West Belfast workhorse trunk on success: Suffolk Punch Imogen wins prestigious UK logging championship at first go
Meet Imogen, the formidable Suffolk Punch horse from west Belfast that has just won the British Horse Logging Championships – without having entered a competition before.
The 14-year-old is the first horse from Northern Ireland to enter and she took the main award after completing a tough course that involved turning on a sixpence, dragging a seven-metre log, balancing it on another log and pushing it over a bridge.
Noel Donaghy, the tree surgeon who trained Imogen, says the breed is labelled as critical on the endangered breed list and very few Suffolk Punch horses are trained to work these days.
"They're as rare as pandas. People have them but they aren't doing anything with them," he said.
For the past five years Imogen has been working for the Total Tree Care Company, which is based in a yard on the peace line between Suffolk and Lenadoon.
"It's a little oasis, with log cabin stables made from the wood that the horses harvest," Noel said.
Imogen and her younger Suffolk Punch colleagues Iona and Caron are employed to tow logs in sensitive woodland habitats, such as those managed by the Woodland Trust and the National Trust.
It's a traditional method that has been superseded by mechanisation, but the workhorses can do things that no machine can offer.
"I can go into a woodland with a couple of horses and pull any timber out, no matter what size it is," Noel explained.
Imogen was bred by Suffolk Punch enthusiast Roger Thompson, and Noel started training her for work five years ago.
"We headed across to the competition last weekend for a bit of interest," Noel said.
"We weren't even going to enter the competition, but the judges persuaded us to – and then she won the whole thing.
"I had never watched it before and Imogen has never done anything like it –she has just worked in the forest.
"The judges couldn't believe it. They thought she was just amazing."
Such is the interest that Imogen has sparked that the company is even looking at setting up a breeding programme for Suffolk Punches and is considering organising an apprenticeship scheme for those who want to be educated in the traditional technique of horse logging.
- The Suffolk Punch is an English breed of draught horse.
- The breed was developed in the early 16th century for farm work, and gained popularity during the early 20th century.
- As agriculture became increasingly mechanised the breed fell out of favour, particularly from the middle part of the century, and almost disappeared completely.