While the pretty Haflinger may sound like it comes from Middle Earth, its ancestral home is actually in the mountains of southern Austria. This historic breed nearly disappeared in the 20th Century, but is now thriving again.


There are two competing theories regarding the creation of the Haflinger breed. One is that they are descendants of horses left behind by Goths fleeing an invasion of Byzantine troops. The other is that they are descended from a stallion given as a wedding gift by Louis IV Holy Roman Emperor to his son upon the latter’s marriage to a Tyrolean Countess. There may be truth in both theories since the Byzantine invasion was around the middle of the 6th century while the marriage of Margrave Louis of Brandenburg to Margaret, Countess of Tyrol was in 1342. Notwithstanding this, the horse credited as the founding father of the Haflinger breed was a stallion called 249 Folie, who was born in 1874. Today one of the requirements for registration as a Haflinger is that an animal must be able to trace its ancestry back to him. Therefore the formal creation of the Haflinger breed can be traced back to the village of Hafling in the late 19th century. Understanding the history of the Haflinger in the 20th century starts with understanding the geography of its homeland. At the beginning of the 20th century the Haflinger’s home was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which, as its name suggests, was comprised mostly of what are now the separate countries of Austria and Hungary as well as what is now the Italian Tyrol. After World War One, Hungary gained its independence and Austria was forced to cede the South Tyrol to Italy. This unfortunately resulted in most of the broodmares being located on the South side of the new border with most of the quality stallions in the North. Bad feeling between the two countries meant that there was no real effort made to resolve this situation. Instead the Italians renamed the breed the Avelignese and made do with breeding from Haflinger stallions which would never have been considered as sires before the split and cross-breeding with a variety of other breeds. The Austrians meanwhile preferred cross-breeding to using lower-quality mares and worked to import broodmares from abroad, particularly from Italy. Somewhat ironically the growing ties between Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany helped to make this process easier, particularly when the German military started to take an interest in the breed as pack animals. The post-war years were devastating for the breed as many fine breeding animals, which had survived the devastation of the war were slaughtered for food. Those which were left were bred with lower-quality animals or cross-bred with other breeds until some feared the breed would simply disappear. Over 1946 and 1947 however there was a substantial push made to undo the damage of earlier years and crucially the Swiss were included in this and became fundamental to the renaissance of the breed. The Haflinger also benefitted from some very effective marketing which helped them gain popularity in the crucial market for recreational riding horses.


Haflingers are very distinctive in appearance. To begin with they are always chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail. The specific shade of chestnut can vary from a dark chestnut to being almost palamino. The breed standard calls for animals between 13.2HH and 15HH although today larger animals are preferred and some discretion may be exercised to allow animals of 15HH to be entered into the breed registry. Physically the Haflinger is probably best described as being a light and refined cob. The refinement is particularly noted in the face, which strongly suggests a historical Arab influence in the breed. One of the reasons Haflingers are popular as dressage ponies for children is because they have beautiful movement showing natural lightness and balance as well as grace and energy.


Another reason why Haflingers are popular as children’s ponies is because they are known for their excellent temperaments. In fact the breed societies rate this as so important that it is assessed as part of the grading process for inclusion in the breed registry. The fact that Haflingers are gentle and friendly makes them ideal mounts for children and novices, but experiences riders will find plenty to like about the breed too. The breed is intelligent and athletic and the animals acquit themselves well in most forms of competition. Some breed registries now allow cross-breeding again and Haflinger crosses have produced good results for adult riders. They are excellent driving horses with Prince Phillip owning a team of them in the 1970s.

Haflinger Health

The one major point to note is that Haflingers do not do well in conditions of extreme heat. This is why attempts to use them as pack horses for the Indian military proved unsuccessful. While this is unlikely to prove a significant problem in the UK’s climate those living in areas where there can be short periods of extreme heat will need to be prepared to give them shelter from it. Additionally Haflinger owners will need to remember that Haflingers are good doers, which means they need to be constantly monitored for signs of putting on excess weight and laminitis (which is often first noticed as stiffness or lameness, possibly with heat in the hoof). Otherwise they are robust animals and generally free from genetic disorders.

Caring for a Haflinger

In terms of practical care, Haflingers are low-maintenance animals. They can happily live out for most of the year and can work hard on minimal food. It is important to remember, however, that horses, such as Haflingers, which are bred to have people-friendly temperaments need to feel wanted by people in order to be happy. This means that in addition to ensuring Haflingers get plenty of turn-out time with other horses, owners do need to be prepared to give them plenty of quality time with humans too. This means that even if they are not being exercised, visits should be more than just a quick check that they are OK.

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