Spotted horses were bred in Denmark as long ago as 1671, when there was a very popular stud called “The Tiger Horses”. At this time the spotted horses were almost solely for the use of the royalty and nobility. Fewspot or 'white born' horses were used as carriage horses (it was difficult to get horses with matching spot patterns) and were also used as the mount of the monarch in Coronation ceremonies. Spotted, as well as fewspot, horses were used in the Court riding academy of Christiansborg Castle and proved themselves well not only as a classical riding horse, but in driving as well. Unfortunately, after a peak in production and quality in 1750, this Royal breeding line came to a sad demise as the colour disappeared, this was likely to be due to the grey gene.
In 1812 spotted horses returned to Denmark, not with descendents of the original “Tiger Horses” but with a new bloodline. Villars Lunn, owner of the “Knabstrupgaard”, a manor situated in Holbæk, Nordsealand, bought a mare from a butcher named Flæbe. The mare was also called Flæbe. The mare was probably of Spanish origin, but she had the stamp of an English hunter type. The butcher had bought the mare from a Spanish cavalry officer stationed in Denmark during the Napoleonic wars.
Flæbe was unusually marked for horses of the day. She was dark red (Danish = Zobelfuchs) with white mane and tail, and her body was covered extensively with small white snowflakes. She also had brown spots on her white blanket. She was a quality horse, with exquisite beauty.
There is great speculation and much disagreement regarding the origins of the Flæbe mare. One possible theory is that she originated from Meklenbourg in Germany, where the Spanish were stationed before they came to Denmark. Another theory is that she travelled with the Spanish all the way from Cordoba in Spain.
One of the requirements of horses used for breeding at the Knabstrupgaard was good performance. Horses had to have shown great stamina and good temperament under heavy work loads. For horses at that time, that often meant being ridden or driven for long hours over rough terrain. The Flæbe mare was in service at Knabstrupgaard as a light workhorse (carriage driving as well as farm work) from May 1812.
Titular Councillor of State, V. Lunn, wrote in his memoirs how Flæbe showed her value in 1816:
He was run over by a carriage and it broke his leg, so the doctor was required immediately. A farm worker took another team of horses from the yard and drove to the local doctors home at Holbæk, but the doctor wasn't there. From there he drove on to the vicarage at Buttrup, where he collected a doctor called Reinhardt. He then drove back to Knabstrupgaard.
The total journey was 30 km (over 18.5 miles), and took 105 minutes. One of the horses was damaged for life, but the other, who was the Flæbe mare, was back at work in the fields the following day. This was no mean feat, as at that time she was 15 years old, an age where modern day horses are often regarded as veterans.
Flæbe was once covered by a chestnut Frederiksborg stallion, and the colt foal she had as a result of this in 1813, was named the Flæbestallion. It was this colt, Flæbestallion, that was the foundation sire for the new spotted breed. As a result of his birth, Flæbe became the “breed mother” of the Knabstrupper horse. Flæbestallion also had an unusual coat colour and was often described as having a special metallic glow with many different colours in his coat.
All of Flæbe's progeny displayed fantastic spotted colour, not once did she give birth to a solid foal, even to a solid stallion. So it stands to reason that she carried the spotted genes and is responsible for the myriad of coat patterns seen in the Knabstrupper breed.
Another colt out of Flæbe was Mikkel, born in 1818. He was by his half brother the Flæbestallion.
Mikkel was famous for his horseracing performances. He always worked, and pulled a carriage the 6 Danish miles (41 km.) to the racecourse before he raced. He was only defeated once in a race in Copenhagen during which he was injured - he was 16 years old.
The races that Mikkel won were seen by many people and gave the Knabstrupper horse the reputation of being a latter day “performance horse” of great stamina and capacity. Mikkel is probably the most famous horse in the history of the Knabstrupper breed.
At that time the Knabstrupper horses were known for their liveliness and energetic action, but they were not temperamental. They had no malicious tendencies or vices. They were never housed in stalls and were mostly kept outside, which explains their hardiness and reputation for being 'good doers'. Knabstrupper horses lived, and still live in modern times, to very great ages.
The Knabstrupper as a Cavalry Mount
Danish officers often used Knabstrupper horses as mounts during the war 1848-1850 (Schleswig war). Unfortunately, because of their eye-catching colour, they we easy targets for enemy snipers.
In the Battle of Isted, 1850, two officers rode loud coloured Knabstrupper horses, and they were both shot. Colonel Læssøe’s horse, a mare called Nathalie, escaped unharmed when the Colonel was shot, and in the years following the war she went on to become a broodmare. One foal was named “Læssøe” after the fallen Colonel:
"Colonel Læssøe in The Battle of Isted 1850" painted by V.H.N. Irminger, 1912. (The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle)
The other officer, General Schleppegrell, had once used Mikkel as his personal riding horse. At the Battle of Isted he rode one of Mikkel's descendants. During the battle, the General was also shot, and the stallion he was riding ran off and disappeared. All efforts by the Danish Army to find the valuable horse following the battle were in vain.
Unbeknown to the army, several farmers in the hills of Skovby managed to catch the red spotted stallion and kept him hidden on their farms until the end of the war. Knowing his value they used him as a sire, but did not tell outsiders that he was there. Renamed “Schnapegral-peerd”, the horses became separated from the main Knabstrupper breed. They were highly sought after by farmers in the surrounding areas as the offspring had lovely movement, were of unusual colour and had excellent conformation.
It has been reported that, as late as 1910, a local farmer was using a direct descendent of the Knabstrupper stallion that was hidden 60 years earlier.
During the 1870s, there began an unavoidable demise at the Knabstrupgaard stables. At the Lunn family stable, the herd maintained between 40 and 50 spotted horses at the time between the two Schleswig-wars, all descendents of Flæbe. This inbreeding caused great difficulties in retaining colour and quality, and the breed vitality began to deteriorate. 22 Knabstrupper horses were killed during a fire in 1891; and it was this fire, combined with the problems of inbreeding that caused the numbers and profile of the breed to recede.
Though those horses of the Knabstrupgaard stables met their demise, they left a great legacy on horse breeding across the whole of Denmark. Breeders began crossing to horses of Knabstrupper parentage, and a new lineage of spotted horses was nurtured. Still known by the same name today, Knabstrupper horses are in great demand and the breed is ever popular with riders and drivers alike.
The leopard spotted horses from Knabstrupgaard were the foundation for the breed in the Holbæk-area, as well as Bornholm and northern Jutland. They were also popular as a circus horses, and in this capacity, the breed travelled all over the world.
Vendsyssel (Northern Jutland) had from approximately 1930, a greater number of leopard spotted horses, with some variations in colour dispersion. These horses had no connection to the breeds of Sealand.
1902 a leopard spotted stallion from St. Petersburg was imported to Denmark. He was given the name “Mikkel”, and A.F. Rasmussen stood him at stud until he was 25 years of age. In some years he sired 60 – 80 foals, of which, half were more or less spotted. A Mikkel-son with the right colour was sold to a dairy owner, and has probably been the foundation for the new generation of Knabstrup horses from about 1930.
Knabstrupgaard was not completely out of the picture after the fire. In the Year 1922 a stallion from Knabstrupgaard was shown at the cattle show in Holbæk. His name was “Mikkel”, and several farmers in the area used him to cover their mares. He was rejected because of unacceptable colour, but he proved himself valuable to the breed.
In 1947 "Association for promotion of the Knabstrupper in county of Holbæk” was founded in connection with the stud farm “Egemosegaard”.
A former farmer N.H. Nielsen, and his son, the barrister C.N. Ledager bought Egemosegaard in 1946, with the idea of starting a stud farm for Knabstrup horses. In an attempt to continue development of this once so famous horse, with rational breeding, the stud farm bought two stallions 1946 – 1948, “Silverking II” & “Max Bodilsker”:
In 1954 the stud farm was at it's peak with 15 horses in the stables. It had a great reputation, and people from all over the country came to visit, until the finish in 1959.
”Association for promotion of the Knabstrupper in county of Holbæk” was still fighting, but with the foundation of “Danish Sporthorse Breed Association” in 1962, which many Knabstrup breeders joined, everything was close to total chaos.
Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark Organisation:
In 1971 some Knabstrup breeders broke away, and founded the all country covering “Knabstrup association”. (Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark).
Close to anything being spotted or coloured, was registered. The stallions that were selected had one quality only: their spots. A breeder, Frede Nielsen, brought 3 Appaloosa stallions to Denmark, to get new blood into the breed.
It 2 of them succeeded in contributing towards the Knabstrup breed. However, many of the Sealand breeders preferred to crossbreed with “Danish Warmblood”. The best results came after crossing with “Trakenher” horses and “Holsteiner” horses. It was obvious that crossbreeding was the way forward. The Knabstrup horse is a natural trotter, and as a type, the “Trakenher” horse is closest to the original type.
It is a common opinion that the “Frederiksborg” horse is the breeding strain of the “Knabstrup” horse, and that is not completely incorrect; but the “Frederiksborg” horse has a very high action, which is not attractive for a riding horse.
It is not of great importance if we use a solid horse once in a while, as long as we remember to breed back to a coloured horse again. If the colour is available, the Knabstrup genes and character will dominate.
As the Knabstrup breed became nationwide, it seemed a natural progression to breed ponies as well, because the colour appealed to children. It was also easy, because many Knabstrup horses were about 150 cm., and breeding down was as easy as breeding up. A few breeders have specialised in breeding spotted ponies in miniature, so the ponies are here to stay.
When breeding, the spotted coat pattern is difficult to predict. There is no guarantee of coat pattern when crossing two spotted horses; it can result in solid coloured as well as spotted foals; just as a spotted and a solid horse very often produce a spotted foal. The grey gene very often shows itself in the offspring after breeding with a grey roan horse, and it can be difficult to breed out again.
The Knabstrup horse has white sclera, mottled skin around the muzzle and the genitals, and the hooves are striped.