If you picture a “blond pony”, that’s a Haflinger. Even though it’s technically a horse.
Like many an equine breed it’s been tweaked, vetted and interbred over the years, and one thing’s for certain: this sturdy little mountain dweller is as hardy as it is handy.
Its story begins with mediaeval whispers of Oriental horses roaming the Austrian and Italian Alps. One theory is that they were probably stragglers from the 6th century when the Byzantines drove out the Ostrogoths. Alternatively, the breed was the direct result of German king Louis IV’s Burgundian stallion, a birthday gift for his son, getting a bit too friendly with some mares of Oriental lineage.
Regardless, the first horse to officially carry the name “Haflinger”, after the South Tyrolean town of origin, wasn’t born until 1874.
Known as “Folie”, he had a “refined” and apparently nameless Tyrolean mother, but his half-Arabian father more than made up for the lack of name by being called El’ Bedavi XXII.
From Folie then sprung a total of seven stallion bloodlines, A, B, M, N, S, ST, and W, and if you want your horse in the Haflinger club, it needs to be traced back to one of them. Due to the uniqueness of its strain, the A-line is considered the most important, but it very nearly died out. To be fair, there were more pressing concerns during and after the Second World War.
The long way back
Breeding the Haflinger from a light but tough mountain horse into a small, square army packhorse was the way to go for several years, but once the war was over, business could resume as usual. Well, as much as possible after a world war, and the Haflinger was faced with a couple of problems too.
Traditionally used for lugging wood, carts and other cargo over the slopes, it found itself shafted more and more by machines, and it had also lost its way genetically. Fortunately it seemed to have kept its usual calm, patient and loyal temperament, likely honed over generations of working with the elderly and children up in the mountains, to the point that we thought “this adorably friendly horse would also make a great pet/show animal”. Thanks to our rekindled desire for the previous form, and the 1921 Tyrolean Association Studbook, it eventually reverted back to type. Well, the incredibly strict breeding requirements probably helped too.
Seriously, below is only part of point No. 7 in the “body structure” checklist of the Tyrolean Haflinger Horse Breeders Association:
…The limbs should be in a straight position if seen from behind. From the side the front leg should be straight and the ankle of the hind leg should be at an angle of about 150° with a straight toe axis of about 45° to 50° to the floor.
and this is only one of three points from the “movement” section:
Desired are correct, supple and expansive gaits (step 4-beats, trot 2-beats, gallop 3-beats).
Breeding a horse that’s up to muster is therefore no mean feat, and shipping stallions around the world can be expensive and stressful, resulting in many stud farms throwing up their arms and just ordering the frozen semen. So it’s not always a case of putting Mr. and Mrs. Haflinger in a field and letting nature take its course. For the Slovenian Haflinger, even that wasn’t the ideal option.
Too close to home?
Potočnik et al.’s study in 2009 highlighted how, due to a lack of mares, Slovenia’s Haflingers were dying out, and that inbreeding was a serious problem.
Since brood stallions tended to stay on the same farm for several seasons, they ended up mating with the same group of mares with a common ancestor each time, often because the breeder preferred to set them up with the local talent. The only thing more local than that would be a clone, and in 2003, in the Italian town of Cremona, that went from hypothetical to literal.
That’s right – the world’s first cloned horse was a Haflinger. Out of 841 embryos created from a mare and an Arabian thoroughbred stallion, 21 survived past a week, of which just four were successfully implanted, and at the end of it all, only Prometea, born to her genetically identical surrogate mother, was left standing. But you’ll be pleased to know not all genetic meddling happens within the cold and clinical confines of a lab.
The border between Bhutan and Tibet was closed in 1959, and within twenty years, the local Bhotia ponies had begun to show signs of inbreeding. To bolster their numbers and introduce healthier genes, Haflinger horses were imported into the mix. While they at least widened the dating pool, their crossbred offspring weren’t quite as sure-footed as expected for a mountain breed. Hey, nobody’s perfect, and sometimes they need our help clearing up a mess we made. Like with the Bisbinos.
That’s mighty generous of you
When their owner died in 2001, a herd of Haflingers was abandoned in the Bisbino mountains between Italy and Switzerland.
Eventually becoming feral, the horses happily roamed the slopes until the winter of 2008-2009, when bitterly cold weather and a metre of snow was dumped on them. Starving, the herd split into two, one ending up in the Italian town of Rovenna, and the other the Swiss town of Sagno, helping themselves to food left out for livestock or respectfully laid on people’s graves.
Local reactions were less than stellar, with waving guns, offers of slaughter (Haflinger is one breed of horse eaten in the region) or calls to drive them off a cliff. One poor stallion met such a fate, and one or two over-friendly foals mysteriously disappeared as well.
Fortunately, a group of volunteers from both sides of the border clubbed together to protect them, and now the horses can safely run free near Monte Generoso, with some human back-up in winter if needed.
It’s good to hear that a horse with such a closely monitored and rigid genetic line also gets some help when it goes off-piste.
Latin: Equus caballus (domestic horse)
What? Blonde, pony-like horse breed originally from the European Alps.
Where? Domestic stables worldwide, with a few scattered feral populations.
How big? Between 1.38 and 1.5 metres / 4.6 and 4.9 feet at the shoulder.
Endangered? Nope, it’s a very popular (and tightly controlled) international domestic breed.
Probable motto: My breed’s more badass than it looks. No wonder you want to keep it going.
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
I’m sure there are plenty of horse welfare charities local to you that would welcome your time. However, if you want to throw some love towards the semi-feral Bisbino bunch, you can here:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Bhattacharya, Shaoni. 2003. “World’s first cloned horse is born“. New Scientist.
Connor, Steve. 2003.”World’s first cloned horse is born from her sister’s womb“. The Independent.
Fitzpatrick, Andrea. 2016. “The ultimate guide to horse breeds“. Chartwell Books.
Gregory, Neville G. 2007. “Animal welfare and meat production“, 2nd edition. CABI.
“Haflinger“. No date. International Museum of the Horse.
“Haflinger horse museum“. No date. Jenesien San Genesio.
“Haflinger horses in Australia“. No date. Australian Haflinger Horse Breeders Association.
“History of the Haflinger breed“. No date. Tyrolean Haflinger Breeding Association.
“The history of the Haflinger horse“. No date. The Haflinger Society of Great Britain.
Lamoot, Indra, and Hoffmann, Maurice. 2004. “Do season and habitat influence the behaviour of Haflinger mares in a coastal dune area?” Belgian Journal of Zoology 134(2/1):97-103.
Porter, Valerie et al. 2016. “Mason’s world encyclopedia of livestock breeds and breeding“. CABI.
Potočnik, Klemen et al. 2009. “Analysis of inbreeding in Slovenian Haflinger population“, Italian Journal of Animal Science 8(sup3):128-130.
“Viewpoint: the horses of Bisbino“. 2016. Italia! Italy Travel and Life.
Featured image credit: ID 135574593 © Karoline Thalhofer | Dreamstime.com