner had learned anything during the gathering everyone raised their hands.
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