Beasts of Burden: Heritage Breed Work Animals

Horses, cattle, donkeys and heritage breed work animals that help around the homestead.

Suffolk Punch Draft Horse

The Suffolk Punch is the only draft horse breed developed exclusively for farm work.

courtesy American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

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Before there were tractors, trucks and tillers, our ancestors used domesticated livestock heritage breeds to plow fields, dig ditches, haul logs and accomplish tasks that couldn’t be done with human strength alone. Horses, cattle, donkeys and other work animals were reputable as “beasts of burden,” using their strength and resolve to earn their keep on early American farms.

Today, as ever-larger and more powerful machines influence agriculture, many once-popular laboring animals are faced with extinction. Breed names have been replaced with brand names. While the Suffolk Punch, Randall Lineback or Dexter will never compete with John Deere, these animals still have a place on small operations, and their interesting histories and important genetics make them fun to raise, and hopefully will secure their futures. Meet some of the prototypes for modern-day machines.

Suffolk Horse

Status: Critical

The Suffolk horse, commonly called the Suffolk Punch, packs a “big punch.” As the only draft horse breed developed exclusively for farm work, the Suffolk earned the “Punch” nickname because of its solid appearance and brute strength. The breed originated in England and was first imported to the United States in the 1880s.

As a result of the breed’s sole selection for agricultural work, the Suffolk has developed stamina, hardiness, a willing disposition and easy-keeping qualities, all of which make it an ideal workhorse. All Suffolks are a rich chestnut color, standing 16 to 17 hands at the withers and averaging 1,800 pounds. The Suffolk’s moderate size compared to that of other draft breeds has been an asset in its promotion to those who continue to farm with horses. Today, there are about 800 Suffolk horses in the United States and about 200 in England, making it a critical conservation priority.

Dexter Cattle

Status: Recovering

The Dexter is one of the smallest cattle breeds in the world, but don’t let its size fool you.

The Dexter is a useful and productive multipurpose animal that can make a great ox or draft animal. Standing at only 40 inches tall and weighing 700 to 900 pounds, the Dexter’s size is its most distinguishing characteristic. The Dexter has Irish roots that can be traced back to smallholders in Ireland in the 1880s who appreciated the Dexter for its efficiency in producing milk and beef on limited acreage and for its use as a draft animal. Dexters were imported to North America beginning in 1910.

Dexter cattle are solid and compact in appearance. Most Dexters are black, although red and dun are also found. They are hardy, forage-efficient cattle with excellent maternal qualities. Many people prefer keeping Dexters because they need fewer “groceries” when compared with some of the larger draft breeds, and their smaller size equates to smaller yokes, which are easier to lift and carry. Dexter cattle numbers are increasing in North America and globally, and with continued support from stewards, the breed will continue to grow. 

Randall Lineback Cattle

Status: Critical

You might think the Randall Lineback gets its “lineback” name from its size and strength, but “lineback” actually refers to the breed’s blue-black color pattern with white lines down the back. While you won’t find these guys on the football field, for hundreds of years they served as beasts of burden and tillers of soil in the New England area. In fact, they are the last purebred of the New England landrace cattle.

Randall Linebacks are medium sized and are known for sound legs and sure feet. Randalls are a naturally hardy breed with good resistance to disease and parasites. They make excellent, attentive mothers. Their unusual color, willingness and ability make them attractive and capable draft animals. Randall Lineback cattle are critically rare, with fewer than 250 animals distributed among a few herds. The breed is more secure now than in the recent past, but its survival remains tenuous.

Miniature Donkey

Status: Recovering

Miniature Donkeys have been valued in the Mediterranean region for more than 2,000 years. Donkey milk was utilized as a curative and skin treatment. It was said that Roman Empress Poppaea, Nero’s wife, kept a herd of jennets to produce milk for her baths. Aside from being sources of milk, Miniature Donkeys were valued as a means of draft and transport, as well as for the power to grind wheat. They served a central role in Mediterranean culture and were imported to the United States in 1929.

Miniature Donkeys have curious, engaging dispositions. Donkeys average 34 inches high at the withers and weigh 200 to 350 pounds. Gray is the most common color, though black, brown, sorrel, white and spotted animals also occur. At maturity (3 years), they are able to pull a cart or carry a pack. The breed’s thrifty nature, long life span and easy keeping qualities reflect its past as a sturdy work animal. Today, there are 10,000 to 15,000 Miniature Donkeys in North America; however, the breed is disappearing in its native land as it is being crossed with larger breeds. For this reason, the Miniature Donkeys in North America are of global genetic value and need continued stewardship. 

Dales Pony

Status: Threatened

The Dales Pony originated in northern England where it was used as a pack animal for the lead-
mining industry. This hardy pony carried loads of lead ore down to the coast from the mines and returned carrying coal, traveling 200 miles per week over rocky, rugged terrain. During the world wars, the Dales Pony was drafted into the British military to carry armaments. Many Dales were killed in the wars, and by 1955, only four fillies were registered. Breed enthusiasts recognized the crisis and made concerted efforts to locate unregistered stock and save the breed. By 1971, the breed had stepped back from the brink of extinction, and, in 1994, the first animals were imported to the United States.

Today, the Dales Pony is valued for its stamina and is often used as an endurance mount or in combined driving events. The Dales Pony may stand up to 14.2 hands at the withers. It has a strong, compact build and is known for its hard, large feet and strong legs. Coat color is predominantly black, but some animals are brown, gray, bay and rarely roan. The Dales is known and valued for its courage, intelligence, thriftiness and calm temperament. Today, the breed is listed as Threatened on the ALBC Conservation Priority List.