Oldenburg Horse

Oldenburg horse
  • HEIGHT: 16.2–17.2 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Germany
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Power combined with a kind disposition, good movement, and an air of nobility
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Dressage, jumping, and combined driving

The history of the development of the Oldenburg has two “chapters.” The first extends from the foundation of the breed in the mid-1570s up until World War II. The second, more modern aspect extends from just after World War II until the present time. The foundation of the breed is credited to Count Johann XVI (the Younger) von Oldenburg, who ruled the region from 1573 to 1603. He based his breeding program on the large East Friesian Horse, which he used for a foundation as he developed a lighter riding horse.

Count Johann’s successor, Count Anton Günther von Oldenburg, who reigned from 1603 to 1667, solidified the breed. He controlled the state’s horse industry, establishing a royal stable at Rastede as well as a network of stud farms and breeding stations. With breeding stallions imported from Spain, Turkey, Poland, and Italy crossed on the region’s strong mares, the count’s stock included more than one thousand riding and driving horses. He made the breed quite famous throughout Europe by both selling and giving valuable horses to important people in order to curry favor, a move that reportedly helped prevent an invasion of Oldenburg in 1623 during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648).

The Oldenburg has a long history as a fine light riding and harness horse.

With their size, powerful gaits, and willing disposition, Oldenburgs make outstanding sport horses.

This marketing strategy also worked well for the people of Oldenburg. As demand for the horses rose, the fortunes of local horse breeders soared. At that time there were two types of horses: “a beautifully built and colored riding horse,” meaning that the bays were bright with no smuttiness and the chestnuts were bright and clear, and a somewhat heavier yet elegant carriage horse for four-in-hands. The main colors were dappled gray, chestnut, black, and dun.

Denmark ruled Oldenburg from 1667 to 1773, and although horse breeding continued quite successfully, there came to be more emphasis on quantity than on quality. By 1784, there were more than 16,000 horses in the area, disparaged by many horsemen of the day as “altogether nothing but Roman noses,” often with eyes and ears that were too small, or as horses that seemed to have “one too many joints in their backs.”


According to the International Sporthorse Registry/Oldenburg Registry of North America (founded in 1983):

• About 15,000 horses are currently registered in North America.

• Each year, 700 North American foals are registered.

• The highest population density is probably on either the East or the West Coast, but there are also many in the Midwest.

In the nineteenth century, breeding responsibility was transferred to the private sector. Unlike other breeds, such as the Hanoverian, the Oldenburg had no state stud. Local horse breeders made all selections of stallions and all breeding decisions. The farmers followed popular trends by crossing in Cleveland Bay, English Thoroughbred, and Hanoverian Horses. Some very fine stallions of these breeds were imported, and although some of these crosses apparently produced some less than desirable animals at first, the horses improved as efforts continued.

The horse breeders of Oldenburg established a studbook to register their breeding stock in 1861. Their aim was to continue to produce a heavy carriage and coach horse, despite the introduction of Thoroughbred and half-bred bloodlines. It took some time, but the breed was finally improved enough both in quality and in numbers so that by 1880 the Oldenburg was considered to be the only European breed from which large numbers of stallions could be purchased for big breeding programs elsewhere, such as those supplying horses to coaching lines.

Versatile and Adaptable

Oldenburgs drew attention in a variety of areas. The Oldenburg cavalry found them to be excellent, and they were highly valued in agriculture and in the horse-drawn mail service between Oldenburg and Bremen, one of the fastest connections in Europe until the advent of the railway in 1867. Around this time, a horse expert described the breed as follows: “The whole animal gives the impression of massiveness and power and at the same time nobility and refinement.” They were reputed to be very easy keepers and easy to handle. Demand came from as far away as North America, where they were known as the German Coach Horse.

The breed continued to thrive until World War II. The war itself caused great losses in the breed, and after the war, tractors and automobiles began to replace the horses. A new type of Oldenburg was needed. Breeders quickly recognized that the days of the heavy coach and cavalry horse were over. Between 1944 and 1984, numbers fell from 55,400 to about 10,000. Ultimately the concept of the “German riding horse” came into being, calling for an elegant, correct riding horse with spirited, ground-covering movement. Thoroughbred and Anglo-Norman blood was introduced to refine and lighten the breed.

History of the Registry

In the United States, the Oldenburg Registry is maintained by the International Sporthorse Registry/Oldenburg Registry of North America (ISR/OLD NA). This organization also owns the right to the Oldenburg brand in this country, an O with a crown above it, the letter N to the left, and the letter A to the right.

The ISR/OLD NA reports: “The International Sporthorse Registry and the Oldenburg Registry of North America belong together. They have the same approved stallions and the Main Mare books are identical.” The ISR by itself also maintains a Pre Mare book, which accepts mares without appropriate proof of pedigree from an approved registry if they have scored well during rigorous evaluation, and its own Mare book, which offers a greater variety of warmblood mares to be registered and approved.

Breed Characteristics

Today the Oldenburg is an all-purpose riding horse that is considerably finer than its coaching ancestors but still retains the coach horse’s fairly high knee action. The breed makes an outstanding sport horse, combining powerful gaits with a kind disposition. It excels at dressage and show jumping. Oldenburgs are known for their kind yet bold nature. Unlike many of the other large European warmbloods, the breed matures early.


Most Oldenburgs today stand between 16.2 and 17.2 hands. The head is of average size, with a straight or convex profile. The neck is of average length and muscular, well set on, and carried elegantly. The withers are pronounced. The shoulders are sloping and muscular, the chest deep. The back is straight. The croup is fairly flat and well muscled. The hindquarters are powerfully built. The legs are strong and proportionately somewhat short, with plenty of bone.


Oldenburgs are usually bay, brown, black, or gray; chestnuts are rare. White on the face and lower legs is permitted.

Oldenburgs are often bay, with a straight or convex profile.

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