WHAT IS A WARMBLOOD?
- Martha Utley Aitken © 1999
Warmbloods have been in existence in Europe for the past three hundred years or more. However, they have enjoyed a tremendous rise in popularity in the United States in particular in the past twenty years. Worldwide, in the past ten to fifteen years just about every world title in jumping, eventing, dressage and driving has gone to a Warmblood.
In the past, the United States teams in international competition have ridden Thoroughbreds. Today most of the competitive horses are Warmbloods or Warmblood crosses. We are all familiar with the word Warmblood, but what is a Warmblood?
Let's begin by discussing what is not a Warmblood. A Warmblood is not a cross of a coldblood, i.e., a draft, on a hotblood. The usual cross in the United States is a Percheron or a Shire or a Belgian or a Clydesdale on a Thoroughbred or an Arabian or a Saddlebred. This creates a crossbreed, not a Warmblood. Now before everyone jumps up and throws rotten tomatoes at me, let me continue.
A Warmblood was begun as a crossbreed. Then these crossbreeds were selectively bred to bring out the characteristics that were desired. This evolution did not occur overnight but over many years. Each generation of a horse represents four or more years. The horses were originally bred to be used in war, agriculture or transportation. They were refined to suit the tastes of the rich. The breeds were named after a region were they were developed, such as Holstein, Hanoverian, Westphalen, Oldenburg, Bavarian, or country of origin, such as Danish, Dutch, Selle Francais, Swedish and so on. Purity of blood was not the top priority but rather creating a type for a given performance, and above all it was to be a symbol of the owner's wealth, power and prestige.
In the 1500s, aristocrats preferred breeds similar to today's Lipizzans, Andalusians and Friesians who excelled in the art of manege or school riding. These horses had upright necks, low hindquarters and high knee action. War was very real and frequent as dynasties quarreled over boundaries and possessions. Soldiers had to have horses who were thrifty, had great stamina, but which were very tractable and willing to obey. Each state competed to have its own distinctive type of horse since the potential for profit and fame was so evident.
The states selected only the best specimens for their studs and they offered the use of these stallions to local farmers and wealthy owners. The state stallions influenced the type horses produced in that area, plus it assured a steady supply of good quality horses for the cavalry and for riding or driving.
As many states and countries were linked by marriage, bloodstock was exchanged. Through spoils of war, horses were captured and introduced as new blood in the studs. In the 18th century improved methods of breeding began. Thoroughbreds and Arabians were used to improve the breeds. Standards of quality were established and judges began to select the best specimens. Stallions and mares were culled from the gene pool for undesirable traits. Thoroughbred stallions were then, as they are today, the most important infusions in the breeding lines. The Arabians used were neither the desert Arabian type nor the show performance type that we see today but probably were like the Shagya with traits similar to the modern sport horse. The cross would maintain the substance and ability of the original European Warmblood but would refine the traits to be even more agile and appealing to the eye.
The Olympic Games added equestrian events in 1912. Cavalry officers in the military dominated the events for the next thirty years. The Germans excelled in show-jumping and the Swedish excelled in dressage. Then Europe found itself embroiled in World War II. Although mechanization had come about, over 800,000 German horses were used during the war. After the war, during the occupation by the conquering nations, Warmblood breeding at the studs continued, although on a much reduced rate. Then the equestrian sport events began again and European horses dominated the winning circle. Now new standards had to be met because the heavy horse used for transportation was gone forever. A more refined riding horse with agility and ability in the competitive equestrian sports had to be developed. Horses who failed to meet these new breed standards for a sport horse were culled and sent to slaughter. A new lighter horse with a heavy infusion of Thoroughbred blood was born.
The exception to this trend was the Trakehner, who has always maintained a closed book. The Trakehner was developed through the years to have thriftiness, stamina and trainability, but was more elegant and stylish because they were the mounts for the officers in the military. The horses had to look the part in a garrison parade as well as in the battlefield. As might be predicted, they were a higher strung horse and perhaps a bit difficult for the average rider. Only Arabian and Thoroughbred blood was accepted into the studbook and this rule remains in effect today.
After World War I mechanization came about and most coach horses were replaced with motorized vehicles. Horses were needed for agricultural work and a bit for harness use. These horses had longer backs, shorter croups and were a heavier type of Warmblood.
Because the other breeds were willing and able to exchange breeding stock and to infuse outside blood the transition to the modern sport horse was made rapidly. Studs actively promoted their horses in their country and abroad. By 1970, Germany had fielded prominent equestrian teams. The number of private breeders multiplied each year. By the late 1970s, dressage fever began to spread across America. There was a steady stream of Warmbloods being brought to the United States. Regrettably many of the horses were the large less refined types who were loosing favor in Europe. Today, sport horses - Warmbloods - are big business. Competition among the breeds is keen. Promotion is sophisticated.
It is quite difficult to tell the difference between the breeds by looking at the horse or its pedigree. The same bloodlines are found in many of the breeds. A breed name is rather like a passport. It denotes origin of birth rather than bloodlines so stallions appear in more than one studbook. Today many of the European Warmblood registries have parallel registries in the United States; however, registration in the United States registry does not admit a horse to the European studbook. They are separate entities.
To help establish the Warmblood in the United States, the American Warmblood Registry was created more than twenty years ago by Sonja Lowenfish, a German by birth, who had the extraordinary vision to see that horses in America needed their own identity. Warmbloods born in America should be called and registered as American Warmbloods. She set up the American Warmblood Registry to parallel its European cousins as a means to grade carefully selected horses into the studbook. American breeds who stem from Warmbloods were eligible as well as the European counterparts. These American breeds include the American Morgan Horse, American Saddlebred, American Quarter Horse, American Paint Horse and Appaloosa. These breeds were a blend of European horses brought to the United States in colonial days. Each breed was then refined to suit the type needed for the job. Today sport horse enthusiasts are selecting superior individuals of these horses for dressage, jumping, eventing and driving. It is not unusual to see Appaloosas, Saddlebreds, Paints, Quarter Horses and Morgans entered in sport horse events. With the new sport of reining, even more American Warmbloods will be recognized. Qualifications are numerous and inspections are rigorous. American Warmblood judges are trained in England, Germany and the United States. The qualifications are extensive and entail a great deal of study in addition to classroom and on site judging. Inspections are held across the country in the fall, with several teams of judges available to fly to the inspection sites.
In the competition arena, eventing and show jumping are very popular; however, dressage is the fastest growing discipline worldwide, followed by a rapidly increasing number of competitive driving horses. Warmbloods prevail in all of these disciplines; however, more and more breeders are seeing the lucrative side of sport horse. Many breeds are now actively promoting the sport horse disciplines in their shows and the award programs.
Today, the look of the Warmblood is again changing. No longer is bigger better. Instead the most desirable horse is rarely taller than 16.2 hands. An effort by the European registries is being made to breed for a horse who stands 15.3 to 16.2 hands. The reason is simple: the 17 to 18 hand horse is difficult to control and maneuver in the dressage and jumping arenas. Most riders in the show ring are female. Smaller riders with shorter legs are more suited to a smaller horse. It is not surprising that the change is being made. To accommodate the child or small adult rider, a Sport Pony registry is also maintained in Europe and the United States. The American Warmblood Registry has an American Sport Pony division. It includes any purebred or crossbred pony who can meet the grading requirements of the horse registry. Only the height specifications are different.
Warmblood sport horses will continue to change as tastes and needs change. American Warmblood sport horses will become more distinctive. In the years to come it will become a formidable competitive horse, bred for an attractive look, tractability, athletic ability, trainability and stamina. While cross-bred European bloodstock on American breeds prevails today; in time, this will be replaced with purebred bloodstock. The American Saddlebred is known worldwide as a high-stepping set-tail traditional show horse. Many breeders are now seeing that the five-gaited horse is a versatile power house and loves to jump with many others excelling in dressage, eventing, endurance, competitive trail and driving. We are on the threshold of a whole new exciting breed, a Warmblood created in America - the American Warmblood.
Wallen, Kidd, & Clarke, 1995. The International Warmblood Horse, The Kenilworth Press, Addington, Buckingham, Great Britain.
Strickland, Charlene, 1992. The Warmblood Guidebook. Half Halt Press Inc., Middletown, MD.
United States Dressage Federation, 1998. USDF Dressage Sport Horse Breeding Class Guidelines, USDF, Lincoln, NE.
Loving, N. S., DVM, 1997. Conformation and Performance, Breakthrough Publications, Ossining, NY.
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