Knabstrupper Horse Origin and Characteristics

Spotted horses were once quite popular in Europe. This led to the development of the Knabstrupper, which is a spotted horse that can have Curly attributes within its coat. Unfortunately, as crossbreeding occurred, the purebred population of this breed began to decline. As of today, it is unknown if any purebred lineage horses still remain.

Knabstrupper horses have received a recent infusion of Appaloosa bloodlines to reinforce the genetics of this breed so that it continues to survive. They perform well as a general riding horse, perform in dressage and show jumping, and can even be trained to do tricks in a circus environment.

This breed can be found all over the world today, from New Zealand to the US, from its original foundation days in Denmark. 

What Is the History of the Knabstrupper Horse?

Knabstrupper horses were first established as a breed in the early 19th century. In 1812, Denmark would become the first to recognize this spotted horse as an independent breed. It occurred when a chestnut mare, with Leopard complex blanket markings, was bred to a solid-coat stallion. The colt that was produced had dynamic spotting and this created the foundation for the breed.

The story of the Knabstrupper goes much further back into history than the 19th century when it was officially recognized. The lineage is believed to have originated in the early European horses that had known spotting, going even beyond the Roman domination of the continent. Spotted horses have been specifically bred for their coat patterns since 1671, when they were referred to as Tiger Horses.

In the 18th century, the spotted horses began to decline because of a royal preference for gray horses with solid coat colors. A few spotted horses with little-to-no spotting could serve in this capacity, but breeders began to focus in meeting royal demands. This caused the official breeding of Tiger Horses to decline and eventually become non-existent.

We can thank a fellow named Flaeb for beginning the Knabstrupper breed. He purchased the mare from a Spanish cavalry officer, who was then sold to a Major that own an estate that was called Knabstrupgaard. 

In the 1870s, the continuation of the breed came into question because of health issues that were related to in-breeding. In 1891, a fire at one the family stables that was maintaining the Knabstrupper breed killed over 20 of their top breeding horses. In the next decade, population numbers would decline quickly and dramatically.

Beginning in 1947, a new stud farm was established to help try to restore the breed to its original prominence. To eliminate some of the health issues related to in-breeding, 3 Appaloosa stallions were brought to the stud farm in 1971 by Frede Nielsen.

Since Appaloosa horses are believed to have the same European ancestry as the Knabstrupper, the efforts were supported and it has led to a population increase that has helped to stabilize the breed and lead it away from possible extinction.

The Characteristics of the Knabstrupper Horse

Knabstrupper horses are above average in height, with mares standing about 15.2 hands high and stallions sometimes exceeding 16 hands high. There is some variation in height expectations, however, depending on the exact lineage of the horse. Some Knabstruppers fall below 14.2 hands high and are pony-sized, but still considered to be part of the breed. 

What makes this breed stand out is the uniqueness of its coat. No two Knabstrupper horses look exactly alike, even though some are born with a solid chestnut or bay coat color. Most of the horses have the Leopard complex, so their coat is spotted in a randomized pattern. In many ways, this breed looks similar to the Appaloosa, though they were developed independently from one another.

The most popular coat color is a white background with chestnut spots. 

Where the real value of the Knabstrupper lies is in its temperament. They are incredibly kind horses which are very trainable. They have excellent strength, an above-average stamina, and enjoy consistently good health.

Over the last two centuries, there are three sub-types of the Knabstrupper horse that have come about.

  • Sport Horse. This type is being bred specifically for competitive events. They tend to excel in dressage, but do well with show jumping and eventing. This is due to crossing the Knabstrupper to other European warmblood horses, such as the Trakehner and the Danish Warmblood.
  • Baroque-Type Horse. This type of horse is somewhat shorter and a little broader than the sporting horses. Their build is more reminiscent of the carriage horses before the era of mechanization. They are exceptionally calm, work well under pressure, and provide riders with a consistent experience.
  • Pony-Type Horse. This type of horse is smaller and tends to be the preferred horse for families with children. They are an excellent beginner’s horse, extremely loyal, and still has the same body type and coat color as their larger counterparts.

Although the most popular Knabstruppers have the Leopard complex gene, there are additional patterns available within the breed. Blanket patterns, snowflake patterns, and the snowcap are all relatively common within the breed.

Another option is the Few Spot. This coat color is almost a solid white. Horses with this coat color produce a foal with a spotted pattern hat is featured in the breed.

In addition to the physical requirements of the Knabstrupper, there are temperament and performance requirements instituted within the breed. For a horse to qualify under the modern standard, there must be evidence of a kind temperament and consistent stamina, despite heavy workloads, long working hours, and difficult terrain.

The Story of the Mare Called Flaeb

Although Flaeb wouldn’t continue to own his mare, she continued to keep his name throughout her life. It would be her unique stamina and willingness to work that would bring the story of the Knabstrupper horse to great prominence. 

As the story goes, a Councilor of State was accidentally run over by a carriage and this broke his leg. The closest doctor was about 9 miles away. One of his farm workers took a team of horses from the yard and drove them out to collect the doctor as quickly as possible. The total time of the journey was 105 minutes.

One of the horses was never the same after that journey and had to be retired. Flaeb’s mare, however, was not. She was back in the fields working the very next day, despite the fact that she was 15 years old – a true veteran that many would have expected to have already retired in the first place.

The story of this breed’s performance would continue through one of her sons. A stallion named Mikkel would pull a carriage more than 40 kilometers to a racecourse before racing and he was only defeated once ever in his career. Mikkel raced until he was 16 years old and the only race he did lose occurred when he had an injury.

Because of these actions, the Knabstrupper began to be seen as a performance horse instead of a simple work horse. Their capacity and stamina was seen as a great asset, especially when combined with their kind temperament. With these stories becoming part of the breed’s legend, the desire to own or support these horses became a priority for many. 

Allowing the Knabstrupper Horse to Become a Global Force

From the initial formation of the breed association in 1947 until 2001, most breeding programs for the Knabstrupper were in and around Denmark. In 2002, artificial insemination became possible in North American thanks to the association making the stallion Apollon available to foreign breeders. The Athey family began the process of establishing a breeding center in the United States.

Because there were no Knabstrupper mares in the US, the Athey family had it approved to use Appaloosa mares to create a North American foal. In 2003, Apollon was imported to the US and that allowed breeders to further reinforce the breed as a global force. This helped the American Knabstrupper Association to form so the breed could be supported.

The KNN required horses to be inspected and the United States Dressage Federation required the association to meet specific standards before Knabstruppers could compete in North America. By 2005, all the requirements were met for competition. Since 2009, the KNN has sent inspectors to the United States to directly register foals and approve mares.

Since 2011, the American Knabstrupper Association ceased support operations, allowing the KNN to take over so that the breed can continue.

The specific spots of the Knabstrupper are difficult to control. There is no guarantee of the pattern that a foal will receive. Two spotted parents can wind up producing a foal with no spot, just as two plain parents can produce a foal with spots. With the popularity of these breed and having three distinct types available so that everyone can support an area they prefer, the Knabstrupper Horse is most certainly here to stay.