The Suffolk Punch. Lovely horse. So laid-back. In the DNA, surely? Bruce Smith shoots me a look. “There’s this phrase ‘the gentle giant’, and it’s a fallacy, really,” he says. Ah. I believe I’ve peddled that alliterative cliché in the past.
“You’ll get out of your horse what you put in. If you leave it to run wild, it’s just going to be wild. We’re back to training: set the parameters as a youngster and away they go.”
Bruce knows his equines. As a schoolboy he worked part-time on farms. Later, he came to Suffolk to be stud groom with the prison at Hollesley Bay, near Woodbridge – famous for its collection of Suffolk Punches.
Next month he becomes president of The Suffolk Horse Society – created more than 140 years ago as the “breed society” for the Suffolk Punch and doing its darndest to help this endangered species.“At the trust” – The Suffolk Punch Trust; a charity started in 2002 – “we were fortunate we bred the horses there and so they were handled as foals from day one. They were used to being brushed; used to having their feet picked up.
“If they’d been weaned at six months of age and then turned out on the marshes somewhere, until they’re two years old, they’d be a bit wild.
“People call them gentle giants and I think it’s because people have got this vision still of, in years gone by, work on the farms and the horse coming up the track, jogging along. Well, he’s just done a day’s work. You go and do a day’s work, and walk up the hill… it’s hard!”
Earlier, I’d strayed into similar territory by asking about the bond between the Suffolk Punch (the oldest English breed of working horse) and its human owner. I was probably being a bit whimsical.“Working with horses is really the same as training children and dogs. You start from a very young age and you’ve got to be firm with them (not cruel, of course) but also praise. The horse will know from your voice whether you’re pleased with it or not. If you show you’re nervous, you’ve got a problem.”
Bruce shares a bit of folklore.
“One of the old horsemen’s tales used to be the frog’s bone. You had to get a frog or a toad and kill it. Then you’d hang it in a hawthorn bush until the flesh dropped off, leaving the skeleton.
“You’d have to venture out during a full moon, at midnight, and take it down to a fast-flowing stream and throw the bones into the water. All the bones would wash downstream… apart from one, which would appear to flow upstream.
Willing workers. Bruce Smith, back in 2015, explaining the finer points of ploughing Picture: SIMON PARKER“That’s the one you kept. If you had that bone, you could handle horses… do anything with horses.
“People were far more superstitious in those days, and so if you were brave enough to go out at midnight, when the witches were flying, and wander across the field and go to this stream, you were of a strong character. And if you were of a strong character, you could handle your horses.”
Bruce grew up in the Southend area. A grandfather was a farm contractor in Lincolnshire. “I used to go up there as a kid, from the age of four or five, for part of the summer holidays.
“This would be about 1950-something. Most of it was mechanised but there was still the odd horse working on the fields, bringing the harvest home.” This early exposure to farming probably fostered Bruce’s empathy for animals and the land. Later, he worked on local farms before he went to school in the mornings, when he came home, at weekends and during holidays.
At 16, after leaving school, he basically left home and worked in agriculture. The years took him to Reading, the West Country, to Hampshire (for an interlude in civil engineering), and on to an approved school’s farm in Hertfordshire for three years.
Next stop, the original borstal, in the village of the same name in Kent. Borstals were for young offenders, and were designed to rehabilitate them through routine and education.
Bruce went to look after its dairy stock. There was a herd of Jersey cows that he used to take to agricultural shows – they’d actually come from Hollesley Bay – and three Hollesley-bred Punches.Then Leyhill jail in Gloucestershire, around the time of the prison service’s centenary in 1978. The Queen visited, and Bruce found himself the only person who knew how to plait the horses properly.
Perhaps someone noticed. The stud groom at Hollesley Bay was retiring, and Bruce was asked if he wanted to take on the job. He moved to Suffolk in 1978.
He had to learn about the breeding of horses, though, and was grateful for the guidance of vet Philip Ryder-Davies, for one.
Bruce had to take something of a DIY approach to ploughing with a Punch, too. “I had to look at pictures in a book and work out how the harness went on!” he admits. Stoke by Nayland farrier Roger Clark was someone who helped in these hours of need. Bruce says: “I could have turned up and said ‘I’m the stud groom at Hollesley Bay; it’s the largest stud of Suffolk Punch horses in the world; what a clever bloke I am’, and everybody would say ‘OK. If you’re that good, get on with it.’
“Or I could go the other way – which is what I did – and say ‘Roger, I’m having a bit of a problem here; what do you think?’ Because I’d ask, everybody was so helpful to me.” A lesson to us all, there.
There were about 30 Punches at Hollesley when Bruce arrived, and the site was a borstal, with the prison service running the 1,800-acre farm that helped young offenders develop a work ethic.
“Some of them hadn’t worked in their lives and didn’t know what it was. So having to get up early and appear at the stables at six o’clock – and mucking out etc – it was something different.”Hollesley Bay took horses to shows, and many offenders were interested and concerned when mares were about to give birth.
“Obviously they weren’t allowed out at night, but it would probably be the first question in the morning: ‘Has the foal been born? Can we see it?’”
Later, when the prison population switched to adults, the philosophy endured. “I can go to shows now and still come across ex-prisoners, who come and say hello. They remember their time with the horses.”
There was turmoil in the 2000s when the prison service said its Suffolk Punch stud was no longer part of its “core business”.
Happily, a campaign backed by the EADT raised £580,000 that would allow The Suffolk Punch Trust (created to help protect the critically-endangered Suffolk horse through its breeding programme at Hollesley Bay Colony Stud) to buy 180 acres of land, buildings, 25 horses and equipment. Bruce continued as stud groom, employed by the prison service.
But seven or eight years ago the jail stopped sending inmates to help at the stud. Bruce took the option of working for the prison itself, in ground maintenance. Today semi-retired, he works a couple of days there.
He still helps the trust, as a volunteer. He jokes that he does “the easy bits”, such as breaking horses in summer, while leaving the mucking out and cold winter tasks to trust grooms “who are all younger than me; so they can do the legwork!”
He also drives a horse for the Woodbridge & District Riding for the Disabled Association, and helps Banham Zoo’s head horseman take its Suffolk Punches to shows.
There might be 10 a year, ranging from one-day events (such as the Suffolk Horse Spectacular) to the longer Countryfile Live jamboree at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire (three years running, so far).
Career highlights for Bruce include travelling up and down the country for events, triumphing at the Royal Show, and the winning of a Butler Trust award for prison staff in the 1990s – for working with horses and young offenders. It was presented at Buckingham Palace.
For one of the Queen’s jubilee celebrations he was at Windsor for a week-long gathering of “the Queen’s horses”. These included army horses, horses from Sandringham, and Suffolk Punches from Hollesley. There were displays in front of the royals, with the grand finale featuring 1,000 horses.
Bruce has met most of the Royal Family. The Princess Royal, patron of the Suffolk Horse Society, has been to the prison twice, and also The Suffolk Show.
“She’s always quite chatty. She gets talking about horses – we both get talking about horses – and you can see the people standing beside her, looking at their watches, thinking ‘We’ve got to move on…’”
Daft question, but has he ever been injured by a heavy horse? “Fortunately not.” We both touch wood. “I did have a couple of kicks, where I was limping around for a while, and a stallion bit me once on the chin. Parham Rufus. Apart from that, I’ve been pretty unscathed.” And, in regular life, overcome bowel cancer and angina.
There are no thoughts of permanent retirement. Wife Christine (they have three sons and two grandchildren) also still works.
Bruce is off to a heart rehabilitation class later today – a good workout for an hour – and tonight has another keep-fit class. All this after taking the dogs for a morning walk.
“I think you’ve got to keep active. It’s no good thinking ‘I’ve retired; that’s it’, and sitting in the armchair with the dog on my lap, watching Jeremy Kyle. You’ve got to get out.”
Our talk over, he’s off to help someone by collecting some bar stools. Rather than take the car, he should have a Suffolk Punch stabled in the back garden, able to pull a cart, I suggest (not very seriously).
I’m shot another look. “Let someone else have the worry and the vet’s bills, and the chewing of things…” he smiles.
What’s the future for Suffolk Horses?
Bruce was reading a heavy horse magazine before I arrived at his home near the Suffolk coast. There are roughly 135 to 140 Suffolk Horse breeding mares and 26 or so stallions. The total population is around 500. Not really going up.
The main issue isn’t so much breeding Punches but being able to sell what you breed, he says.
If you’re lucky, you might get a couple of thousand pounds for a foal. Against that, you’ve likely had to pay for the mare to be impregnated, there are probably livery fees and travelling costs, and vets’ bills. You’ve got to keep the mother for 11 months. Then, when the foal is born, you keep that for six months before it’s weaned.
“It’s a lot of cost. That’s where the big problem is. If there was a market…
“The farmers don’t need them any more; the breweries don’t use them any more (for pulling wagons loaded with beer barrels). My generation are happy to pass on our skills to younger people, but there is limited employment. That means that as we get older and die, the skills are going to go.” But there is evidence of optimism. More heavy horses are being ridden – ideal for the larger rider – and there are more “ridden classes” at events such as county shows.
Then there are what are called ladies’ carts – two wheels, lightweight, a bit like a pony and trap, pulled by a single horse. You can put a picnic on the back and go for a nice long drive.
The Suffolk Horse Society is striving hard, along with owners, to encourage breeding and thus increase numbers.
The most recent addition to the ranks is Bluegum Lady Aurora – born (following artificial insemination) on February 15 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. The sire was Colony Edward and the dam Capleach Eugenie.
The Suffolk Horse Society is a bit like the equine version of the canine Kennel Club. It defines the breed standard, and keeps a register of foals and horses. It raises money to promote the breed and gives grants as a breeding incentive to boost numbers.
Bruce is currently vice-president of the Suffolk Horse Society, and last year his name was put forward as the next president. “It’s quite an honour,” he acknowledges. “Not everybody gets that.”
There have been quips that he’s a commoner among the ranks of the titled – and it’s true the presidency has been held by a number of lords and ladies – but the chain of office has been worn by others without a title.
He doesn’t really have an agenda for his year as president, though he intends generally to encourage people, attend shows and present prizes