Great horse breeds: The Holstein

By Carole Mortimer on |


Great horse breed: the Holstein

The Holstein has a huge reputation as a jumping horse and, this year, the Holsteiner studbook (Verband der Züchter des Holsteiner Pferdes — the association of breeders of Holstein horses) is (once again) the number one in the WBFSH rankings for jumping.

Because of their power, Holstein horses are normally the choice of professional showjumpers. The prolific competition and breeding stallion Casall Ask (Caretino-Lavall I), the number one in the world, Nick Skelton’s former ride Carlo (Contender-Cascavalle) and Robert Whitaker’s current grand prix winner Catwalk VI (Colman-Corleone) are Holsteiners.

More recently, eventing horses have also started coming out of Holstein: Leonidas (Landos-Parco xx), sixth at Burghley last year with Sir Mark Todd, is a Holsteiner and the studbook holds fourth place in the studbook rankings.

By contrast, Holsteiners are not common in dressage. However, there are several well-known dressage horses that have been bred in Holstein. All time legends Granat and Corlandus were both Holsteins as was Carl Hester’s former ride Leibling, with whom he won team silver in 2009, although he too was originally bred for jumping.

A powerful horse breed

One of the reasons for the success of the Holstein is because it has been selectively bred to produce a strong, powerful, athletic horse with a relatively high knee action. These traits are the remnants of the Holstein’s ancestry as a prized cavalry horse and later a strong coach and artillery horse whose high, ground-covering action gave them the ability to pull whatever the terrain.

The Holstein region is situated in Germany’s northern-most state and the history of the horse goes back to the 14th century when monks at the monastery of Uetersen were given the rights to graze horses. From the small native horses, the monks bred up to produce larger horses more suited for agriculture and, later, the cavalry. The Holstein became a prized possession even by royalty — King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) bought Holsteiners for his stud at Cordoba. In 1735, the newly founded Celle State Stud in Hanover procured 13 Holstein stallions, which contributed to the foundation lines of the Hanoverian.

One of Germany’s great horse breeds, the Holstein was much in demand to pull artillery wagons during the two World Wars. Holstein breeders had to give their best stallions to the State Stud (founded in 1867), to assist farmers in breeding the horses required for the war. By the end of the WWII, however mechanisation began to take over and many Holstein mares were sent to slaughter, no longer needed, while many farmers gave up breeding. By 1961, only about 1300 mares remained and the Government dissolved the State Stud. The board of Directors of the Verband bought the remaining 33 state-owned stallions, becoming the most important stallion owner in Schleswig-Holstein. Stallions are still owned by the Verband and they now reside at the central stud in Elmshorn, which was founded in 1894.

The Thoroughbred influx

As elsewhere in Europe, Holstein breeders began to use thoroughbred blood to lighten the breed in order to produce riding horses. The English-bred Cottage Son (1944) and Ladykiller (1961), and the Irish-bred Marlon (1958) all played an important role in remodelling the Holstein. Ladykiller, so revered by the Verband that his statue now stands at the stable entrance in Elmshorn, sired 35 approved stallions, among them ‘stallion of the century’ Landgraf I, while daughters of Cottage Son produced the influential sires Lord and Ramiro.

Another crucial import was Cor de la Bryere (1968), by the French-bred Thoroughbred Rantzau. Bought from France as a three-year-old, he died in 1999 at the age of 31 leaving more than 60 approved sons and many premium mares. Subsequently, many Holstein stallions have names beginning in the letters ‘C’ or ‘L’ due to the dominance of male lines perpetuated by Ladykiller and Cor de la Bryere and many of the C-line horses are grey.

The Holstein today

The Holstein Verband operates a ‘closed’ stud book, meaning it rarely takes in stallions from other studbooks and only grades stallions based on proven ability. Stallions owned by the Verband still cover many of the 6,000 Holstein broodmares, which currently breed a modest 4,000 foals a year.

In the UK, the Yorkshire-based Millfield Stud breeds Holstein horses with several of its mares from Holstein C lines. The Billy Stud’s popular jumping and event sire Cevin Z, (Coriall-Carthago) is also of well-known Holstein bloodlines — and he is grey.

Image: Casall Ask, ridden by Rolf-Goran Bengtsson, is a Holsteiner, by Ailura via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-Sa 3.0


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