In The Knabstrupper Horse: Hunting for the Old Genes, Danish indie filmmaker Irene Scholten spotlights her country’s rare breed
By L.A. Sokolowski
Images courtesy of Irene G. Scholten
Vigor. It contributes to a good bloodline—and, as Danish documentary filmmaker Irene G. Scholten learned, is necessary for the stamina she needed to trace the origins of the rare and colorful breed known as the Knabstrupper.
There are only about 475 “old line” Knabstrupper horses worldwide today, according to Scholten. The breed is known for its distinctive leopard coat pattern, a trait that has beguiled humanity since Stone Age artists began painting spotted horses on cave walls in France and Spain 25,000 years ago.
If you’re not that familiar with the breed or the efforts to preserve it, you’re not alone. Neither was Scholten before she made The Knabstrupper Horse: Hunting for the Old Genes, the first-ever Dane-produced documentary on the Danish native breed, which has since won multiple awards at festivals on two continents.
Europeans were breeding “Tiger Horses” for their outlandishly colorful coats by the mid-1600s, but more formal recognition of spotted horses traces to 1812. Not unlike the Morgan breed in the US, the Knabstrupper originated from a single horse.
The Danish Major Villars Knudsen Lunn, owner of a manor in Holbæk called Knabstrup Gaard, purchased a chestnut-spotted mare of unknown but purportedly Spanish bloodstock. At nearby Løvenberg Castle stood a golden-colored Frederiksborg stallion. Lunn bred “the speckled mare” to “the yellow stallion,” and the foundation of a new breed began.
A string of misfortunes in the late 1800s threatened the continuance of the Knabstrupper bloodstock. The 1870s saw the delicate balance between line- and inbreeding falter, with health issues appearing in foal crops. In 1891, lives and gene pools were lost when lightning struck the thatched roof of the barn where 20 breeding horses and two foals had been stabled for the harvest. It would be nearly a century before Frede Nielsen introduced three American Appaloosa stallions in 1971 in an effort to stave off inbreeding issues and reclaim the breed’s splashy claim to fame.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, many Knabstrupper resembled modern-day sport horses,” says Helena Ea Søgaard Nielsen, owner of the Danish Knabstrupper stud farm Stutteri Kronplet. “In the late 1980s, there was a tendency to contain less of the original bloodlines.
“I would like all the horses in the lines to be Knabstrupper to consider it ‘pure’ breeding,” Nielsen continues. “The pure Knabstrupper can be traced back to the Frederiksborg Horse, and the stud book of the Frederiksborg Horse is the oldest in the world,” founded in 1562 under Denmark’s King Frederik II.
Today, according to the official registry, Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark, for an animal to be eligible for the main studbook it must have at least three full lines of approved ancestry. Permitted base colors are bay, chestnut, and black; and, as of 2021, dilutes are accepted.
In recent years, the Knabstrupper has enjoyed renewed popularity as a sport horse, including in dressage. Arguably the breed’s most famous modern representative is the late stallion LJT Lucas Normark, whom British para-dressage athlete Anne Dunham rode to nine British championship titles, including team gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.
Knabstruppers by the Numbers
- 2,000 Knabstruppers (approximately) registered worldwide
- 350 registered as Classical/Baroque
- 18 breed outcrosses accepted by Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark
- 4 graded breed types: Classical/Baroque, Sport Horse, Pony, and Miniature.
The Making of Knabstrupper
Scholten, 54, was born and grew up in Copenhagen, where she went to the National Film School and graduated, in 1995, as a film editor. She wasn’t horse-crazy as a child but says she always harbored a soft spot for the movie version of The Black Stallion.
“It was a very big experience for me to see this film,” she says. “I wanted to be stranded on an island with a beautiful black stallion. I was already passionate about animals, and the movie made my passion even stronger.”
An unrelated film project introduced Scholten to her country’s native breed and led to her decision to tell its story.
“It all started in 2009 when I was making a project with Lone Valentin Lobedanz, an animal communicator,” she says. Lobedanz kept her horses at Stutteri Kronplet, the stud farm operated by Nielsen and her mother, Mona Søgaard. It was the first time Scholten had seen or even heard of spotted horses.
Lobedanz told Scholten that Knabstruppers are unique, and that the breed’s foundation bloodlines were in danger of being lost forever.
“At first I thought, what’s so special about this?” Scholten says. Lobedanz persisted, lobbying Scholten for three years until the filmmaker gave in, picked up her camera, and starting following life at Kronplet and that of its mother-and-daughter caretakers. She filmed over the course of five years, with shooting wrapping in December 2017.
The Personal Angle
As a filmmaker, Scholten found a compelling narrative not only in the rare breed’s story, but also in that of the women of Kronplet.
“I want to make personal films—films with people I can relate to, people with a goal, a mission, or a passion in life,” she says. “Helena and Mona use their life and energy to breed these horses. But why do they do it? Why is it so important to save them? I wanted to understand them. That’s what I wanted to find out in the film.”
As Scholten filmed, she began to see the women’s mission as her responsibility, too. She wanted Knabstrupper to accurately portray the breed’s origin story, and to show how rare and different the “horses of the old genes” are to today’s sport types.
“To spread the correct knowledge about the pure, original Knabstrupper is important because they are that special,” Scholten says. “The original Knabstrupper horses are part of our national history.”
A Labor of Love
“This was a total ‘no-budget’ film—not low-budget, no budget!” says Scholten. “I did not have a penny of support. All expenses related to filming were out of my own pocket—everything from gasoline for driving to locations, to printing postcards and posters for promoting the final film.”
The post-production editing process, which took a year, was the hardest part of making the film, she says. “Because it was no-budget, I had to edit during evenings, weekends, holidays, et cetera. The amount—five years of material—was massive. So much good stuff to consider using or not. That’s how it is with documentaries. You only use about 10 percent of what you shoot.”
Scholten found the project rewarding all the same. A continual presence in the family’s everyday life for five years, she got to know Mona and Helena well and watched Helena’s children grow. She relished the horses’ “adorable curiosity” and quips, “That’s why I’ve got so many close-ups: They all wanted to nuzzle the microphone on top of the camera!”
The exposure to the horse-breeding business was also an eye-opener.
“Horse breeding is a tough way of life. I am very impressed,” Scholten says.
As a horse-world outsider, she says, she felt the freedom to “pose all the ‘stupid’ questions. I could look inside this new-to-me world and be driven by curiosity. I was going to be at the same level as the outsiders who were going to follow the story.”
Renewed Interest in an Old Breed
In Denmark, after the release of The Knabstrupper Horse: Hunting for the Old Genes in 2018, “non-horse people told me they were fascinated by the film and, if they were to have a horse, for sure they would get a Knabstrupper,” Scholten says proudly.
The interest in Knabstruppers hasn’t just been theoretical. When Scholten checked in on Stutteri Kronplet in the spring of 2022, Helena and Mona reported that the global Knabstrupper population had grown from 350 at the time filming began to about 475.
“There has been a greater demand for foals since the film was released,” Scholten says. “Germany and Sweden have bought more foals than ever, as has Denmark, which is unheard of! Plus, they sold more covers by stallions to Austria, France, Germany, and Italy. They have never sold so much as now to Germany; that’s really an improvement.”
Scholten also heard about a Florida buyer’s purchase of two broodmares, intended as the foundation of a line of purebred Knabstruppers in the United States. The mares, Helena told her, were in foal by two of their stallions, and Helena hoped to sell one of the sires to the same breeder in the future.
Her film, Scholten believes, “has turned people’s attention to the fact that not all Knabstrupper horses are the same. The Knabstrupper is not just a sport horse created by crossbreeding, which remains most prominent in people’s consciousness. Now, people are thinking about taking part in preserving the original, purebred Knabstrupper. The more breeders, the greater the chances are of preserving the breed.”
Meanwhile, as Kronplet’s old genes prepare to cross the Atlantic, Scholten has returned to the farm. She has more of the Knabstrupper’s story to tell.
“I’ve started shooting again to produce a follow-up about the life and future of the Knabstrupper,” she says. “I’m visiting several members of the cast from the first film, and I have some new ideas to spice up the next.”
Danish documentary filmmaker Irene G. Scholten’s The Knabstrupper Horse: Hunting for the Old Genes has won a slew of indie-film awards:
- 2018 Equus Film Festival, Best International
- 2019 Equus International Film Festival, Best Historical
- 2019 Equus International Film Festival, Best Independent
- 2019 Equinale, Best International Documentary
- 2019 SCIFF Film Festival Official Selection
- 2019 International Independent Film Awards Silver Winner, Soundtrack
- 2019 International Independent Film Awards Silver Winner, Documentary Feature.
Want to see the spotted horses for yourself? Rent or buy the 87-minute film at vimeo.com/ondemand/theknabstrupperhorse.