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The Knabstrupper is now mostly bred as a “Baroque horse”, a riding horse of compact features and suitable for classical dressage, although color remains a factor with both Appaloosa tyle leopards and blankets found.
The Danish breed Frederiksborger is one of the oldest in Europe, and the Knabstrupper (sometimes also spelled Knapstruper, or Knabstruper) was a branch of the Frederiksborger breed. Its history is therefore the same as that of the Frederiksborger, up to the late 1700s, when Major Villars Lunn created on the Knabstrup farm - one of the major regal horse breeding studs - the breed that was soon referred to as Knabstruppers. These horses were known not only for their extraordinary qualities, but also for their color, which is the one typically associated with the Appaloosa breed.
Frederiksborgers were based on Iberian and Neapolitano horses, and were at one time found at all European royal courts. The Knabstrupper horse managed to make a name for itself even within this already renowned breed, and its qualities reportedly appeared to have been linked to its color. The leopard and blanket color had been present in the Frederiksborger breed before, but the qualities of the new “breed within a breed” obviously can be accredited to a founding mare, and her son, a founding sire. This mare, named Flaebehoppen (Flaebe mare) after the horse butcher she was bought from, was famous for her incredible stamina. She was a beautiful sorrel with flaxen mane and tail and lots of roaning, and this founding Knabstrupper mare had also white spots, plus some brown spots in her flanks. This coloration reminds one more of what is referred to as “Birdcatcher spots” and “Ben d’Or spots”, but evidently her produce were sure enough of “Appaloosa color”. In 1813 she had a stud colt by a “yellow stallion from Lovenborg”, which was named Flaebehingsten (Flaebe stallion). He was a light sorrel, also with flaxen mane and tail, and had loads of white, black, red, and brown spots all over his body. He had a great topline, an exceptional neck, fleeting movements, and a willing disposition. He became a Knabstrupper foundation sire, enjoyed an enormous popularity amongst breeders, and was the first to spread the color amongst the breed until his death with 21 years. Flaebe also had other influential produce.
The mare Flaebe reportedly had been a Spanish officer’s mount, and derived from Andalusian stock (Denmark received support from Napoleon in its war with England, and Napoleon’s brother Joseph Napoleon, King of Spain then, sent Spanish troops to Denmark; when the Spanish revolted against the French occupation, those troops were withdrawn, but the horses had to be left behind; leopard-spotted horses were not uncommon at that time in Spain).
Knabstrupper horses were known for their power, willingness to work, toughness, frugality, longevity and abilities, however, as the Frederiksborger breed went down in the late 1800s, so did that special breed. The once refined and proud looking horses were crossed with draft horses to make them more useful to the farmers, and when in the 20th century the farm horse became redundant, even those lost any significance and whatever integrity they may have had preserved.
As is fortunately often the case, some idealists realized what was happening, and in 1932, an organization was founded on Bornholm for the preservation of the Knabstrupper horse. A focal point at the time was taken by the stallion Max Vennerslyst, and a stallion by the name of Thor Uddeby also founded a line.
The further development was rather uncoordinated, and different breeding goals persisted. The heavy types went on the decline, and crosses with lighter breeds like Trakehner, Thoroughbred, and others were tried to possibly secure a part of the growing horse show industry - an unfortunate effort, because on the one hand it served for the last remaining classic characteristics of the breed to go down the drain, and if on the other hand a Knabstrupper was successful at some show, he was still not taken seriously because of its color in an industry that rapidly zeroed in on solid colors. In 1970 a state-wide breeders organization was founded, the “Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark”, which by 1995 had registered 800 horses. The breed has probably less than 600 living animals world-wide, many of which either have no verified ancestry, or an incomplete pedigree, or considerable known outside blood - as much as 90 per cent in some cases.
The reconstruction of the breed has been recognized as a worthwhile effort by many, but the fact that no pure Knabstrupper stallion survived is a major obstacle. If one adds to this that hardly anyone can know for sure anymore what exactly the classic Knabstrupper looked like, and one realizes the dilemma the breed is in. Also, the Spanish horses that the breed had received so many of its qualities from, the Andalusians, are not the same anymore as in the 1800s, and it appears doubtful that incredible stamina and hardiness could be infused by another shot of Spanish horses. Then again, the breed’s general use today is not even particularly calling for these qualities that once made it famous .
The Knabstrupper is now mostly bred as a “Baroque horse”, a riding horse of compact features and suitable for classical dressage, which means an outcross with Iberian horses would probably make a lot of sense.
The color has remained a defining trait of the breed; both, leopards and blankets are found. In size and conformation there are considerable variations, many, if not most, horses show some draft influence, which most likely is not typical according to historical sources. The future of the breed will be determined largely by how well the breeders will consolidate and agree on a common goal for the Knabstrupper.
To compare this breed with another - arguably better known - breed, the Appaloosa, is only natural. According to some authors, the two breeds are vastly different, apart from the color, but that is not necessarily so. There have been individuals that were impossible to distinguish from Appaloosas, and during a period when the Appaloosa studbook was not closed, and several years later during a year when it was reopened for European horses only, there have actually been many that were registered as Appaloosas with the Appaloosa Horse Club. Again, not enough reliable information is available still for what the old, classic Knabstrupper looked like, and some of the old Appaloosas may have been pretty close to the old Knabstruppers.