Holsteiner Horse

Holsteiner Horse
  • HEIGHT: 16–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Germany
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Power, excellent gaits, tremendous jumping ability
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Dressage, show jumping, and combined driving

The first written record of Holstein Horses appears in 1285 CE, when the count of Holstein and Storman gave permission to the monastery at Uetersen to graze its fine horses on private land. After the Reformation, in the mid-sixteenth century, all the property of the monasteries was transferred to private ownership. The landlords continued the work begun at the monastery in an effort to produce top-quality horses for use on farms and in war. The first Holstein studbook shows that both noblemen and farmers owned fine horses in the sixteenth century. The Crown also exerted influence on the horse-breeding business through a variety of laws. One law passed in 1686 in Holstein required each owner of substantial acreage to keep good-quality broodmares and to use good stallions. The government offered incentives to promote the best breeding.

The soil in the area was deep, extremely heavy when wet, and almost like concrete when it dried out, so the horses had to have power and stamina. Their strength, good gaits, and majestic looks made Holstein horses desirable as warhorses as well as for farm use. They were exported to Spain, Italy, England, France, Austria, and neighboring Denmark, where they left their mark on many other breeds.

France in particular used Holsteiners in war, and many were commandeered by Napoleon’s invading troops. The stable master of the king of France said in 1730 that Holstein Horses had beautiful gaits, were well built, and made fine high school and coach horses. By 1770, France was buying two thousand Holsteins every three years. In 1797, more than 10,000 horses were exported from the relatively small area of Schleswig-Holstein. To make certain that Holstein received proper credit and fair prices for its fine horses, breeders began to brand good Holsteiners with the shield-and-crown design in 1781, which is still used today.

The Holsteiner has been influential on many other breeds over the centuries. By the mid-1400s, quite a few horses from Holstein had been crossed with Andalusians in Spain, which means there might conceivably have been a trace of Holstein blood in the first horses shipped to America. George II used stallions from Holstein to help found his stud in Hannover in 1735.

The Modern Holsteiner

The nineteenth century brought several crises to Holstein’s horse breeders. In the face of greatly increased demand, especially for coach horses, quality fell. Breeding had been left largely in the hands of farmers. Some could not afford top-quality mares or expensive stud fees; others made money selling the breed’s reputation without regard for the quality of horses they produced. Farm crop failures and a bad flood in the 1820s forced many families to sell off their breeding stock. A series of wars from 1840 to 1871 further depleted stocks of horses and interfered with exports.

Eventually, conscientious breeders, afraid that the breed was near ruin, brought in Yorkshire Coach Horses, Cleveland Bays, and Thoroughbreds from England to improve the remaining Holstein stock. At the time, the breed’s reputation abroad was still good, and geldings were fetching such high prices that good stallion prospects were all but eliminated. With disaster looming for the breed, a new association, formed in 1883, selected one hundred quality mares to use to reestablish the breed using the few remaining stallions. The goal was to produce a powerful coach horse with strong bone and high action (a trait of the Yorkshire Coach Horse) that could also be used as a heavyweight pleasure horse.

With its bold action and striking good looks, the Holsteiner has enjoyed a long history as a popular harness horse.

After World War I, the horse market demanded workhorses for farm use. Later the Third Reich ordered Holstein to produce heavy workhorses to pull artillery. After World War II, there was no longer a need for horses to pull caissons, and heavy coaching horses were no longer in demand. Shifting emphasis to sport horses was clearly the only future for the breed, so breeders added more Thoroughbred blood. In the aftermath of the two World Wars, the numbers of horses were greatly reduced. There were 20,000 Holstein mares in 1947, but by 1960 there were only 1,300. The state disbanded its stud in 1960, and wisely the Verband (breed association) bought the state’s stallions. By 1980, numbers had rebounded to three thousand one hundred mares—better, but still very few compared to the numbers of the popular Hanoverian. It is striking to note that in the 1980s, although the breed made up only about 5 percent of the horses in competition in Europe, it was winning about 35 percent of the prizes.

Once valued as a warhorse, the Holsteiner has become a versatile athlete that excels in jumping and dressage.


In Germany, the Verband outlines strict standards for breeding and was the first German breed association to recognize both mare and stallion lines. Stallions must be licensed and hold a current service permit before being bred. About six hundred Holstein colts are born each year. When they are two and a half years old, they are judged on conformation and movement by a panel of experts. About ten prospects are selected. In the fall of their three-year-old year, after a careful veterinary exam they begin a one hundred-day test during which they are trained, ridden, and rigidly evaluated for soundness, temperament, gaits, and ability.

The results of the tests are recorded so that breeders may choose the abilities that best suit their interest, such as jumping or dressage. Once a stallion has foals on the ground, they are carefully evaluated, and only those stallions improving the breed are allowed to continue breeding mares.

Mares are usually shown as two-year-olds to a committee, which selects the best for the premium mare show. Judges evaluate type, topline, depth, width, and the qualities of both front and hind legs. The committee also evaluates correctness of movement, including elasticity and suspension of gaits. There is a point system for mare judging. The rare horses that reach the highest level become Premium Mares, which greatly increases their value.

The first Holsteiners were exported to North America late in the nineteenth century, primarily for use as coach horses. Beginning in the late 1970s, the breed was again exported to the United States and promoted, particularly by Emil Jung, who was famous for his combined driving teams. From that point on, its popularity has continued to escalate.

Breed Characteristics

Though widely noted as carriage horses, Holsteiners also excel in dressage and show jumping and are frequently seen on the hunter circuit. Adherence to the highest standards for the selection of breeding animals has resulted in consistently superb offspring. Holsteiners are exported all over the world, and they populate many Olympic teams.


Holsteiners are large, standing between 16 and 17.1 hands. The breed has a bold, expressive face, with a deep body and a short, flexible back. A smooth topline connects the long, muscular neck to the hindquarters. Holsteiners have strong joints and abundant bone, with the hind legs well set under the body, giving the horses natural balance. The cannons are short and the hocks are well let down.

Holsteiners have bold, expressive faces.

Today’s horses fall into two types. The “old”-style horses are massive, with tremendous bone and large, square knee and hock joints. The “modern” type is lighter and more refined, but still shows great strength, excellent movement, and a wonderful disposition.


The usual colors are brown, black, and bay. White markings on the face and lower legs are allowed.


The American Holsteiner Association acts as the registry and maintains the studbook for Holsteiners in this country. The association maintains a European studbook model and adheres to the selective breeding standards practiced in Europe. Its close working relationship with the German Verband permits American breeders to call on the German Verband’s vast knowledge of bloodlines, at the same time allowing for the uniqueness of the North American situation.

According to the American Holsteiner Horse Association (founded in 1977):

• There are 5,543 registered foundation mares, permit stallions, and licensed stallions in North America.

• About 250 new foals are registered each year.

• The highest population density is in California.

Holsteiners have deep bodies and short, flexible backs.

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