What to Know About the Noriker Horse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 19, 2023
5 min read

The Noriker horse is an endangered draft breed developed in the alpine piedmont of Austria. Also known as the Noric horse, this breed has a long history as an agricultural workhorse and was once the favored horse of the Salzburg archbishops. Today, the Noriker horse has gained popularity as a carriage, sled, and driving horse. But its numbers remain low worldwide. Learn essential Noriker horse facts, origins, and care requirements.  

The Noriker is a moderately heavy draft horse. It’s strong and sturdy but lighter than the largest draft breeds, like the Belgian and Percheron. Austrians selectively bred the Noriker to carry and pull heavy loads in steep alpine terrain.

Here are a few defining traits of this unusual breed: 

Noriker horse appearance. The Noriker is a large and powerful horse. The horse has a convex facial profile and a flowing mane and tail inherited from its Baroque horse ancestors. 

The horse has a strong, medium-length neck that connects to sloping shoulders. A deep chest, prominent withers, and an elastic back give the horse incredible pulling power. The hindquarters are muscular and have a broad croup. The legs have strong joints with little feathering and hard hooves. 

This breed has a low enter of gravity and sure feet. It’s also athletic and agile in spite of its huge size. These characteristics allow it to traverse alpine mountain trails safely. 

Noriker horse gaits. Despite its large size, the Noriker horse is an energetic and powerful mover. At a walk, it moves with even, powerful strides. The trot is smooth and rhythmic, covering a lot of ground with each step. The Noriker has strong, swinging action when cantering. 

Noriker horse colors. This breed has six basic coat colors: black (34% of Noriker horses), bay (26%), chestnut (22%), leopard spotted (9%), blue roan (7%), and tobiano (2%). 

Many Noriker horse breeders actively breed for leopard spotted coats, and Austrians refer to this attention-catching pattern as “Tiger”. 

Noriker horse size. The average Noriker height is 15.2 to 16.0 hands (60.8 to 64 inches) at the withers. Stallions should have a cannon bone circumference of 23 to 25 centimeters (9.05 to 9.84 inches) and a chest girth of 205 to 215 centimeters (80.71 to 84.65 inches).

The Noriker horse was bred for hard draft work in rugged terrain, and its temperament reflects this history. The horse has courage, resilience, and stamina, which helps it thrive in the harsh alpine environment.  

This breed is also known for its calm and sensible temperament. The Noriker is docile when handled, energetic, and enjoys training and working. It’s also agile and able to conquer even the roughest mountain trails. 

These valuable characteristics make the Noriker a desirable driving horse, family pet, and workhorse.

The Noriker horse is an ancient breed developed around 2,000 years ago. The Romans founded the province Noricum in modern-day Austria and introduced heavy Roman draft horses to the alpine region. The Roman horses were crossed with local Celt horses, producing a new breed known as the Noric horse, the Noriker, or the Norico-Pinzgauer horse.  

In 1576, the first Noriker stud farm was founded near Hallein, Austria. The archbishops of Salzburg oversaw this farm. These leaders encouraged the breeding of draft horses with unusual colors and patterns. They prized colorful Noriker horses and used them as ceremonial and parade horses.  

During the 18th century, farmers began using the Noriker horse for agricultural work. They developed the breed into a heavier, more laid-back draft horse better suited for hard work in the cold and treacherous mountains.  

In 1820, the creation of the first state-owned stud farms led to further improvements of the Noriker horse. During this period, the Noriker interbred with Belgians, Clydesdales, Holsteins, and other breeds. 

In 1885, the government created new regulations to restrict this practice and preserve the purebred Noriker breed. A few years later, breed enthusiasts created a registry for mares and stallions.  

The Noriker became popular in Austria between World War I and II. But the breed’s numbers dropped again during the 1960s as machines replaced horses for farm work and transportation. Between 1968 and 1985, the Noriker population declined sharply from 34,500 horses to less than 7,000. The breed remains rare in the 21st century. 

Today, all Noriker horses descend from five sire lines: Vulkan-line, Nero-line, Diamant-line, Schaunitz-line, and Elmar-line. Each bloodline produces slight variations in appearance, temperament, and other characteristics. For example, Diamant Norikers are prized for their athleticism, and Elmar Norikers often have leopard-spotted coats.

Since 1985, Noriker enthusiasts have been working diligently to conserve the breed. An estimated 10,000 Noriker horses live in Austria today. 

This breed is also raised in some regions of Italy, including South Tyrol. The lower Puster Valley breeds a heavy Noriker variety, while the rest of the region favors a lighter type. The Noriker has also been significantly influenced by the Haflinger horse, which is popular in South Tyrol.

The adaptable Noriker horse excels at many jobs. Modern-day foresters and loggers often use the Noriker horse as a workhorse in the Alpine forest. Using workhorses is often preferable to heavy machinery in this region because the animals are more affordable and environmentally friendly.  

Many people also use the Noriker horse for driving and riding. Leisure riders are especially drawn to the breed because of its ground-covering stride, rhythmic gaits, and sure-footedness. European tourist regions also select Noriker horses to pull carriages and sleds.

Like all breeds, the Noriker requires the right diet, housing, and veterinary care to thrive. 

Feed your Noriker horse a nutritious diet of good-quality roughage, such as alfalfa hay or grass. Active horses may also need grains, which contain more calories. For example, a horse that works two to four hours daily typically needs 15 to 20 pounds of hay and 3 to 8 pounds of grain. Your veterinarian can help you determine your horse’s ideal diet. 

If kept indoors, draft horses like the Noriker require a larger stall measuring at least 16 feet on each side. You can also keep your Noriker outdoors in a fenced-in field as long as you provide safe shelter from the elements. 

The Noriker is a generally hardy horse, but experts recommend testing this breed for Type 1 Polysacharide Storage Myopthathy. This disorder can cause the muscles to accumulate abnormal complex sugars. Symptoms include muscle soreness and weakness.

The Noriker horse is a versatile and good-natured draft horse. If you want to support rare breed conservation, you may be interested in a Noriker. The breed is difficult to find outside of Austria and Italy, so your location may affect your ability to purchase one of these horses. But if you have access and the resources, a Noriker horse could be an enjoyable and unique choice.