About Ostfriesen Horses
Ostfriesen and Alt-Oldenburger horses are representatives of
a group of horse breeds primarily from continental Europe called heavy
warmbloods. The breed has two names because the same horse was bred in two
marshy regions in the most north-western part of Germany: East Frisia and the
former grand duchy of Oldenburg. The name "Alt-Oldenburger" - alt
meaning "old" - simply distinguishes this horse from its descendant,
the modern Oldenburg, which is bred for sport.
The AO/OF is bred by preservationists to fit the pre-World
War model. Unlike the registries of the sport horses that followed them, their
studbook is partly-closed. However, external evaluation and performance testing
of the breeding stock is still a key element in these registries. To understand
the history of the Ostfriesen and Alt-Oldenburger, an understanding of the
people who bred them is helpful. Traditionally, the region settled by the
Frisians was highly agricultural, based on the fertile though marshy soil.
Though Hannover is geographically close by, its terrain is hilly and their
cultures were far apart. Furthermore, the region of Oldenburg was passed back
and forth between Denmark and Germany. This unique cultural mixture gives the
region a distinct identity all its own. The story of the Ostfriesen and
Alt-Oldenburger is that of horse breeders responding to a dynamic market.
The damp, low-lying region of Germany which lies between the
Weser River and the Ems River is called Ostfriesland ("East
Friesland"). It borders the Netherlands, and is part of a greater region
traditionally known as Frisia. Frisia is characterized by the dialects of the
peoples who settled it, but also by its low-lying, coastal geography. In the
west, it includes what are now the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen;
centrally, the Oldenburg region of Lower Saxony, and its northeastern region
includes much of what is now Schleswig-Holstein to the border of Denmark.
Frisia is the region best-known for heavy warmbloods.
The word "Oldenburg" was first mentioned in
reference to a town in 1108, and has had many meanings over the centuries. The
name applies both to the city of Oldenburg, and also the surrounding rural
district, and historically a state or Grand Duchy.
Prior to the 1600's, the horses of Oldenburg were of the
same types found throughout Europe in the Middle Ages: small, hardy farm
horses, smooth-stepping saddle horses, quicker "coursers," and a very
few highly-prized, powerful destriers. However, as the availability of firearms
grew, heavily-armored knights and their heavy mounts became impractical
"relics of the past."
The Spanish horses, ancestors of the Andalusian, the Danish
Fredriksborg, and the Neapolitan horse were particularly popular among the
German nobility during the 17th and 18th centuries. As they collected these
stallions, the residents bred them to their heavy mares, setting a foundation
we would identify today as "baroque." From this base of thick,
primarily dark-colored horses, the Groningen, Friesian, East Friesian, and
Oldenburg would eventually be born.
Kranich, an Oldenburg stallion bred by Anton Günther around
1640, shows Spanish influence that was popular at the time. The horses of
Oldenburg have never had a State Stud, and they first gained recognition under
Anton Günther (1583-1667), Count of Oldenburg, who is said to have taken great
personal interest in the breeding of horses. Count Anton Günther returned from
a trip lasting several years with a number of horses he admired in Spain,
Italy, Turkey, and Poland. Later, a gift of Oldenburg horses kept the Count of
Tilly from sacking Anton Gunthers dominion.
While the breeding of horses in Ostfriese and Oldenburg was
driven primarily by the nobles, without the aid of a studbook registry, the
world's first ever stallion Körung occurred in the region. In 1715, George
Albrecht Prince of Ostfriese adopted this practice of rigorous evaluation of
potential herd sires. The Kôrung process spread to Oldenburg in 1755 even
though state-mandated stallion inspections were almost 100 years in the future.
The results were excellent, and the products were in high demand and exported
for carriage driving.
While the breeders at Celle developed a more refined cavalry
mount around 1800, those of the Frisian marshlands sought out Cleveland Bays
and Yorkshire carriage horses in greater numbers. The results were solid,
good-natured heavy coaching horses, which were molded into a stable mare base
by the mid-17th century.
Following the state regulation of stallion inspections in
1820, the breeders of Oldenburg horses formed their own registry in 1861 and
the breeders of the Ostfriesen horses did the same in 1869. Both employed
rigorous selection along similar breeding goals, though up until the 20th
century, few breeders kept pedigrees, and many mares and stallions were
unregistered. However, participation improved as the 19th century came to a
close and the threat of obsoletion became quite real. At this time,
technological and economic developments were rendering irrevocable changes for
the horse. Suited for the simple labor of unmechanized agriculture, the horses
were now overshadowed by the versatile, powerful horses of Hanover, England,
The heyday of the elegant heavy carriage horse was the years
between 1880 and 1920. Reporting from a local horse market in 1864, an observer
writes that each year the sale has more horses to offer, all well-bred and
beautiful, and that their buyers came from far and wide. "Trading is
brisk, especially for the luxury horses, for which high prices are paid."
Producing Ostfriesen and Oldenburg horses had become quite lucrative. They were
exported even to the southern reaches of the German-speaking region; Oldenburg
stallions populated the freshly-rebuilt Bavarian State Stud of Schwaiganger
from 1870 on. Their success was such that in a very important decision, the stud
commission of the Saxon State Stud of Moritzburg developed a heavy warmblood
plan in 1873 which aimed to produce a horse "similar in type to that of
the Oldenburger." From 1877 and 1920, two thirds of the state stallions
were Oldenburgers. The first part of the 20th century saw the State Stud of
Zweibruecken follow suit.
The population of horses in Ostfriesland alone exceeded
30,000, about 40% of which were 3 years old or younger. The new breeding
direction, calling for a strong, attractive, heavy horse "for use as both
an elegant, high-stepping carriage horse and a work horse" was fruitful.
The Körkommission in particular looked for excellent trot mechanics in the
In Oldenburg, the progress towards the Karossier type hinged
on the use of Anglo-Normans, Cleveland Bays, and halfbred Hanoverians, and had
advanced so well that already a considerable number of Oldenburgs were being
sent to Ostfriesland. Soon all the Ostfriesen stallion lines were headed in the
same, new direction. 1910 was the height of Ostfriesen horse breeding. The type
was described as possessing a distinct outline, strong foundation and a
friendly, expressive head, not to mention the "certain elegance about the
whole appearance." In 1911 a spectator at the Körung in Aurich noted that
three types reappeared year after year:
A) A horse similar to the Oldenburg, a type of noble, heavy
Karossier with a swinging gait and great nerve, though slightly drier than most
B) A horse with reference to the Oldenburg type, though they
are not always very distinctly outlined, and are without much nobility and
usually quite common, but they are massive, robust, compact and strong. These
stallions are excellent sires for agricultural horses.
(C) An elegant, easy-mannered horse, which is influencing
the Hanoverian and which the Hanoverian is more or less approaching. This type
is most often an elegant chestnut, and is relatively rare.
These are the horses that made Oldenburg famous for elegant
After World War I, the market for luxury horses suddenly
became the market for military remounts. The increased availability of cars and
tractors limited the roles that horses could play in agriculture and
transportation. Starting in the forties, technical advancements in agricultural
machinery initially required a new type of horse, but soon after made the horse
superfluous altogether in the field. So to adapt, starting in 1920 the
direction changed radically: a heavy warmblood of great economy with a good
walk, calm temperament, which matures early and utilizes its feed well.
The type was so heavy, it stood on the boundary with the
lighter coldbloods. The coldbloods of Germany were already well-suited to the
new demands of farming given their immense power, and the Ostfriesen had to
prove it could offer these same qualities. The one advantage for the warmbloods
was their versatility. They were subsequently bred to have greater depth,
breadth and strength, at the expense of the dryness, nerve, expression and gait
qualities for which they had previously been selected.
From 1908 to 1940, the average height of Ostfriesisches
decreased 4 cm while average weight increased from 630kg to 760kg. Other
regions began to breed heavy warmbloods: Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, Bavaria,
Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony, and Silesia. While they were founded on their
own stock, horses from Oldenburg and Ostfriesland were sold there each year to
help them realize their goals. The end of World War II saw the breeding in
Ostfriesland reach record-breaking numbers, as these horses had become
indispensable agricultural horses. In 1923 the two registries merged to form
the Verband der Züchter des Oldenburger Pferdes e.V. (Oldenburg Horse Breeders'
Association), which today serves the modern Oldenburg.
By 1964, in the face of the superiority of tractors, the
breeding of the heavy warmblood had completely collapsed. Stallions covered 10%
of the mares that they had 20 years before. This scene played out in the 1950's
and 60's throughout German horse breeding. During this time, though, increasing
leisure time meant that horses soon found their modern cultural niche:
recreational riding. The breeders of Ostfriesland aimed to develop their horses
along this path, producing a lighter riding horse with all the economical
traits that had made them popular before. Fearing that the Thoroughbred would
detract from the amenable nature of their horses, the Ostfriesen breeders chose
to use Arabian blood instead. Beginning in 1948, such stallions were made available
to the breeders, who scarcely used them, being hard-put to change their beloved
horses so drastically. However, the evidence was convincing, as the
Freisen-Arabs were horses of excellent character, great capacity and riding
quality. Unfortunately, they had missed the mark: the market demanded a light,
elegant, but tall riding horse, and the Freisen-Arabs were smaller than their
warmblood mothers. Limited in their competitiveness in dressage and jumping,
the Freisen-Arabs did not sell, and the Ostfriesen horses seemed doomed to
Meanwhile, the Oldenburg horses were being systematically
redirected by the use of Anglo-Norman stallions like Condor, Thoroughbreds like
Adonis xx, and Anglo-Arabs like Inschallah AA. Though the blood remained in
their pedigrees, the Alt-Oldenburg mares could not produce stallion sons.
Purebred Ostfriesisch-Oldenburg stallions were replaced in the studrows by
Hanoverians, Trakehners, Thoroughbreds and Arabs. In 1967, 71% of the original
mares had riding horse mates. The Ostfriesen mares were permitted into the
Hanoverian forebook after producing a noble warmblood foal, but could not
become stallion mothers. The lastkorung at Aurich took place in 1973, and in
1975 the Ostfriesische studbook became a district association of the Hanoverian
Verband. The products of this new breeding direction became the modern
By the mid-eighties the stock of purebred mares had dwindled
to just a handful, though there were some mares only a generation or two
removed. In 1983 a group of supporters formed a special breed association under
the jurisdiction of the Weser-Ems Studbook, approving stallions that were
half-Hanoverian, half-Ostfriesen or Alt-Oldenburg. However, as the mares
themselves were typically only halfbred, the foals did not have the desired
type, and furthermore the genepool was simply too small. To replenish it, the
breeders looked to the studs where Ostfriesen/Alt-Oldenburger stallions had
stood for generations, picking up a few horses here and there. More horses came
from greater strongholds: Silesian Heavy Warmbloods of Poland, the Danish
Oldenbourgs, and the Groningen horse of the Netherlands. But the efforts of Dr.
Herta Steiner, Moritzburg State Stud Equerry, were the keystone to saving the
breed. She had championed for the last remaining heavy warmbloods in Saxony and
Thuringia. Soon the old type was revived.
Since 1995, two Dutch Harness Horse stallions have been
chosen to add elegance and responsiveness, though it is worth noting that these
stallions had primarily Ostfriesen and Groningen pedigrees themselves, and no
Hackney blood. The Zuchtverband für das Ostfriesische und Alt-Oldenburger Pferd
e.V. ("Association for the Breeding of East Freisian and Old-Oldenburg
Horses") was founded in 1986, and was recognized as an independent
organization in 1988. Even after 20 years of hiatus, the goal is to produce a
heavy, quality horse, responsive with an exceptionally good temperament. The
unique character of the former farm horse is of paramount importance, as it was
the peasant farms that led such kind horses to be bred in the first place. The
breeding objective these days stretches back before the horses were called to
haul tractors and artillery, to when they were heavy, elegant, and impressive
A combined driving team of Ostfriesen / Alt-Oldenburger
geldings - Today there are 20 approved stallions and 160 broodmares in the
northern population of heavy warmbloods. They are bred with a pure-breeding
scheme, using Ostfriesen/Alt-Oldenburg, Groningen, Saxony-Thuringian Heavy
Warmbloods, and Silesian Heavy Warmbloods. The goal is a versatile, correct and
balanced horse with a calm temperament. Desirable is a horse with a strong
constitution, peaceful companionable temperament, which utilizes its feed well,
has high fertility, and is suitable as a riding and driving horse. The walk and
trot should be efficient and expansive, the latter with some action. The
physique should speak of a moderately elegant horse of great depth and breadth,
well-sprung ribs and a strong hind end. The head should be expressive with a
large, friendly eye. The neck is muscular, medium-length, well-formed and set
high on a long, sloping, and muscular shoulder with defined withers. The back
is medium-long, solid and elastic with a broad loin, the croup slightly sloped,
wide and muscular. The limbs should be correct and dry with great bone
strength, very strong joints suited to the horse's size, ending in the
all-important well-shaped hooves.
At three years the horse is expected to stand between 158
and 165 cm tall, with a canon circumference of 22 to 24 cm. The primary colors
are black, seal brown, and dark bay, though bay, chestnut, and grey do occur.
Typically, they are conservatively marked. They are traditionally shown in a wide
white leather bridle without the cavesson. Because of their gentle natures,
Ostfriesen / Alt-Oldenburgers are useful not just in sport and driving, but for
recreation, police work and therapeutic riding. They are also used in forests
for ecological reasons. Fourteen black Ostfriesen / Alt-Oldenburg geldings were
sold recently to the Household Cavalry.