The Knabstrupper horse is one of the most eye-catching breeds in the world. They are hard to miss in any setting with their white base coats and dark leopard spotting. They are very popular for circus riding and other entertainment uses not only due to their flashy coloring but because they have a highly trainable temperament.
It is believed that spotted horses have been around for thousands of years. Evidence of this can be seen in the 20,000 year old cave paintings at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, which depict similar horses.
These horses were prized by the early Spanish who were among the first to domesticate and breed them for their spotted coloring. The Knabstrupper and the American Appaloosa are thought to be descended from these lines of ancient equine.
The Knabstrupper originated as its own breed in Denmark in1808. The matron of the breed was a spotted mare of Spanish descent called Flaebenhoppen, translated into English means “Flaebe’s mare.” The Spanish influence is still seen in the modern Knabstrupper, though the breed has changed much from its original standard.
Flaebenhoppen was purchased by Villars Lunn and was transported to his estate known as Knabstrup. He bred the mare to a stud from Fredricksborg, One of the grandsons of this cross was a stallion named Mikkel. Mikkel proved to be the foundation sire for the Knabstrupper.
The resulting spotted horse breed immediately became very popular and highly prized throughout Europe. They were very desirable for the officers of the Schleswig War which lasted from 1848 to 1850. The only drawback in war was their high visibility making them easy targets. This resulted in a significant loss of life.
The breed faced many challenges in its early years including genetic decline due to the small breeding pool. During the 1880’s, the Knabstrup Estate was hit with a barn fire that killed twenty of its best breeding stock. Later in the same decade, the estate dissolved leading to a further decline in the Knabstrupper numbers.
In 1933, a Danish veterinarian intervened and founded an association dedicated to the preservation of the Knabstrupper. This helped to revive the breed, having produced many notable Knabstruppers, including a horse named Max. Max knelt in front of Christian X, the King of Denmark in 1938.
In 1947, the stud farm called Egemosegaard was established to aid in the revival of the breed. But once again, the limited breeding stock created genetic troubles. In 1971, the breed was infused with imported Appaloosa blood. This decision helped to resurrect the breeding stock and decrease instances of inbreeding.
The original Knabstrup horses were strong, tough and sturdy in appearance. Now, the horse more closely resembles an Appaloosa. The older horse was more draft like and was widely used under harness. It was also a popular circus horse due to its back which was long and wide. This conformation served as a great platform for trick riding and mounted gymnastics.
The modern breed specimen has a smaller head with sclera around the eye. It still maintains a larger size being an average of 15.2 hands tall. It is a fairly well balanced horse, with muscular hindquarters and a sloping shoulder. It has a thick, arched neck, a nice long and wide back, and is fairly leggy. Their color is always spotted though the variations can be anything from the classic “leopard” spots to the more appaloosa-like blanket.
These horses have a wonderful calm temperament and are highly trainable. They are mainly used for eventing and dressage due to their stamina, athleticism and jumping ability. They are also very good at driving, and are always a pleasure to watch while performing tricks and other “showy” acts. To see them in action is to witness grace and beauty of movement. They have a very loyal following with breeders, spectators and riders alike. They make a great all around horse and are a pleasure to own and ride.
There are a few associations dedicated to the Knabstrupper one of which is the parent association in Denmark, the Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark or KNN. This registry recognizes four types of Knabstrupper: the Sport horse, the Classic type, the Pony type and the Mini Type. The Sport Horse has been bred to be a larger and more athletic horse, suitable for dressage and eventing. The Classic type resembles the old bloodline as it is shorter and stronger. The Pony and Mini types are much smaller and are beloved children’s mounts.
There are many registries in Europe and as recently as 2002, an American registry opened. With the worldwide dedication exhibited by these associations, the promotion and breeding of this rare breed of horse should continue.