Although recognised as a breed, the development of the Oldenburg has been driven much more by pragmatism than by pedigree. Unlike many traditional warmbloods the Oldenburg has always been bred using privately-owned mares and stallions, rather than those at state-owned stud farms, which has traditionally given breeders much more freedom in terms of importing horses to improve the breed.
The Oldenburg area was once a Grand Duchy in its own right and is now part of Lower Saxony in modern Germany. The area is known for its heavy soil and equally heavy rainfall, often accompanied by strong wind. As a result of this, local horses tended to be small and sturdy. It’s no coincidence that Oldenburg is close to the Friesian area, home to Friesian horses. In the 16th century Count Johann XVI began to import refined horses from abroad to create a finer animal suitable for use as a quality carriage horse. His work was continued by his son Count Anton Gunther, who not only imported some of the best stallions available at the time but also made them available to other breeders. The 18th Century saw the start of stallion inspections, which not only ensured that only the best animals were kept for breeding, but also brought them to the attention of mare owners and helped them to find the right pairings. Steadily the Oldenburg established itself as a luxury breed, being used much more as a carriage horse than as a practical farm animal, although its strength made it equally capable of work in the fields. As breeding of Oldenburgs was outside government hands, the breeders were essentially at liberty to import and export horses as they saw fit. As a result, many Oldenburgs spent their lives abroad, while foreign horses were regularly brought to Germany to improve the breed and ensure that it stayed at the top of the market.
Of course the 20th century saw a massive change in the market for horses as work animals found themselves largely replaced by machines. Fortunately Oldenburg breeders were quick to respond to this and to refresh the breed so that instead of it being an outstanding carriage horse, it became an outstanding riding horse. This essentially meant lightening the breed and sacrificing a degree of strength for speed and elegance. While a number of Thoroughbred stallions were used in this process, one of the most influential of the improver stallions was Condor, who was Anglo-Norman. The quality of his progeny encouraged Oldenburg breeders to look to French stallions rather than German or British ones, although Trakehners did play a small role in the modernization of the breed. With improvements in transport and the use of artificial insemination, Oldenburg breeders can now, literally, take their pick from the best stallions in the world to fulfil their aim of consistently producing the very best horses to satisfy the most discerning and demanding of buyers. Their success is reflected in the price which the breed can command, even for the geldings which have been taken out of the breeding programme due to failing the performance test.
Although they are classed as a breed, the Oldenburg does not have any breed conformation standards as such. Oldenburgs are judged by what they can do rather than what they look like. In fact the Oldenburg stud book is arguably the most liberal of all warmblood stud books in that they accept horses of any colour, even for breeding. That said, most Oldenburgs are whole coloured. They typically stand between 16HH and 17.2HH since they are intended for use in modern equestrian competitions where height is often an advantage. There is a significant degree of flexibility as regards the rest of their appearance although by definition they are all bred to fulfil the concept of a contemporary sports horse, which means that they tend to be long-legged, muscular and with powerful quarters. Some horses lean more towards the qualities required for dressage (lightness, elegance and flexibility), while others are bred more with jumping in mind (speed, power and athleticism), while others are meant to be all-rounders. Ultimately a horse is considered an Oldenburg if the breed society decides that its performance justifies the definition, which means the only absolutely consistent feature of their appearance, is the official brand.
This is an area where prospective buyers need to do their research carefully. Temperament is one of the criteria used in the performance tests used to determine whether or not a horse qualifies for the Oldenburg brand. Because of this, it is in the highest degree unlikely that any buyer will ever come across a truly ill-natured or otherwise rogue horse. At the same time, Oldenburgs vary widely in terms of their suitability for amateur riders. Horses which compete at the very highest levels may be perfectly friendly in the stable but they also tend to have independent natures and need top-class riders to get the best out of them. As all athletes need to have an attacking attitude and the bravery to overcome challenges, these equine athletes may simply be too much for even experienced amateurs to handle. Oldenburg breeders are, however, renowned for their pragmatism and are well aware that there is an extensive market for good amateur competition horses, which means that there are a number of Oldenburgs available who are perfectly suitable for experienced, non-professional riders. It is, however, unlikely that they would be suitable for novices or those with only a small degree of experience.
An added bonus to the use of a wide range of stallions (and mares) is that the Oldenburg benefits from a wide gene pool and is therefore known as being healthy and sound as well as long-lived.
Caring for a Oldenburg
Oldenburg care requirements are essentially in line with what would be expected of a sports horse. Prospective owners should, however, give consideration to the fact that Oldenburgs are a long-lived breed and can continue to be ridden as hacks for a long time after they have stopped competing and can enjoy retirement even after they can no longer be ridden. They will need to decide how best to manage this.
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