What to Know About the Holsteiner Horse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 12, 2023
5 min read

The elegant Holsteiner is a warmblood horse developed in Germany. Historically, this breed’s bold and steady nature made it a popular choice as a farm horse and warhorse. Today, the Holsteiner is an athletic sports horse frequently appearing in the Olympic Games and other elite competitions. Here’s everything you need to know about the history and traits of the handsome Holsteiner horse breed.    

According to the German Holstein Verband — the main breed association — Holsteiner breeders aim to produce the world’s best sport horses. To accomplish this goal, they’ve selectively bred faster and more powerful Holsteiners over the last 150 years. These traits allow the breed to excel at the top eventing, jumping, and dressage levels. 

Holsteiner horse appearance. This warmblood is a midweight breed with a heavier frame than lighter hotblooded breeds like the Arabian. The Holsteiner has an athletic and graceful self-carriage that helps it excel in the show ring. The horse has a well-proportioned body with muscular hindquarters and a strong back and loin. It has a sloping shoulder, an arched neck, and a refined head with expressive eyes. 

Holsteiner horse colors. The ideal Holsteiner color is bay. Other solid colors like black, brown, chestnut, and gray are also acceptable. The horse should have few or no white markings. 

Holsteiner horse height. The Holsteiner is a medium-sized horse that stands 16 hands to 17 hands (64 inches to 68 inches) tall. 

Holsteiner horse weight. This breed’s weight ranges from 990 pounds to 1,760 pounds.

The Holsteiner Verband emphasizes the importance of breeding horses with agreeable temperaments. The Holsteiner has a responsive and resilient personality, making it an excellent sport partner. The horse can be easily ridden and adapts to increasingly challenging obstacles in eventing and show-jumping competitions. 

The Holsteiner is also known for its easygoing nature and love of working. Thanks to these positive traits, the breed is suitable for riders of all ages and experience levels.

The Holsteiner horse breed was developed in the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein in the 13th century. Farmers created the breed by crossing native German horses with Neapolitan, Oriental, and Spanish foundation stock. They used the resulting offspring as agricultural horses in the Holsteiner marshes near the river Elbe. 

The first written records of the Holsteiner horse appeared in 1225. Gerhard I, the count of Schleswig-Holstein, gave the Catholic Uetersen monastery grazing rights for its Holsteiner horses around the cloister. In the Middle Ages, this strong breed was often ridden by cavalry and used to pull heavy artillery. 

The monks bred their horses for hundreds of years until the Reformation in the 16th century. This cultural revolution led to the transfer of the monastery’s horses and property to private landowners. Local farmers continued to breed Holsteiners as farm horses and warhorses. 

In 1686, Schleswig-Holstein began passing laws to regulate the breeding of Holsteiner horses. The breed’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. By 1797, over 10,000 Holsteiners were exported to other European countries.  

During this era, the Holsteiner was commonly used as a carriage horse, though it still had a coarse warhorse appearance. Cream Holsteiners also developed during this time and became trendy with the Electors of Hanover. 

In the 19th century, breeders refined the Holsteiner breed by crossing the horses with British Yorkshire Coach and Cleveland Bay horses. These cross breedings transformed the Holsteiner from a rugged farm and warhorse into an elegant carriage horse. After World War 2, breeders also added Thoroughbred, giving the Holsteiner its legendary jumping ability. 

Today, the Holsteiner has one of the smallest breeding populations in Europe. Only an estimated 6% of all sport horses are Holsteiners. Despite its relative rarity, the Holsteiner dominates international equestrian competitions. Horses from this breed frequently win Olympic medals and world championships in eventing, jumping, combined driving, and other sports.

This breed has been specifically developed for three popular equestrian sports: 

Dressage. This discipline tests the horse and rider’s ability to perform specific movements in a course. The difficulty increases as the horse and rider progress through the competition levels. 

Eventing. This competition resembles a triathlon and combines three different disciplines: cross-country jumping, dressage, and show jumping. Eventing tests the horse’s gracefulness, fitness, and accuracy. 

Show jumping. The horse and rider complete a course of eight to 12 jumps. A horse must complete the course in the fastest time and without errors to win. 

The versatile Holsteiner also excels in other events like combined driving and field hunting.

The Holsteiner Verband and the American Holsteiner Horse Association require Holsteiner stallions and males to meet rigorous criteria before being bred. The organizations test the quality of breeding stock during yearly Breeding Stock Inspections. 

A stallion must pass three inspections before the associations enter it in their studbook. The stallion must have the proper breed conformation and pass a visual assessment of its type, topline, forehand, and hindquarters. Next, the committee judges the horse as it completes a movement sequence. Finally, the stallion must free jump or jump with a rider.

After the stallion completes the inspections, it must demonstrate its ability as a sport horse by completing a 100-day test or competing. The stallion licensing committee also checks the horse’s foals for genetic defects. If the horse passes all inspections, the committee grants it a lifetime breeding license. 

Mares are evaluated based on seven criteria: type, topline, forehand, hindquarters, walk, trot, and canter.

These strict requirements have allowed Holsteiner breeders to produce high-quality sport horses with excellent jumping ability and a competitive spirit.

Overall, the Holsteiner is a healthy and hardy breed.

Research suggests that 9 out of 1,000 Holsteiners may carry a gene linked to ocular squamous cell carcinoma, an eye cancer. 

The Holsteiner can inherit an autosomal recessive disorder called fragile foal syndrome type 1. Foals with this condition die in utero or are born with abnormally thin, hyperextensible skin. This disease has a poor prognosis, so veterinarians typically euthanize live foals born with it.

A pet Holsteiner horse requires appropriate care. Feed your Holsteiner horse at least 1% of its body weight in roughage daily to help maintain a healthy weight. If you regularly work your horse, you may need to add a commercial grain mix to its diet. Consult your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist to determine your horse’s individual dietary needs. 

Experts recommend housing a warmblood horse in a stall measuring at least 12 feet by 14 feet. You can also keep your Holsteiner in an outdoor pasture as long as you provide appropriate shelter, such as an open barn or three-sided structure. 

The Holsteiner is a flashy and refined horse bred to reach the highest levels of equine sports. If you’re looking for a powerhouse sport horse, the Holsteiner could be a great fit.