Some of the world’s oldest and purest horse breeds were initially developed in Europe. Some of the tallest and smallest breeds were developed on the continent, often to meet a specific need or climate issue. Horses from Northern Europe ten to be adapted to climates that are damp, wet, and somewhat cold. Southern European horses tend to be more athletic and lean, ready to tackle the year-round chores that a more temperate climate allows.
The complete list of European horse breeds is extensive, with 100+ breeds available for inclusion. Here is a look at some of the more popular breeds that make the list.
The ancestry of this horse begins on the Iberian Peninsula. It has been recognized as an individual breed since the 15th century and its conformation has rarely changed over the centuries. It is a horse that has been prized for its nobility and its prowess when taken into battle. Originating in Spain, exporting this breed was restricted until the 1960s.
Strong and elegant, this breed has a thick mane and tail. Most Andalusians are gray, though other coat colors are accepted. They are generally average in size and weight, but are strongly built. Some superstitions believe that the placement of coat whirls or colors is an indication of what the owner’s luck will be or what the temperament of the horse will be.
This draft horse was initially developed in the Brittany province of France. The studbook was first created in 1909 and closed in 1951. Most Bretons are chestnut in color and distinctively muscular. There are several subtypes within this breed that are accepted, ranging from the Corlay to the Heavy Draft, and is based on the size of the horse.
There have been horses in the Breton Mountains for thousands of years. No one really knows when they first arrived, but domestication of the breed may be up to 2,000 years old. The Breton is also one of the few draft horses that were not improved through crossbreeding in the early 1900s, making it one of the purest breeds of its type today.
Smaller Bretons are used under saddle and complete light draft work or compete in events. The larger Bretons are still used for agricultural work. Because of the purity of the breed, Bretons are also highly prized if other breeds need improvement.
Out of all the heavy draft breeds, the Clydesdale may be the most famous. Originating in Scotland, its fame is largely due to the Budweiser brand including a herd of this draft horse as part of their marketing efforts. The British Household Cavalry also uses Clydesdales on a regular basis.
The first breed registry for Clydesdales formed in 1877, with breeding efforts dating back to at least 1826. Early Clydesdales were smaller and more compact than they are today, but have always had an active gait.
This is because breed associations have long paid close attention to the quality of the legs, hooves, and the general movement of the horse. A Clydesdale must offer a specific carriage and outlook to be considered for inclusion. The feathering below the knee is one of the trademarks of this breed, which can require extensive care because of the amount of moisture they can trap.
Fewer than 5,000 Clydesdales are believed to exist globally, with 80% of them living in North America.
Originating in the Netherlands, this breed is one of the most nimble and graceful horses in the equine world today. Their long-flowing mane and tail create optics that make it virtually impossible not to love horses. It is a breed that has become virtually extinct more than once, but has recovered due to is popularity. Today they are used for cinematic purposes and have been introduced to dressage.
Most Friesians are black, but occasionally there is a purebred chestnut as well. White markings are rare and only a small star on the forehead is allowed by the registry. Stallions must also pass a very rigorous approval process to be included.
Haflingers are also known as the Avelignese breed. Developed in Italy and Austria during the latter half of the 19th century, this breed is relatively small and always chestnut in color. They have a gait that is distinctive, but still smooth. They were initially developed for riding and agricultural work in mountainous areas.
In the mid-1900s, the breed was almost eliminated using indiscriminate breeding practices. Since 1946, a closed-breed studbook has been maintained. All purebred Haflingers can trace their ancestry back to the original foundation sire through 1 of 7 established bloodlines.
The Haflinger breed is also the first horse to have been cloned. This happened in 2003 and the filly that was produced was named Prometea.
This warmblood horse breed originated in Germany. It is a very athletic horse, comparable to many Thoroughbreds, but it also has a superior level of agility that allows it to perform in many different sporting events. You’ll often find Hanoverians competing in English riding styles that are competitive, dressage, and sport jumping in addition to traditional racing events.
Hanoverians are one of the oldest and most successful warmblood breeds to come out of Europe. It was originally a carriage horse and was often used for farm work, but was adapted to sporting needs after a shift in demand occurred after the second world war.
These horses are robust, strong, but quite elegant. They are trainable and usually willing, with strong limbs to support numerous movements. Most of them are around 16 hands in height. Regulations prohibit horses with too much coat color variation from registering.
#7. Icelandic Horse
Developed exclusively in Iceland, this is one of the most protected horse breeds in the world today. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country to preserve the bloodlines of the native horses. If an Icelandic horse is exported, then it is not allowed to return. This makes the horse one of the oldest and purest breeds that is in the world today.
Originally developed because of Norse settlers who migrated to Iceland as early as the 9th century, the breed has been mentioned in local literature for almost 1,000 years.
They are a smaller-than-average horse, only standing between 13-14 hands in height and weighing around 800 pounds. This makes them more of a pony size, but they are still referred to as a horse. It is a breed that has a large personality, a spirited temperament, and an incredible ability to carry weight. They also grow an extremely thick coat in winter.
This breed is a semi-feral horse coming out of Poland. “Konik” in Polish literally means “horse,” so saying that you have a Konik horse is like saying you have a “Horse horse.” It is a primitive breed with many potential markings, including dorsal stripes and a dun coat. They are stocky and strong, but also quite small.
The average Konik is 12.3-13.3 hands in height and weighs around 800 pounds. Historically, it was believed that these horses descended from wild horses in the region, but DNA studies show that that this breed is nearly identical to all other domesticated horses.
They are bred under close supervision when domesticated. The feral horses are protected on nature preserves throughout Poland. Fewer than 1,000 horses are registered as being privately owned.
This horse breed is closely associated with a specific riding school in Austria. This horse breed is highly intelligent, so it can learn intricate movements and stylized jumps with relative ease. It is a breed that dates to the late 16th century and is believed to have been initially developed in Slovenia.
There are just 8 stallions that are recognized as the foundation bloodstock of the modern breed and all of them were foaled in the late 18th or early 19th century. All current Lipizzaners can trace their bloodlines to these 8 stallions and each is named after the sire of their bloodline.
Developed in Lower Saxony, this breed is a tall sport horse that has a world-renown jumping ability. There are liberal pedigree requirements for the breed, including exclusive use of privately owned stallions instead of a restricted studbook from a state-owned farm.
As a warmblood, the Oldenburg is one of the most uniquely colored breeds in the world today. There are at least 8 tobiano pinto stallions included on the breeding roster. Although most horses are brown, black, chestnut, bay, or gray, virtually any coat color is considered to be acceptable. More emphasis is placed on the gait of the horse and its overall quality.
Many of the European horse breeds have been used to influence other breeds globally so that equine genetics can be improved in several ways. Although most horses can trace their lineage to Arabian horses at some point, there are several European breeds that can be found during that journey.