THE KNABSTRUPPER BREED
THE STORY OF THE KNABSTRUPPER
by Merete Norring
Written at the request of the Knabstrupperforeningen's board for use as part of a response to the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. Translated to English by Renee Tucci.
Knabstrupper horses derive their name from the Knabstrup Estate, which is located between Kalundborg and Jyderup in Denmark. Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the owner of the estate, Christian Ditlev Lunn took interest in horse breeding and began producing consistent and uniform type.
In the larger historical perspective, it was shortly after the Royal Frederiksborg Stud closed down and the horses from the Stud sold at auction. Two mares from the Royal Frederiksborg Stud auctions were purchased by the Knabstrup Estate.
The beginning of the 19th century was marked by wars in Europe (the Napoleonic Wars), and the Spanish auxiliary troops came to Denmark. Some of the troops were in Zealand, and the story that has been told is that a butcher named Flæbe from Holbæk bought a mare from a Spanish officer.
The mare was later bought for the Knabstrup Estate after Christian Ditlev Lunn had seen what the mare could produce when she was owned by Flæbe. The mare was described as chestnut with a white mane and tail with small white spots scattered on her body but most notably on the loins where she also had a few reddish brown spots.
The mare did not quite fit the type of the other horses on the estate, but after seeing what she could produce, she was put into breeding. In 1813 she produced her first foal, named Flæbe stallion, after a Frederiksborg stallion from the nearby Løvenborg Estate.
The Flæbe mare turned out to be a good breeding mare. She passed on good qualities to her descendants as well as the color, which at this time, however, was not considered attractive.
The traits that were considered "characteristic" of the breed were that they were easy keepers and hardy, lived long and healthy lives, hard working with a temperament that was unmatched.
In terms of color, they were often red or bay based with white blankets or near leopard patterning. They often had white sclera surrounding the iris of the eye with mottled skin around the areas of eyes, muzzle and genitals. They often had a thin mane and tail. However, some of the horses that were solid in color did not carry these color specific traits at birth but often changed color at 3-4 years old.
The stallion Thor (also called Old Thor) was born in 1847. He is often considered the true founder of the breed. He was well known in his time and sired a number of offspring and won many prizes both locally and nationally.
The Stud at Knabstrup was at its peak around the Schleswig Wars, especially the Three Years Wars 1848 - 50. The Knabstrup Estate lent horses to the King for the war including stallion Mikkel and the mare Nathalia. In the years after the Schleswig wars, there was decline in the breed and fewer Knabstruppers were exhibited at shows. The decline in breeding at Knabstrup Estate culminated one summer evening in 1891 when lightning struck a thatched and partly clay-lined, half-timbered barn, which quickly caught fire killing 22 horses. Very few of the original Knabstrup horses survived.
In March 1897, to great surprise, a black leopard spotted filly was born. The mare produced a quality stallion that was eventually used in breeding, bringing more leopard spotted foals to the Estate again. However, the interest was not the same as before. It is not known if this was due to the painful memories of the fire or due to the fact the later descendants of Christian Ditlev Lunn may no longer have had interest in horses.
Breeding outside Knabstrup Estate
In the years after the decline, quality horses were still bred, especially in the area around Knabstrup Estate. We know that up until 1892, the breed was quite popular, resulting in outcrossing to other breeds. Knabstruppers were so popular that they have been blamed for the disappearance of the Odsherred horses.
During those years, there was little control over breeding. Oftentimes, the pedigree was deficient or entirely unknown. Due to this, it is very difficult to correctly and historically track modern horses back to Flæbehoppen.
In the 1930s, an attempt was made to revive the breed in Bornholm. Allegedly two Knabstrupper mares were imported to the island (Bornholm) in the 1870's. In 1879, the one mare produced Witta. This mare produced a number of quality Knabstruppers and the association was built around this family tree.
The association put significant work into the breed but it was sadly disrupted when their most important stallion, Max, died at an early age without having produced a son to carry on the line. At the same time, a number of high quality horses had been sold off the island. The association did not gain much significance but up until the mid 1990's it was possible to find horses that could be traced back to those family lines.
When it looked like the breed would come to a complete halt, Stutteriet Egemosegård by Holbæk Fjord started their work. Egemosegård was bought in 1946 by Herman Nielsen and his son, a high court attorney, CN Ledager. Great enthusiasm and professionalism were the hallmarks of their work.
A key point of focus was on the horse and Herman Nielsen was quoted as saying that "with quality breeding, you can get a good horse with a large portion of the original Knabstrupper blood and the Knabstrupper's special characteristics." Others claimed it was no longer possible to obtain breeding opportunities by anything other than "a hint of blood" of the old breed. Significant work was done at Egemosegård and the two most important horses from this time, Silverking II (Zealand's pedigree) and Max Bodilsker (the Bornholm line), left a lasting impression on the breed.
The Association for the Promotion of Knabstrupper Breeding in Holbæk County
Not far from the location of the Stud, the Association for the Promotion of Knabstrupper Breeding was formed in Holbæk County. The association was founded in November 1947, and in the years to follow they worked to have their horses registered with other breeds. An agreement with the Frederiksborg association was seemingly falling into place but due to the requirement of a 7/8 family line for stallion selection, it would mean that no stallions could be selected. At this point, the association decided to nominate horses themselves.
Even in the years of decline in breeding due to mechanization, people were optimistic in the association, as it was still possible to sell Knabstruppers at a reasonably good price. However, they almost came to a standstill at the end of the 1950's which was partly due to the death of Herman Nielsen and the subsequent sale of his Stud.
In 1962, several of the members chose to nominate their horses in the newly started Danish Sports Horse Breeding Association. Descendants of these horses have over the years slipped into the DSA and since then Danish Warmblood.
In 1969, after a 3-year standstill in the association's activity, a general meeting was held for 7 interested parties. They decided to "preserve the spotted Knabstrupper horse and strive to breed it into a great horse."
Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark
In 1970, it was decided at the general meeting that the future of the Knabstrupper breed should be that of a spotted riding horse type of varied size. No pedigree was required at this time.
Historians have not found any real reason as to why the pedigree requirement was not taken into account or why grading of all sizes was allowed. Or why part bred horses of a different type were allowed. However, this was likely due to the sharp decline in the number of horses due to mechanization and having very few remaining enthusiasts in the association in Holbæk. It was obvious that if there was to become a decent repopulation of the breed, drastic steps would have to be taken.
The association was also expanded nationwide, and a number of gradings were held where quite a few horses were graded. In 1971, there was a founding general meeting of the Knabstrupper Association for Denmark.
The association has since registered and licensed horses, had a pedigree book kept at the National Office for Horses, and the association joined an early stage umbrella organization for the National Committee for Horses.
The breeding measures have been continuously improved - for example, the association began in the mid 70's to demand a material sample of its stallions to ensure the usability.
The main written sources
There are many large and small sources, but the most important sources used here are:
The first printed account of Knabstrupper's origins, published in 1855 in the Journal of Veterinarians. It was Willars Lunn who gave a presentation of the knabstrupper's origins and an overview of the condition of the stud at Knabstrup per. January 1, 1855. The article was published later that year as a separate small book entitled: "Some Information about the Knabstrup Stud and its Pedigree".
Veterinarian Richard Jensen's book from 1892 - “Knabstruphesten, Baaruphesten, Løvenborghesten. It is on the basis of this book that I describe the breeding until 1892 (because it is described in this book quite carefully. After that, there are not many sources that describe the breeding for the next many years).
Pedigrees, both old and newer.
The protocol for "The Association for the Promotion of the Knabstrupper Breeding in Holbæk County", which is also the first protocol for the Knabstrupper Association for Denmark.