The making of a star
Originating in Germany, the Holsteiner is believed to be one of the oldest existing Warmblood breeds. AMANDA MAC investigates their remarkable story.
You have to wonder what lies behind the longevity of a breed that’s been around since, give or take, the 13th century. Over hundreds of years, the Holsteiner has been transformed from its origins as a native horse of relatively little significance, to having a reputation as a dominant force in the contemporary Olympic disciplines of show jumping, dressage and eventing, as well as in carriage driving. Impressive credentials to be sure – which also makes you wonder what happened over those 700-plus years for the breed to be propelled to such stellar heights.
The Holsteiner story starts on the fertile marshes of Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region with a small but sturdy native horse, well-suited to the vagaries of the harsh marsh climate. It wasn’t until the monks of the local Uetersen monasteries commenced a program of organised horse breeding that the Holsteiner began taking shape as a larger type, well suited as a knight’s warhorse, as well as for use in agriculture in the region’s challenging environment.
Times changed, and the demand for powerfully built warhorses shifted to a need for cavalry horses with greater agility and endurance. By this time Holsteiners, while not that tall, had solid, high set necks, Roman noses and a lively gait, and were a great favourite of King Phillip II of Spain during the 16th century. Following the Protestant Reformation, a kerfuffle that occurred in the same period, the breeding of Holsteiners became the domain of local officials and landowners, who were encouraged in their efforts with state awards offered for the finest stallions.
The winds of change
In the 19th century other bloodlines were introduced into the Holsteiner and other baroque breeds to refine these powerful, heavy horses and to satisfy the by now greater demand for lighter, faster riding horses and elegant carriage horses. The Holsteiner was crossed with British Cleveland Bays and the Thoroughbred-infused Yorkshire Coach Horse, largely under the auspices of a state owned stud farm at Treventhal. By 1885, a breeding goal for the Holsteiner had been established to produce ‘a refined, powerful carriage horse with strong bone structure and high, ground covering strides, which at the same time should possess all the qualities of a heavy riding horse.’ No pressure there then!
The Holsteiner stud book, established in the early 1890s, was closely followed by the founding of the Elmshorn Riding and Driving School, now home to the famous Verband Holsteiner sires. Within this new framework, bloodlines were carefully documented and organised, and the breed’s characteristics very well protected.
Following the upheaval and devastation of WWII, the Holsteiner mare population had dramatically decreased. Farmers were no longer breeding horses and the Treventhal Stud had been closed.
This potentially dire situation was saved when the imposingly titled Directors of the Federation of Horse Breeders of the Holsteiner Marshes purchased 30 Holsteiner stallions and three Thoroughbreds, and set about completely revamping the breed’s direction. The introduction of a number of Thoroughbred and French stallions helped complete the overhaul, and by 1976 a significant amount of Thoroughbred blood was flowing in top Holsteiner stallions’ veins. These new look Holsteiners were taller, faster, more agile, and had a much improved jumping technique.
A modern take
Today’s Holsteiner ideally ranges between 16 and 17hh. They’re a medium frame, athletic riding horse, still recognisable by their full, arched neck and powerful hindquarters. However, their once hallmark heavier heads and Roman noses have been replaced by a smaller, more finely chiselled head set with large and intelligent eyes.
Their movement is elastic, balanced and elegant, with well-rounded, generous strides. A bold, clever and willing horse, their stamina, athleticism and reliability has made them one of the most popular and successful modern sport horses – so much so, that other Warmblood breeds have introduced Holsteiners into their stud books in order to improve their own stock.
In the show jumping ring, they’re more than impressive. They exhibit great scope and power, traits inherited from the older, heavier style of Holsteiner. But the lack of carefulness, bascule, adjustability and speed that characterised their forebears has been replaced with a fast, correct, competition-winning technique.
There are some exceptional Holsteiners coming through in dressage as well. The German stud books, once firmly slammed shut, have now been opened to allow for the addition of dressage enhancing breeds, including the Thoroughbred’s lightening and modernising influence.
The Holsteiner hall of fame is long and well-populated, with names such as World Champion show jumping mare Ratina Z; Classic Touch, an Olympic gold medal jumper; dressage greats Lucky Lord and Corlandus; Granat, a World Champion and gold medal winning dressage horse; and of course, World Champion eventer My Fair Lady. And just for the record, no less than nineteen Holsteiners competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, including Chacomo in the team dressage, and Dobel’s Cento in team show jumping – both of whom took home gold.
The Holsteiner in Australia
The first Holsteiner to be imported into Australia was Flaneur, a stallion who arrived from Germany in the 1970s. The only Warmblood stallion in Australia for close to a decade, he was put mainly over Thoroughbred mares. He became the foundation sire in the stud books of the Holsteiner Horse Association of Australia Limited (HHAA), and his bloodline is still carried by many Australian Holsteiners. Since then, more stallions and mares have been imported to complement and improve the Australian stock, producing horses that have represented Australia at the Olympics and in the World Equestrian Games.
Which brings us to David Quick, a former top Australian dressage, show jumping and eventing rider, and now President of the HHAA. David’s competitive career in show jumping was enhanced by his partnership with Isle of Wight, a Thoroughbred ex-steeplechaser with whom he was long listed for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
Driven by his passion for jumping, David set off on a trip to Germany in the early 1980s in search of Warmblood stock that would cross successfully with Australian Thoroughbreds. “I decided that Holsteiners fitted the bill,” he tells me. “I loved their gaits and they have a good temperament. They were mainly developed in the modern era for show jumping, so their type had definite appeal, and I’ve now been breeding them for over 40 years.”
David’s stud, Isle of Wight Farm (named in memory of his talented show jumper), has produced some exceptional horses, including a couple of Grand Prix show jumpers, and Grand Prix dressage horses Isle of Hinton and Isle of Passage (later known as HRH). “They were all Holstein horses, all carried Flaneur blood, and all had Thoroughbred bloodlines,” he says.
Horses for courses
Such is the Holsteiners talent that in 2008, their stud book was ranked third in international show jumping by the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH), and, hardly surprisingly, in the same year the top 30 WBFSH rankings for show jumper sires were dominated by Holsteiners.
The phenomenal success of the Holsteiner jumping lines around the world has a lot to do with the significant number being produced in Australia. But according to David, a great many of them are registered only with the Equestrian Federation, or as a general Warmblood. “It’s a bit of a shame that they’re not registered into the Australian Holsteiner stud books, because that would greatly raise the breed’s profile,” he says.
The criteria for HHAA’s stud book registration are aligned to those of Europe, although they have been tweaked slightly to accommodate Australian conditions and needs. “We allow Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods and Anglo Arabs – but of course, that does depend on their bloodline. In our stud books we go from 25 per cent Holsteiner to full bred,” David explains. “We also give awards for premium foals and horses for their performance, as well as their classification. It’s a star rating system, which is now pretty much across the board with nearly all Warmbloods.”
Breeders in Australia have access not only to top local Holsteiner stallions, but also to the frozen semen of some very good stallions from the Holsteiner Verband, the breed’s official German home. And in case you were wondering, yes, German officials regularly visit to classify our magnificent home grown Holsteiners.