The Haflinger is a hardworking, versatile little horse with an easy-going disposition. Originating from the Tyrolean region of southern Austria and northern Italy, these useful horses still work on small farms deep in the Alpine mountains. Keep reading to find out everything you wanted to know about the Haflinger horse breed!
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Origins and History
The Haflinger breed has a long and important history for the people of Austria and Italy, and their popularity has spread to other countries in Europe and even the United States. There are a few theories about the exact origins of these golden horses.
- After the fall of Conza in 555 AD, Eastern Goth troops may have abandoned their horses in the Tyrolean valleys of Austria and Northern Italy while fleeing from the Byzantine empire. These horses likely had Arabian and Barb breeding, and they spent time mingling with the little mountain horses that already lived there. This interbreeding would explain the Haflinger’s refined characteristics.
- The Holy Roman Emperor Louis the IV sent his son a stallion as a wedding present to celebrate his nuptials in to the Princess of Tyrol in 1342. It is believed that this stallion from the Kingdom of Burgundy could have been one of the ancestors of the Haflinger breed.
- They may also be descended from forest horses of the middle ages. Hardy and small, they can survive in even the toughest mountain conditions, suggesting hardy wild ancestors. There are records of “light mountain ponies” from the Etsch Valley in 1282 that could be the answer to the Haflinger’s history.
Nobody knows for certain which theory is correct. Officially, the Haflinger breed began in Hafling, a village in the Etschlander Mountains of Austria (then Austria-Hungary).
In 1874, a golden stallion named Folie was born at the state stud farm in South Tyrol. All modern Haflingers can trace their pedigrees back to him through seven foundational stallion lines.
Inbreeding and specific environmental factors cemented the Haflinger’s chestnut coat, small and stocky stature, and light mane and tail.
Influence from World War I and World War II
Like many other European horse breeds, the first and second World Wars changed the Haflinger from a light mountain pony to a heavier draft-type breed.
The interruptions in breeding programs was detrimental to the overall quality of the horses, as colts as young as two were taken for military service. This left only yearlings as potential future breeding stallions. It’s difficult to tell how well a horse will perform in the future when he’s still just a baby himself.
Soon after the World War II, a closed studbook was created. Breeders once again began focusing on refinement and versatility for their scrappy little chestnut horses.
In 1958, they first arrived in America at a breeding farm in Wadsworth, Illinois. They have maintained status as a popular American breed ever since. Today, it is estimated that there are over 250,000 Haflingers around the globe, popular in over 60 countries.
Purebred Haflinger horses are inspected and judged based on their quality, conformation, way of moving and temperament. These strict breeding practices help to maintain high standards for the breed, so that it may have a continued legacy into the future.
For a foal to be registered with the American Haflinger Registry, both parents must be at least 3 years old at the time the foal was conceived, and they must each have a proven pedigree that extends at least six generations. And, only one animal out of these 6 generations may be of non-Haflinger stock (or around 1% of the foal’s DNA).
The Haflinger registries in Europe and the United States have an unusual naming requirement.
New foals are named the traditional way: male foals must share the first letter of their name with their sire, and female foals must share the same first letter of their name with their dam. There are only 7 different stallion lines – A, B, M, N, S, ST, and W. In this way, it is easy to see what line a male foal is descended from.
Haflingers are registered once as yearlings, but then have to pass an inspection before they can be registered as breeding stock. This happens around three years of age.
Confusion between the Haflinger and the Avelignese
The Haflinger is often referred to by its Italian name, the Avelignese. The town of Hafling in Northern Italy where the Haflinger breed was born, is called Avelengo in Italian.
Some sources suggest that they are in fact two separate breeds, but the evidence for this is tenuous. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists the Avelignese Tradizionale as a rare local breed on the critical breeds list. This suggests that there are fewer than 100 breeding females and 5 breeding males left in the world as of 2007. (source)
These horses are apparently very similar in appearance to Haflingers, except they are usually heavier-boned and stockier. The breed is more of a draft type, or an “old type” Haflinger. However, most sources list the Avelignese as just another name for the Haflinger horse.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t breeders in Italy working with what is called the Avelignese breed, but they are much rarer than the Haflinger – and most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
As the breed developed high in the mountains, Haflingers were originally bred as agricultural and pack horses. Or, as one breeder put it, a Haflinger is “the tractor of the Alps.”
Families would keep their horses beneath their homes as a source of heat, and worked closely with them on the daily tasks required of small mountain farms.
Today, these versatile little horses are found in a variety of disciplines. They excel at light draft and harness work, but are also talented under saddle as well. Haflingers can be found in endurance, dressage, therapeutic riding programs, vaulting, pleasure riding, or even show jumping.
In Austria and Germany, they are still used as workhorses in rough terrain, carrying on the legacy of their ancestors.
Though they are smaller in stature, they are strong and have a quiet, trainable temperament. Haflingers are often popular in lesson programs and therapeutic riding programs – teaching both children and adults how to ride.
In Italy, where horse meat is eaten by people, some Haflingers are raised for meat. They also provide horse milk – a common beverage in Germany and other European countries.
The First Cloned Horse
In 2003, a Haflinger mare gave birth to her exact genetic match – a filly named Prometea. Scientists in Italy used a skin cell with the mare’s DNA, implanted it into an empty egg from another horse, and then implanted the embryo back into the mare.
Prometea’s birth marked the first time that a cloned mother gave birth to her own genetic material, a feat that was previously thought impossible due to the way the immune system recognizes the fetus. It was believed that the body wouldn’t recognize the clone as a separate individual, but Prometea’s birth disproved this theory.
The RSPCA cautions against animal cloning as it can cause undue suffering for the animals (the animals that provide empty eggs are usually deceased before they are obtained). However, Italy maintains that no animals suffered needlessly for the creation of Prometea, and she offers valuable information about the horse’s place in the cloning world.
Haflingers were bred to work closely with their families, living underneath the living quarters and spending every day working in the fields and forests.
They are generally willing, good-natured, quiet, and kind. In fact, breeding specifically for this excellent temperament became popular in the latter half of the twentieth century, and is a requirement of the official breed standards.
While Haflingers are generally easy-going and beginner-friendly, they can have a mind of their own. They are very strong for their size, and while they are not malicious, they can have a “pony attitude” with draft horse strength.
This makes them fun to ride (although they can also be infuriating), but also makes them excellent teachers. It’s hard to force a Haflinger to do anything! Thankfully, they are generally agreeable and willing to work with their human partners.
There are two types of Haflingers that differ slightly in appearance. A heavier draft-type horse is used for pack and agricultural work, and a lighter-boned leggier version is found in show jumping and dressage competitions.
In Austria, the Haflinger is sometimes described as “a prince up front, and a peasant behind” because they have handsome, refined faces and stocky powerful hindquarters.
The Haflinger breed standards provide a clear description of the breeds desired traits:
“A desirable appearance of the horse is one of elegance and harmony. To this belongs a lean and expressive head with large eyes, well-formed neck and supple mid-section, a good croup not too divided and not too short, a distinct musculature as well as correct, defined limbs with good joints. Stallions and mares for breeding should have clearly defined masculine or feminine features.”
This breed is elegant and refined, but hardworking and sturdy. This is a good combination for a variety of disciplines.
Haflingers are athletic and stocky, but should have an elegant presence too. Their conformation should reflect this.
- Head. Large, forward-pointing eyes and wide nostrils. Good flexion at the poll.
- Neck. Medium in length, slimmer towards the head and not too bulky.
- Body. Pronounced withers, deep chest, and a strong back of medium length. Hindquarters are well-muscled but not divided, and are long and slightly sloping.
- Legs. Clearly pronounced joints, broad and strong knee joints and hocks. Legs must be well-proportioned and have straight conformation. Hooves are small and hard.
Haflingers should also have good gaits – “correct, supple, and of pure rhythm without serious faults.” They must display good impulsion from the hindquarters, which is excellent for dressage.
Purebred Haflingers are evaluated at breed inspection events by a panel of judges when they’re around 3 years old. Temperament is just as important as correct conformation, and horses with a difficult nature are discouraged from breeding use just as if they possessed conformation faults.
Haflingers are often measured in inches, rather than hands. The ideal height for a Haflinger is between 54 and 60 inches at the withers, or 13.5 to 15 hands. They generally weigh between 600 and 1,000 pounds.
There are technically no restrictions on height in the breed standards, and any sized Haflinger may be registered. Exceptional individuals may be taller, but smaller horses are strongly discouraged from breeding.
Due to inbreeding during the early development of the breed, all Haflingers resemble their foundation stallion, Folie. Always chestnut, their coats come in a wide range of shades – from a rich gold to a dark chocolate. They have a flaxen or white mane and tail.
Haflingers may have small white markings on the face, but not to excess. White leg markings are also common and acceptable. Purebred Haflingers will also be discouraged from breeding if they have “impurities in the base color, as in roaning or black spots.”
Hardy and healthy, Haflingers can often live and work for much longer than other horse breeds. They mature slowly, and young horses in Austria often aren’t even started until they are 4 years old. Haflingers can still be found doing work until into their 30s and even 40s, when most horses need to be retired in their early to late 20s.
However, Haflingers are susceptible to a genetic disorder called Equine Degenerative Myeloencephalopathy, which causes ataxia and even death.
Overall though, Haflingers are healthy horses that are generally easy keepers, requiring less food to sustain them than other heavier breeds.
Due to their popularity in the United States, you can find a Haflinger for almost any budget. If you’re looking for a calm lesson horse or a foal to raise, there are horses available for $500 – $1,000. You can also find a well-trained show horse anywhere from $5,000 – $20,000, or even more.
Is a Haflinger right for you?
While Haflingers are great family horses with easy-going dispositions, they can sometimes be willful and stubborn. The odds are good that you can find a Haflinger that will be a good match for your needs, but take the time to get to know them!
Their personalities are endearing, and this sparkle is what makes the Haflinger stand out. If you’re looking for a pleasant, versatile, quirky, and strong little horse – consider a Haflinger!