Breed History: The Knabstrupper

CCS HALDIR, owner/rider Diane Henrich (NJ)—2019 Training Level Open & AA (Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark (KNN)) (Michelle Morgenstern Photography)

By Amber Wiseman

It’s easy to pick a Knabstrupper out of the crowd.  This Danish breed is an instant head-turner, featuring beautiful and unique coloring, from solid to full leopard spotted coats, and everything in between.  We are celebrating this breed as our April Breed of the Month on YourDressage! Join us all month long as we celebrate Knabstruppers with photo galleries and exclusive stories!

Dressage riders who choose Knabstruppers as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All Breeds Awards program as the Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark (KNN) is a participating organization.

Founded in the early-1800s, the Knabstrupper breed was born from the crossing of a chestnut colored mare sporting a leopard blanket with a solid-colored stallion. The resulting foal, named Flæbestallion, was spotted in color. This was later realized to be a genetic trait, subsequently called the leopard complex. The mare, purchased from a butcher, was dubbed Flæbe (after the butcher). Flæbe became the foundation mare for the Knabstrupper breed. The breed is named for the Knabstrup Estate where it was established, located in Denmark between Kalundborg and Jyderup.

The Three Years’ War (1848-1850) became the heyday for the Knabstrupper, with many soldiers riding horses born of the Knabstrup Estate into battle, however that was quickly stopped because the spotted coats of the horses made them far too easy to spot and many soldiers were lost for it. Following the Three Years’ War, the breed began to see a decline in both numbers and quality, due to the inbreeding of the foundation lines. In 1891, a fire claimed 22 Knabstruppers on the Knabstrup Estate, further devastating the breed numbers. Through the 1900s the breed began to be built back, learning from the errors of previous breeding and introducing new blood into the breed – including importing a leopard stallion from St Petersburg, three Appaloosa stallions, as well as crossing Knabstruppers with Danish Warmbloods, Trakehners, and Holsteiners. 

Recognized for being hardy and personable, the Knabstrupper is also noted for their longevity of life and versatility. They are popular with riders and drivers, adults and children alike, and became riding horses and war horses, carriage horses, working horses, and even circus performers. Knabstruppers have become famous for their coloring, ranging from solid to leopard spots, spotted blankets to few spots, but often having dark points. Flesh coloured spots on the muzzle, eyes, and genitals is also a trait required for approval to the studbook. The Knabstrupper has a long sloping shoulder, expressive, clear and calm eyes, and a wide forehead. Their backs are notably short and muscular with a long, sloping, muscular croup. The classic Knabstrupper projects a square conformation profile.

Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark held its first general assembly in 1971, and has since maintained a studbook for breeders, and an Equestrian Association for those who ride registered Knabstruppers but are not involved in breeding.

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