Rare horse breed packs a punch for Colorado ranchers
Special to the Free Press
“They’re very rare,” Spann said.
Called the Suffolk Punch, he said there are only about 900 registered in North America.
“But we’re hoping to change that.”
Barnica added, “They aren’t high-steppers like Shires and Clydesdales, but they’re great ‘using’ horses — perfect for farming — and we love working with them.”
Developed by the farmers of Suffolk and Norfolk counties in Britain, the Suffolk Punch dates back to a foundation sire named “Crisp’s Horse of Ufford,” which was foaled in 1768.
That area was completely bordered by the North Sea and the Fens, the low, marshy districts of the British Isles, Spann explained. Farmers needed a specially-bred animal to plow the clay soil and drag up the rocks, and because their locality was so isolated, the line stayed pure.
According to the Suffolk Punch Society, the result was a horse “with great width in front and in the quarters … its short legs and resulting low draught give it a direct pull on its vehicle. The impression is that the body is too big for the legs,” which gives the breed its name.
One advantage of the Suffolk is that it is an easy keeper, able to “live on an allowance that would have starved the enormous dray horses of Liverpool and London. It lasted for long hours in field labor without feeding, as was practiced on farms.”
But its best known for its early maturity — they can start pulling light loads at age three — naturally docile disposition, willing nature and ease of handling. Unlike other drafts, the Suffolk has no feathering on the legs and it only comes in shades of chestnut including mahogany, red, gold and liver, with little to no white marking.
For Spann and Barnica of the Y Bar Ranch, the fascination with this unusual draft breed started six years ago, after the couple spent $500 on an old Percheron gelding named Ted.
“We used him to tour around the neighborhood with just for fun,” Barnica said.
Both of them already knew how to drive. Spann had used teams of Belgians, Percherons or Shires to feed with on his ranch in Gunnison, which has been in the family for over 120 years. Barnica worked as a guide and became interested in draft teams while on the Rusty Spur, formerly Pass Creek, guest ranch in Summit County.
“She is a really good driver,” Barnica said. “She has an amazing way with teams. She’s actually driven for other people at the National Western Stock Show.”
But after Ted died suddenly one night, Spann said, “Val was just heart-broken. I immediately started searching for a team on the internet and literally stumbled across our first Suffolks.”
In no time the couple has accumulated nine head including two, two-year-old fillies that they plan to use as foundation stock for their breeding program.
Now the search is on for a stallion. Suffolk Punches are so rare in the States that the couple said, “we’ve only found three nearby, one in Washington State and two in Texas. The rest are located back east or in Canada.” Although a mature stallion can grow as tall as 17.1 hands high and weigh close to a ton, the average height of the Y Bar hitch stock is 16.3.
Spann and Barnica aren’t just accumulating horses at a rapid pace; they’ve also been carefully selecting and buying horse-drawn equipment. It’s needed in order to pursue the other part of their plan, which is to hire out their Suffolk Punch teams for weddings, hay rides and other special occasions.
The outbuildings at their home are filled with a wide assortment of sleighs, a hitch wagon, carts, a chuck wagon, and an elegant, custom-made “vis-à-vis” carriage (French for face-to-face).
“One day it’s all going to subsidize our habit,” they joke.
In the meantime, the working geldings and mares are kept in shape by parade appearances and farming demonstrations.
They are also used to pick up irrigation pipes. And of course, some are in regular training for competitive driving. Spann and Barnica are eyeing the regional shows in Sterling, Craig and Denver.
“We also hope to attend the Draft Horse Classic in Grass Valley, Calif., this September as well as the Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo.”
It’s about time for them to start seriously showing off what these stout, powerful horses can do.
Meantime, Spann isn’t going to be quitting his day job as rancher.
“I am a cattle rancher first and always. With my family, we run 800 to 1,000 head of cattle in western Colorado,” he said.
Barnica is a law office manager; they met in the Montrose courthouse.
“You aren’t going to find us taking cruises, or going to Alaska or the Bahamas,” the couple said.
Instead, you’ll find them behind a six-horse hitch as they tool around the neighborhood northwest of Montrose, picking up curious passengers along the way. Laughing, Spann said, “It’s all Ted’s fault.”
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