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The majestic Knabstrupper

Dr Marna Smith, an animal scientist specialising in genetics and the owner of The Majestic Knabstrupper Stud, is obsessed with breeding the ‘perfect’ coloured sport horse. Marna imported South Africa’s first KNN-approved Knabstruppers from Denmark in 2011. Because Marna strongly believes in genetic diversity, she bought a young, baroque-type colt to fit two sport horse-type fillies, giving her an exceptional Knabstrupper lineage.

Majestic Fedora, a yearling filly at the young stock loose movement evaluation.

Breed specifications and evaluation

Knabstruppers may be spotted or a solid colour. They are friendly, expressive, clever, trusting and placid and aren’t easily fazed. The Knabstruppers come from a long line of dressage breeding and move very extravagantly. They are as good as Warmbloods at jumping and their rideability ratings are very high.

In Europe, performance testing has become very important as it enables a breeder to select for a certain trait. The more information available about a horse’s offspring and relatives, the more accurately the breeding value can be predicted for producing the required trait in his offspring. To receive a breeding license, Knabstruppers must pass a performance test, including rideability, dressage, jumping and endurance, as well as in-hand evaluation.

Sartor Pashmina, a seven-year-old mare performing a dressage test with rider Marna Smith.


As a breeder, in order to keep your horses registrable in the mother studbook, you have to have them inspected as young stock. Young stock is anything from a weanling or yearling to a two-year-old, which can’t be shown under saddle. If you want to breed from the young stock, you have to have them graded. Young stallions have to be pre-licenced to breed within a set period; they are then graded and can breed for about two years. Stallions who pass a full performance testing will receive a lifetime approval for breeding.

Knabstrupper judges were invited from Denmark to visit Johannesburg, the Overberg and the Swartland to evaluate South Africa’s Knabstruppers. It’s expensive for the breeders, as the judges’ airfares, accommodation and food must be paid for as well as the show fees for each horse, plus a registration fee for the venue. Marna’s show entries alone for eight horses cost R10,000. The Knabstrupper judges travel the world grading horses – creating a system that is objective and international, so that Knabstruppers can be compared, wherever they may be. This helps when importing a horse, as buyers know the quality, rideability and what discipline the horse is most suitable for, without even seeing him.

Marna tested three young stock and two mares for grading only, and two mares and one young stallion for grading and performance testing.

Time to Shine, a three-year-old filly performing a dressage test with test rider Michael Peiser.

Testing procedure

Young stock are tested so that buyers can already see what a youngster’s conformation, temperament and movement are like. The tests took place in July and after much consideration, Marna decided to give all the foals being graded a full body clip. The foals had such thick hair, that if she hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been possible for the judges to see the full definition of the foal’s legs or their proportions as well – which could have affected their scorings. Consequently Marna had to blanket and stable the foals until their coats grew back. The foals were also bathed and their manes plaited. It wasn’t compulsory to plait the foals, but it improves the presentation as it is easier to observe their conformation and topline.

Hard surface test

The first test for all the horses was on a hard surface. The judges looked from the front, back and sides to assess the straightness and quality of movement and to see how the horses handled on the halter. The horses were then taken to the arena and free lunged so that the quality of their movement could be judged at a walk, trot and canter. Marna also had a heavily pregnant mare who she only had graded up to this stage, as the other tests would have been too arduous in her condition.

When all the foals had completed the tests, the judges gave their evaluation. It’s unusual to get a premium foal, as they must score an average value of over eight out of 10 for all the tests. Breeders then know that they’ve got an exceptional foal. Marna was therefore really chuffed that all three of her foals were judged as being premiums. Marna only breeds two or three foals a year, as she concentrates on quality rather than quantity.

Before any performance tests take place, a horse vet must examine the horses taking part. The tests are the same as those done before purchasing a horse – flexion tests, soundness, healthy constitution, being healthy overall, and an identity check – including scanning their microchips.

Majestic Donnatella, a yearling filly at the young stock conformation evaluation.


After the hard surface and free-lunging tests, the horses being performance-tested had to free-jump over three jumps – two oxers and one vertical. The horses have all been trained to do free-jumping in a relaxed manner, with someone they know and trust. One person launches the horse into the jumping lane, one encourages from the middle with a lunging whip, and another collects the horse once he has completed the course. The jumps start at 90cm and the poles are raised until the horses start knocking them down. The horses are marked on technique, jumping quality and temperament. This is quite a challenge for a three-year-old, but Marna’s stallion was so confident that he turned around and jumped the course backwards!

Sartor Pashmina free-jumping.

Dressage test

Dressage is also a prescribed test, to include all the gaits – a lengthened walk, trot and canter. Each horse was ridden by his usual rider and the quality of movement and rideability were judged, as well as seeing if the horse easily accepted what was asked of him, taking the horse’s age into consideration.

The horses must then be ridden by a test rider who has never ridden any of the horses before. Marna chose Michael Peiser from Johannesburg as the test rider, owing to his extensive experience competing at shows and working with young Warmblood horses. Michael had to start his own freestyle test – taking the horse through all the gaits – immediately after the regular rider had finished her dressage test. The test rider then discussed the quality, talent and rideability of the horse with the judges, without the presence of Marna.

Marna knows her horses perform very differently with a rider they don’t know. “Knabstruppers are known to have strong characters and they will show if they don’t like the rider – for instance, if they use a hard hand or a firm kick on them. Knabstruppers are very intelligent and they are best ridden by a good horseman who can bond with the horse and suggest what to do, rather than telling them, because they will have an opinion. Then, they will do anything for you,” says Marna.

Sartor Pashmina, a seven-year-old mare performing a dressage test with test rider Michael Peiser.

Jumping course

Next was the showjumping over a set course of four jumps, including an oxer. Starting from around 1m, the poles were put up higher each round, until the horse started knocking them down, at approximately 1.30m. The test rider doesn’t jump the horses, as it is important for the safety of both the rider and the horse that the horse knows and trusts the rider when jumping.

Sartor Pashmina jumping with rider Sabina van der Helm.

Endurance test

The final test was for endurance, where the horses had to complete laps in a big grass arena. The horses had to walk 500m within five minutes, trot 2,500m in 10 minutes, and canter 1,000m within two minutes. Straight afterwards, the horse’s heart rate was monitored to analyse the recovery rate. Points are deducted for any time errors. The horses’ temperament during the test is also marked. Marna approves of endurance testing being included in the performance testing. “Endurance ability is a good trait for a horse to have. If your horse has a quick recovery, he can do his job without getting tired, and then he won’t injure himself or pull a muscle,” says Marna.

Marna and the judges worked to a pre-planned schedule so that the tests were all completed in one day, starting at 8:30am and finishing at 7pm.

Successful string of horses

Marna’s seven-year-old mare, Sartor Pashmina, is now one of the highest ranked Knabstrupper mares in the world, and she has had two premium foals already. One of the foals, judged by founder and vice president of the World Breed Federation of Sport Horses at the Young Horse Potential Breed Show at Mistico (Western Cape), won champion of champions at just four months old.

Most of the horses Marna had tested had already been sold and were being presented by their owners. But it was still of value to Marna as a breeder to have them evaluated, so that she could see the results of her breeding, and make any adjustments in the future to the combination of sires and dams in order to achieve the optimum foal.

Marna also wanted her fillies graded, as she wants to keep at least one filly from each mare as a replacement for future generations to come. “A stud is only as good as its dam lines. If something happens to a mare, she needs to be replaced by the daughter. If I get a second filly from the same mare, I would then sell one. If I sell a horse, I can present the buyer with the score sheet. If I keep a horse, I have the score sheet for my own use. I only presented well-prepared horses who I knew would do well,” says Marna.

“In the future, as with commercial stock, by entering objective scores from grading and performance testing into a database, we can estimate breeding values. For instance, we can state that a sire would definitely add to the jumping ability of his offspring, or a certain dam line would add to dressage movement, although dressage heritability isn’t as high as jumping,” she adds.

As there are only about 2,000 Knabstruppers in the world who have been graded, they are all very valuable and it is important that they are all kept in the registration system so that every horse counts. “It is important to preserve the bloodline, so for each horse I sell, the purchaser must sign a contract that commits them to take part in the grading. All Knabstruppers must be signed into the country by me. I check their passports and parentage pedigree and confirm that they are eligible for registration in the Knabstrupper society. If they don’t conform, they are not registered as being a Knabstrupper,” says Marna.

Time to Shine, with endurance rider Nicola Barnes.

“A lot of buyers like the character of the Knabstrupper, as they have the same ability as a Warmblood but are much easier to ride. They will never do something stupid, but you need to set your objective and ask them to do it. You cannot force them into anything. I mainly sell to the competitive, amateur dressage rider who has the potential to go to shows to compete and to demonstrate how well the Knabstrupper performs. I sell to people who want to be – ambassadors for the breed and achieve something with their horses. At the moment the demand for my horses is greater than I can supply. Quality is of the utmost importance in the current economic climate, which is very good for a selective breed.”

Sartor Amadeus, a stallion, with dressage rider Sabina van der Helm.