The Knabstrupper, also known as the Knabstrup horse, is a Danish warmblood breed renowned for its distinctive spotted coats. This breed has a relatively recent origin, with its lineage tracing back to a single spotted mare who relocated to Denmark in 1812.
A small breeding population and limited gene pool has threatened the breed’s survival throughout its history. After extensive inbreeding resulted in reduced breed quality, breeders began outcrossing the horses to create a new strain of Knabstrubbers with greater athleticism and strength.
Today, various types of Knabstrupper horses showcase unique skills across a range of equine disciplines. Even though these horses are considered rare, their eye-catching appearance and cooperative temperament continue to captivate new enthusiasts all over the globe.
This breed profile will discuss the Knabstrupper’s history, characteristics, common health problems, and nutritional requirements. Keep reading to learn more about caring for and feeding Knabstrupper horses.
Knabstrupper Horse History
The history of the Knabstrupper horse began in Denmark in the early 1800s, and it’s only in recent times that these horses came to North America.
The breed has seen considerable transformation over the past two hundred years due to crossbreeding, leading many breeders to question whether any purebred Knabstrupper bloodlines still exist.
All Knabstrupper horses alive today can trace their ancestry to a single dam named Flaebe’s mare. Purchased by Villars Lunn in 1812 and believed to have Iberian lineage, the mare had distinctive white flecks throughout her body.
Flaebe’s mare gained her name from the butcher who sold her to Lunn, but is said to have originally been purchased from a Spanish officer. 
This spotted mare gave birth to foals with a distinctive spotted colouring. Her first offspring, the Flaebestallion, became the foundation sire of the Knabstrupper breed.
The Flaebestallion’s sire belonged to the Frederiksborg breed, the oldest Danish horse breed. Although popular throughout the Renaissance, Frederiksborgers faced severe population decline in the nineteenth century when fancy court horses fell out of fashion.
Knabstruppers get their name from the Knabstrup estate, where Lunn developed the breed. The breed peaked in popularity in the mid-1800s before inbreeding led to a significant decline in quality. In 1891, a fire at the Knabstrup estate killed 22 horses and devastated breed numbers.
To save Knabstruppers from extinction while maintaining their spotted coats, Breeders imported three Appaloosa stallions from North America and one leopard stallion from Russia. Crosses with Danish warmbloods, Holsteiners, and Trakehners are believed to have improved the breed’s athletic ability. 
Frederiksborger ancestors of Knabstruppers were agile, flashy horses used for royal parades, court ceremonies, and warfare. Their Iberian ancestors served similar purposes. 
The first Knabstruppers initially gained popularity as military mounts during the Three Years’ War of 1848 – 1850. However, soldiers soon realized their flashy coats made them easy targets for enemies.
Following the revitalization of the breed with sport horses and imported Appaloosa blood in the twentieth century, Knabstruppers found their calling as pleasure horses. Different types of Knabstruppers emerged depending on their bloodlines.
The Knabstrupperforengin for Danmark (KNN) association was formed in 1971 to organize Knabstrupper breeding and registrations in Denmark.
The KNN is now the founding registry for Knabstruppers throughout the world, maintaining the main studbook and establishing registration rules. The Westfalen Verband NA organization operates a studbook of North American Knabstruppers under KNN rules.
Like many Warmbloods today, Knabstrupper mares and stallions must pass official inspection before being able to breed and have their offspring eligible for registration. Crossbreeding with warmbloods, Arabians, and Thoroughbreds is permitted with approval. Knabstruppers are registered as Sport or Baroque types.
From their striking appearance to their temperament and performance capabilities, several defining traits shape the identity of the Knabstrupper breed.
Knabstruppers can have slightly different conformations depending on their type. While early breeding practices prioritized colouring above all other traits, modern Knabstruppers must have good conformation, movement, and temperaments to be approved for breeding.
The average Knabstruper stands between 15 and 16 hands tall, with an average weight of 500 kg (1100 lb). The Sport type is the most popular type of Knabstrupper used in equestrian disciplines, while the Baroque type is slightly shorter and broader.
All Knabstruppers should have a harmonious build. Heads are medium-sized with expressive eyes and well-defined noses. High-set, muscular necks connect to rounded withers and sloping shoulders. Strong backs link to well-developed loins and a sloping croup with a low set tail.
Clean, straight legs with long thigh bones, elastic pasterns, and well-shaped hooves promote soundness. Hooves are usually white or striped. Knabstruppers should have naturally balanced, energetic, and rhythmic movement with good self-carriage, lift, and joint flexion.
The Knabstrupper’s spotted coat colour is the breed’s defining characteristic. The breed carries the same leopard complex responsible for spotted patterns in Appaloosas. 
Common spotting variations in Knabstruppers include:
- Leopard spot
- Near leopard
- Spotted blanket
- White blanket
- Frosted hip
Solid-coloured horses are only permitted to breed with horses displaying Knabstrupper colouration. Grey and pinto stallions are not eligible for approval with the KNN.
Spotted stallions displaying undesirable traits sometimes associated with the leopard complex gene, including wall eye and rat tail traits, are also ineligible.
Knabstruppers are well-known for their good temperaments. These horses are generally calm, intelligent, and cooperative equine partners. Most owners find their horses are kind, willing, and friendly with people.
Because Knabstruppers often have quieter temperaments than other warmbloods, they make excellent sport horses for timid riders. The breed is also generally suitable for beginner riders. Like all horses, they need consistent and appropriate training to encourage good behaviour.
Modern knabstruppers are primarily bred for use as sports horses. The breed excels in the English disciplines of dressage, show jumping, and eventing. However, their docile temperaments also make them enjoyable pleasure mounts.
Many Knabstrupper owners are drawn to the breed because they desire horses that will stand out from the crowd and make an impression in the show ring. These spotted horses can even hold their own against the purpose-bred warmbloods that dominate high-performance arenas.
Baroque Knabstruppers are popular for driving disciplines. Some of these horses also show off their trainability and versatility performing with circuses.
Knabstruppers are susceptible to a similar range of health issues as the warmblood breeds that played a role in their development. Additionally, this breed is prone to inherited disorders linked to the genes they share with Appaloosas.
Research shows a link between the leopard complex gene found in Knabstruppers and Appaloosas and an increased risk of equine recurrent uveitis. ERU is a leading cause of blindness in horses, and is characterized by inflammation in the uveal tract of the eye resulting in damage to ocular tissue. 
Knabstruppers with two copies of the leopard complex gene are affected by congenital stationary night blindness. These horses cannot see in low-light conditions and have an increased risk of injuring themselves in the dark. 
Genetic studies have also identified the gene responsible for warmblood fragile foal syndrome in Knabstruppers. This autosomal recessive disorder causes hyperextensible connective tissue and abnormally delicate skin in affected foals. 
Like all horses, Knabstruppers are also prone to health issues related to elevated stress levels and improper management. Since many Knabstruppers engage in performance careers involving frequent travel and competition, they face a higher risk of gastric ulceration and respiratory issues linked to long-distance trailering. 
Sport horses training for competition also have a higher risk of developing degenerative joint disease due to the increased wear and tear on their musculoskeletal system. These horses are also susceptible to athletic injuries, such as tendon or ligament tears, but proper care can help manage these risks. 
Care and Management
To ensure their physical and mental well-being, Knabstruppers require the same high-quality basic care as all other horse breeds.
Routine farrier care plays an important role in maintaining the Knabstrupper’s distinct striped hooves. Frequent trimming to enhance hoof balance prevents excess loading on distal limb structures and promotes optimal movement in sport horses. 
Knabstruppers usually display large patches of white hair and pink skin across their bodies. These areas are vulnerable to sunburn and require UV protection (i.e. sunscreen and fly gear) to safeguard the delicate skin. The presence of white hair also necessitates thorough daily grooming to keep your horse’s coat clean.
Competition horses are often housed in stables, but long periods of stall confinement increase stress and contribute to stereotypic behaviours. Providing adequate turnout can help keep stalled horses happy and healthy. 
However, unrestricted turnout on grass pasture may not be suitable for Knabstruppers. High sugar and starch levels in grass can contribute to metabolic problems in the breed. If your Knabstrupper lives outdoors, consider offering turnout in a dry lot with low-NSC hay provided through a slow feeder.
While Knabstruppers are not prone to hot behaviour due to excess energy, this athletic breed thrives in training programs with regular exercise. A well-designed training program helps Knabstruppers maintain a healthy weight and allows these friendly horses to bond with their humans.
Knabstrupper horses should be provided with a balanced feeding program that meets their nutritional requirements and supports their athletic demands without contributing to excess weight gain.
Working with an equine nutritionist to formulate your horse’s feeding plan can help you support their optimal performance and health.
Knabstruppers are easy keepers with an efficient metabolism. These warmbloods can gain weight quickly when fed energy-dense forages and concentrates, increasing the risk of obesity. Easy weight gain can be a sign of metabolic syndrome. The high insulin levels found in metabolic syndrome causes laminitis.
Knabstruppers experiencing difficulties in maintaining weight on a balanced diet might have an underlying digestive health issue. Contact your veterinarian to investigate potential medical causes for any unexpected weight loss.
The following sample diet is intended for a mature 500 kg (1100 lb) Knabstrupper horse with normal body condition at maintenance (not exercising).
|Feed||Amount per day|
|Mid-Quality Hay (8% crude protein)||Free-choice|
|Salt||30 g (2 tbsp)|
|Omneity Pellets||200 g (2 scoops)|
|Digestible Energy (% of Req)||101%|
|Protein (% of Req)||142%|
|NSC (% Diet)||8.8%|
This feeding plan includes Mad Barn’s Omneity vitamin and mineral supplement to provide essential nutrients that are commonly lacking in the equine diet. Adding Omneity to your horse’s diet ensures they get nutrients required to support hoof health, metabolic function, the immune system and more. 
Omneity is a concentrated grain-free supplement that distinguishes itself from commercial ration balancers by not containing any added sugars. This makes it an excellent choice for easy keeper horses, such as Knabstruppers.
Forage should provide the majority of the caloric energy and protein required in the equine diet. Feeding a forage-based diet not only promotes good digestive health in Knabstruppers but also reduces the risk of stereotypical behaviors in these horses.
Horses should consume about 2% of their body weight in forage daily on a dry-matter basis. This is equivalent to 10 kg (22 pounds) of hay per day for the average 500 kg (1,100 pound) Knabstrupper. Like other easy keepers, this breed does well on average-quality, low-starch hay.
Forages with high levels of sugar and starch increase the risk of laminitis in horses prone to metabolic disorders. Providing an average-quality hay in a slow feeder hay net allows you to give your horse free-choice access to forage without contributing excess energy or starch to the diet. 
Knabstruppers often consume too many calories with unrestricted access to pasture grass. Grazing muzzles can help reduce grass consumption while providing free-choice forage to horses turned out on pasture. Horses with metabolic syndrome are prone to developing laminitis on pasture, especially with early growth in the spring or with fall regrowth.
Alfalfa hay serves as an excellent forage-based protein source for Knabstruppers in heavy work. Feeding a blend of alfalfa and grass hay will help you meet the energy and protein requirements of exercising horses while mitigating the potential mineral imbalances associated with consuming large quantities of alfalfa alone.  Horses with a history of endocrinopathic laminitis may become footsore on alfalfa.
Forage-only diets can meet the energy and protein requirements of most Knabstruppers in light work. However, hay is typically deficient in key vitamins and trace minerals, including:
- Vitamin E
- Selenium (in some geographic locations
A concentrated vitamin and mineral supplement can help fortify the diet without adding unnecessary calories.
Horses in heavy work may benefit from easily fermentable fibre like beet pulp or added fat supplements. Fat is a safer source of concentrated calories for horses at risk of digestive and metabolic problems than starch.  However, the safety of high fat diets for horses with metabolic syndrome has not been established.
Fresh water and plain loose salt should be available to horses at all times. Providing constant access to water not only prevents dehydration but also supports gut motility and overall well-being in Knabstruppers.
Adding 1-2 tablespoons of salt to your horse’s daily ration also stimulates thirst and encourages hydration. Horses typically require loose salt added to their diets to meet their sodium requirements, even if they have access to a salt block.
To prevent hindgut issues and metabolic dysfunction, avoid grain-based concentrates. Instead, opt for soaked hay pellets or beet pulp as a high-fibre carrier for supplements. If feeding commercial grain, research shows splitting daily rations into multiple small meals can reduce digestive health risks. 
When developing a feeding plan for your Knabstrupper horse, the first priority is to provide a balanced diet with adequate energy, fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Once your horse’s diet is balanced, you can consider adding nutraceutical supplements to support performance and individual health needs.
Mad Barn’s W-3 Oil is an omega-3 fatty acid supplement that contains microalgal DHA and high levels of natural Vitamin E. DHA has been shown to support immune function, skin health, cardiovascular function, joint function and more in horses.
Knabstrupper horses that participate in competitions and frequently travel often benefit from additional gut health support to deal with the elevated risk of gastric ulcers. Mad Barn’s Visceral+ is a comprehensive gut health supplement formulated with probiotics, yeast, herbs, minerals, and amino acids to support stomach and hindgut health in horses.
MSM is an effective joint supplement commonly fed to performance horses. This natural compound helps maintain healthy cartilage in Knabstruppers by providing nutrients required to support connective tissue.
Your Knabstrupper may benefit from additional nutritional supplements depending on their individual management and health concerns. You can submit your Knabstrupper’s diet for a free evaluation by our qualified equine nutritionists to see what is missing from your horse’s feeding program.
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