Haflingers 101: History
A long time ago, I thought that Haflingers were classified as draft ponies, and maybe were related to Belgians or some other draft breed, somehow. And I wasn’t alone – it’s a common misconception. More often than not, if you talk to the general horse-public about Haflinger history, they have no clue that:
Haflingers are NOT A DRAFT BREED.
They do, however, have a draft “type”. The word “draft”, when referring to Haflingers, is a body style/discipline description, rather than an actual reference to their ancestry.
If you want to get technical, they are not even classified as a coldblood breed, but rather a small warmblood. I know it’s weird to hear, but it’s actually true.
Let Me Explain
The origin of the breed can be traced back to a stallion called 249 Folie, who was the result of breeding of a smaller, tough, “mountain mare” from Tyrol (now in Italy – then Austria) and the Arabian stallion, 133 El Bedavi XXII. So, a half-Arab stallion was the “founding father” of the breed, back in 1874. Interestingly enough, the roads and passageways available in such a mountainous region at the time were nearly impassable for a large draft horse (not to mention the difficulties with feeding such a big creature on the sparse mountainside), and thus the need for a small, sure-footed, horse arose. In fact, it’s likely that the Haflinger was influenced by Oriental/Asian breeds as well as the Arab!
The Haflinger is described as “noble”, “lighter”, “elegant” and (my personal favorite) with ears that are “relatively small”. A horse that could easily maneuver the mountain trails to work, but would also be easy to keep and feed. Careful breeding practices helped to ensure that only the best were bred, and any cross-breds were not allowed to be registered. In 1898, the Haflinger was officially recognized as a breed.
CHANGES – WWII
The 1920’s and 30’s showed significant growth in development of the breed, but soon WWII brought on big changes for the Haflinger. According to Johannes Schewiesgut,
“The smallest and most compact Haflinger stallions were sought during this period to breed a small horse for transportation purposes.”, and “…the breeding management were forced during that period to breed the Haflinger specifically and consequently smaller to produce a working horse from this breed.”
It is during this time that we start to see a change in body type for the Haflinger.
There’s an awesome story in Johannes’ book that details his father’s experience during the war with his Haflinger, Heini, and how the horse saved his life in a raging snow storm. The snow was so deep that the reindeer, one they usually harnessed and took to get supplies, refused to go out. After barely making it to the supply post with Heini instead, Johannes’ father lost his way home because there was no path to be seen in the snowdrifts. He eventually gave up trying to guide Heini, and turned over complete control to his horse, only to find that Heini took him straight home and up to his front door, where he demanded sugar as his reward. If that doesn’t illustrate the personality, tenacity, and general Haflinger attitude…I don’t know what does!
It was Johannes’ father, Otto Schweisgut, who was instrumental in bringing the Haflinger back to its roots, and developing it as a “leisure horse”, as Johannes so emphatically repeats over and over in his book: (Note: keep in mind that the Austrians were using measuring tapes instead of sticks, so measurements came out larger)
“He had recognized in time that the Haflinger could only survive if its special characteristic, the character and its temperament, which it required as a riding and carriage horse, could be preserved and these characteristics fostered and enhanced. …and that meant bringing the Haflinger back to an average size of 57.08 inches…”
To do this, there was some additional experimentation with crossing with Arabians again in the 1970’s, but those experiments didn’t bring the results Otto wanted, so they were stopped. Currently, Germany has continued crossing Haflingers and Arabs, to the extent that they’ve developed a separate studbook for them – but they still aren’t registerable as pure Haflingers.
HAFLINGERS in the USA
These golden horses first set foot on American soil in 1958, when one stallion, nine broodmares, and three foals were imported to Tempel Farms in Illinois. FUN FACT: the next few Haflingers were imported in 1961 to my home state of Washington. Following soon after was Ohio in 1968, and then New York in 1969. For the next several years of breeding in the USA, the quality of Haflingers declined, since it wasn’t exactly easy to always import new stock from Europe, and the bloodline pool here was so narrow.
In 1980, things began to change, with a few “pioneers” of the breed being able to head over to Ebbs, Austria, to purchase new, more “modern type” horses.
This history illustrates how the Haflinger as we know it arrived in the US – today in America, we often refer to the breed as having two different body types:
- Draft/drafty: Closer to the WWII era Haflinger – more square bodied, shorter, stockier
- Modern/sport, sometimes called Pleasure: Closer to the original, “lighter” type – strong, good bone, athletic, a bit taller
And of course, there are many Haflingers that fit somewhere in the middle (which is how I’d describe Crumble – and I’ll give you some more examples in a later post).
QUICK FACTS on BLOODLINES and NAMING
If you spend any time learning about Haflingers, you’ll hear people refer to “A-Line” this or “S-line” that. The different lines refer to the first letter of the horse’s name and their ancestry, and there are seven different stallion lines (A, B, M, N, S, ST, and W). For example, Abercrombie‘s sire is Alex NHH, and they are both A-line horses.
In the US, fillies are named by starting with the first letter of the dam’s name, and colts are named with the first letter of the sire’s name. Additionally, breeders in the US have suffixes registered to them, and they often use those as identifiers for their horses. Many Deer Haven bred Haflingers have the suffix DHFK (Such as Shaylee DHFK), which stands for Deer Haven Farm of Kentucky.
Have I blown your mind yet? Did you have any idea of the Haflinger’s rich history? I’ve gotta admit – there is so much speculation and incorrect information about the breed floating around online, that it’s hard for me not to cringe when I see it. The next time you hear someone refer to Haflinger as a “draft pony” or a “mini Belgian”, I’m hoping you can help (nicely) put those misconceptions to rest. All of us Haflinger nerds will thank you 🙂
In my next post, I’ll share with you a bit more about the differences between the draft and modern types!