The Knabstrup, endemic to Denmark, has one of the oldest breed registries in Europe. Denmark’s indigenous breeds include the Knabstrup, Jutland, Danish Warmblood and Fredericksborg.
Eye-catching colours and patterns in horses, including those with spots, have always attracted interest and the spotted Knabstrup (tiger horse) were widely sought in Europe. They had great endurance and good temperaments. Although lively and active, they were without vice. It is highly prized as a circus horse due to its eye-catching colour. It is also known as the Knabstrupper and has a similar range of coat patterns to the Appaloosa.
Blanket, snowflake, snowcap and ‘few spot’ patterns are all found in the breed. The leopard is the most popular with black, bay or chestnut spots appearing on a white base. The ‘few spot’ is almost completely white but will always throw a spotted foal. Each horse has its own unique pattern. There is a wide variety of different spotting and splashing on a white or roan background. Some still show the all-over spotting of the old Knabstrup.
The Knabstrup was based on Fredericksborg and Iberian blood. Back in 1671, these horses were being bred and the ‘few spot’ type was popular as a carriage horse. It was also popular as a mount of the monarch.
In 1812, a spotted Iberian mare was sold by her Spanish owner to a Danish butcher called Flaebe. The mare was a deep chestnut with a white mane and tail and a spotted blanket. To add to her appeal, she had excellent conformation, great beauty, stamina and speed. The mare was known as Flaebehoppen (Flaeb’s mare). She was sold to a noted breeder of riding horses, Major Villars Lunn and mated to a palomino Frederiksborg stallion.
Lunn’s estate, in Holbaek, Denmark, was called ‘Knabstrupgaard’. In 1813, Flaebehoppen gave birth to a multi-coloured spotted colt. As well as spots, the colt had a metallic sheen to his coat. He was named Flaebehingsten and became the founding sire of the Knabstrup breed. Even when Flaebehoppen was mated to a solid-coloured stallion, the progeny were spotted.
Another of her foals was Mikkel, a colt sired by his half brother, Flaebehingsten. Mikkel was incredibly tough and is largely responsible for the Knabstrup’s reputation for stamina and quality. Mikkel would be driven 40 kilometres to the racecourse, be entered in a race then harnessed up and driven home again. When he was sixteen years old, he was injured during a race. This was the first time he was beaten out of first place.
The spotted horses from Knabstrupgaard were highly valued and widely sought after in Europe. By the 1870s, inbreeding had threatened the continuation of the breed. More misfortune followed when, in 1891, a fire destroyed Lunn’s Knabstrupgaard stables and 22 of the top breeding horses were killed. In 1947, another stud farm was set up which was called Egemosegaard and efforts were made to try to re-establish the herd.
However, breeding almost entirely for colour and markings without much regard for conformation and/or temperament, resulted in the breed becoming coarse and disproportionate. Over a period of time, the breed eventually settled into a strong, plain harness type.
Infusions of Thoroughbred blood have done much to resurrect the breed. Much more judicious breeding has seen the Knabstrup develop into a very useful middle-weight riding horse.
The height range is between 15.2hh and 15.3hh. The breed is intelligent, tractable and easy to handle. It is not particularly refined but a solid, dependable, comfortable ride. The small head is set onto the neck with a noticeable arch to the clean throat. Like the Appaloosa, there is always sclera around the eye. The skin around the muzzle and genitals is mottled and the hooves are striped. The ears are pricked and the eyes friendly and intelligent. It has a straight profile and a squarish muzzle with open nostrils. The mane and tail are sparse. It is a strong animal with clean limbs and strong hooves.
There are now four types which are recognized by the Danish Knabstrup Association (KNN).
The smallest is the mini which is popular as a pet, circus pony and child’s mount. Slightly taller is the Pony type which is popular as a child’s pony. The Classic type is compact and broad. It is used most often as a classical riding horse or as a circus horse. The Sport Horse has evolved from crossing the Knabstrup with warmbloods, in particular the Danish Warmblood and the Trakehner. The Sport Horse excels in dressage, show-jumping and eventing. Whatever the type, breeders now aim for a quality riding horse. The disposition of today’s Knabstrup is calm and willing.
The Knabstrup can now be found in many countries including Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and the USA.