Heavy Horse day will pack a punch at Gressenhall
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
It's a day that packs a real punch: as Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse prepares for its annual Horse Power! event, we spoke to farm manager Richard Dalton about the gentle giants who have captured his heart.
He's the leader of the pack: or so the horses let him believe.
'I'm pretty sure that behind the scenes they're just humouring me,' laughs Richard Dalton, farm manager at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse, under Norfolk Museums' umbrella, 'they let me think I'm in charge but really, they're the bosses!'
As Autumn colours the hedgerows, the end of the farm's season is in sight as crisp mornings and golden sunsets herald a quieter time on the Victorian smallholding. But first, there's the much-anticipated annual Horse Power! day at the farm and a chance to see a rare and breathtaking sight: heavy horses working the fields, harking back to Norfolk's rural roots.
These gentle giants were once a familiar sight in every town and village in the country as they managed the land by pulling drays and ploughing the fields – at the dawn of the 20th century, 2.6 million heavy horses were working in Britain, today that number has dwindled to dangerously low figures.
Declining since thousands of heavy horses became heroes in the trenches of World War One, numbers increased between-the-wars and then steeply dropped after the introduction of tractors and as industrialisation was embraced, horses were increasingly forgotten in favour of their modern equivalents.
If it wasn't for a handful of breeders after the war who were determined to keep the Suffolk Punch horse alive, the breed would have been lost to history and a crucial part of our heritage consigned to our rural past.
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Even so, the Suffolk Punch remains the breed most at risk of extinction in the heavy horse world, joining the Cleveland Bay, Dales, Eriskay and Hacknewy in the 'critical' category, with fewer than 300 breeding mares. Without swift action, the Suffolk Punch could be extinct by 2027: in 1947 there were 1,334 registered breeding mares, in 2017 there were just 73.
Tom Beeston, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, said: 'We are calling for the public and government to support gene banking in order to preserve our heavy horses, as well as our other rare and native breeds.
'These heavy horses were here for us when we needed them, now it's our turn to act to save these iconic breeds.'
On Sunday, from 10am to 5pm, the work of heavy horses will be celebrated at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse when visitors will be able to explore a variety of crafts and trades needed to enable a farm such as the one at the Gressenhall to be run with 'horse power'.
Horse Power! will see the museum's own team of Suffolk horses working together with visiting teams to carry out all the seasonal tasks on the farm such as ploughing and cultivating the soil in readiness to being sown.
Visitors will be able to take a horse drawn cart ride to see the working horses in the fields, watch as the farrier makes horse shoes and discover art inspired by such animals with displays from local painter Frances Sullivan and veterinary illustrator Samantha Elmhurst.
The recently refurbished horse 'gin' will be working and will reveal how to harness the forward power of a horse to drive mechanical machines while professional forester Mark Tasker will be using his heavy horses to extract timber before the chance to see the team demonstrating their skills and see how the wood is processed with a hand-powered pit saw which turns the logs into planks.
Wheelwrights Robin Hill and John Goldsmith will be at work as John makes the new wheels for the museum's own seed drill during the day. No piece of wood will be wasted – visitors will also be able to discover the art of making charcoal in the kiln.
Master harness maker Terry Davis will show the materials and skills needed to make a horse collar and how to ensure it fits the horse perfectly using wool from the farm's own Norfolk Horn sheep which is used to cover the inside of the horses' working collars so they don't get sore shoulders.
With live music and song from local horseman Ray Hubbard, one of the last horsemen in East Anglia (Ray will also be exhibiting some of his extensive collection of horse memorabilia and talking about his time working with these impressive animals) and farmhouse cooking revealing the breadmaking at the heart of a ploughman's lunch, visitors can also relax and enjoy vintage films of horses working the land, or get creative in Art Attack and make a horse-themed memento of the day.
'I look forward to this event every year and every year I try to make it bigger and better,' said Richard, who looks after Gressenhall's heavy horses, Trojan, Bowler, Reg and Jimbo and who readily admits he has 'the best job in the whole world'.
Trojan is Richard's go-to horse for any task on the farm, a horse that 'goes all gears', a kind-natured horse who loves children, Bowler is a wonderful horse who gives every ounce of effort to every job he takes on, Reg is the largest of the four standing at around 18 hands and weighing in at a tonne and is 'Mr Reliable' and Jimbo is the teenager of the group who tests the boundaries but gives his all on the field.
Richard, who had riding lessons as a child and who has always been drawn to farming, came to Gressenhall in 1989 from the historic working farm at Acton Scott in Shropshire. For the first nine years of his tenure, he lived on the farm in the Victorian farmhouse, in the goldfish bowl of a museum environment.
Coached by horseman Jack Roberts, Richard cut his teeth with horses Duke and Dragon at Acton Scott, which is where his love for not only the horses but also for preserving traditions was born.
Working on a farm which has been on the same site since 1200 ('when I plough, sometimes I find the heels of boots, or some lead shot, or the odd penny, some little echo from the past') is, he says, a privilege. The love he has for the place simply shines from him as he speaks about Gressenhall and his work.
'I feel like the old guard, these days, because the number of people who remember the horses being used on the fields drops every year. I never want to be the person talking about Suffolk Punches before they died out, I want these beautiful creatures to be kept alive, alongside the countryside traditions that used to go hand-in-hand with keeping them,' said Richard.
'When I'm out on the field with the horses, I'm one of them. We work together and we are all lost in the work. It's the most wonderful feeling, being out with the horses, being part of a team. It's impossible not to love what you do when you have my job. I just want to pass that love and respect to as many other people as possible so that we never lose it.'
Richard will soon be looking for another Suffolk Punch to add to the team and currently, a Suffolk Punch foal (called Peace, because he was born on the anniversary of the signing of Germany's military surrender in 1945) is enjoying an extended holiday on a field in the farm with his mother, although after the Horse Power! day, he will go back to the farm where he was born.
'As long as I can, I will do everything I can to promote the heavy horses and to help people see them in the environment they love,' said Richard, 'days such as the Horse Power! day mean that people can see what these beautiful animals can do and hopefully realise why it is so important that we safeguard them.
'It's a lovely day and it really connects everyone to the season as we prepare the ground and start getting ready for the winter. We love autumn on the farm and this is such a wonderful way to celebrate it, on the farm with the horses.'
• Horse Power! is at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse on Sunday from 10am to 5pm, adult £11.15, concession £10.60, child £9.45, family (one adult and all children) £29.50, family (two adults and all children) £39.30, Norfolk Museums Pass holders, free entry. All activities are included within admission prices.