A little more than a year ago I had never heard of the Oberlander breed, let alone have any desire to see or own one. Now my wife Jennifer and I are the proud owners of three Oberlander mares and a stallion.
We purchased our first draft horses, a pair of Percherons, more than seven years ago; you might recall seeing Ben and Billy spreading manure in the Spring 2005 issue of Rural Heritage. In the late summer of 2007 our son Jeremiah was stationed in Bavaria, Germany, and about to be redeployed to Iraq. We wanted to visit him, and also since we are of German decent we were interested in seeing where our heritage originated.
I, however, had no desire to visit cities. My wife calls me an extrovert hermit, as I love people but avoid the masses. Being a draft horse enthusiast, I felt the best way to see the real Bavaria was to see the countryside and their draft horses. I didn’t know of any German draft breeds, so I went online to find information, but when I typed in “German draft horse” I found almost nothing.
Eventually I found several German breeds, one of which caught my eye. The Oberlander is a medium size draft, which is appealing for a short fella like me, and the breed is found in Bavaria. So the hunt for Oberlanders started out as a way to stay out of the cities and see the Bavarian countryside.
Peter Lerch with Nussknacker, an Oberlander stallion at Schwaiganger stud farm. Photos by Jennifer Kaffenbarger
The more I read about Oberlanders, the more impressed I was, and the more I wanted to learn about this elegant, yet versatile work horse. Hans Plechinger, the original importer of the breed into North America, and president of the Oberlander Horse Association, became a great source of information. I appreciated his help, as my investigation was daunting since I don’t speak German, and almost every website about the Oberlander—called Sueddeutsches Kaltblut, or South German Coldblood—is in German with only limited translation.
Jennifer and I were a bit apprehensive about making a trip to a country where we don’t speak the language and knew no one other than the few people we contacted via email and phone. One of them was Erhard Schroll, editor of the Starke Pferde magazine, a publication much like Rural Heritage. Erhard knew of Hans, owns Oberlanders himself, and put me in contact with the Sueddeutsches Kaltblut Association.
Hans helped us set up a meeting with Peter Lerch in Bavaria. Peter is a Master Horseman, having acquired his title by completing a four-year degree/apprenticeship under Dr. Karnbaum, author of The Oberlander Horse in Bavaria, and at the time, chief of Schwaiganger state stud farm. Having completed the demanding course required for his degree, Peter is considered a professional rider and teamster, is qualified to manage any stud farm, and has been appointed by the Bavarian Horse Breeding Association to judge all breeds. Peter took us to see some of the best Oberlanders and breeders Bavaria has to offer.
Alois jun Holl’s rare black Oberlander stallion Schneeberg.
The first stop was one of the Bavarian government stud farms, Schwaiganger in Ohlstadt, where we were greeted by the chief Dr. Senckenberg, and the manager of the coldblood horses Andi Mayr. The first horses imported to Canada came from Schwaiganger, which at that time, under the direction of Dr. Karnbaum, won almost all the awards in Bavaria for all types of livestock, including Oberlanders.
We saw several of their stallions and most of their mares. Their stud barn is amazing. The stallions are well-behaved and perfect gentlemen. In Germany stallions are expected to work, so they train just as hard as any gelding or mare. This training starts at an early age and continues throughout their lives. All Oberlanders must pass a performance test after the age of three, and a rank stallion cannot be expected to pass. Even the brood mares in the pastures came up to us, thanks to their early training and continued use.
After Schwaiganger our heads were already beginning to spin, but the day had just begun. Next Peter took us to see one of only four black stallions of the registered breeding herd. At Unterammergau we met Alois jun Holl and his family. Heir Holl is a farmer who loves his horses and enjoys showing them off, especially his prized black stallion.
Then it was on to Rottenbuch to visit Hermann Mayr and his family. Their picturesque place has been handed down through his family for generations. There we saw one of the flashiest stallions of our trip. Hermann’s son ran himself ragged showing off their mares and stallions.
Hermann invited us into the barn to sit down and talk about horses. We asked if horse meat was a common food in Bavaria. He said, “not so common,” but since he is also a butcher, he had some on hand he wanted to share with us. So off went his son (again) to fetch some horse leberkäs (meat loaf) and salami. I must admit both were delicious. Hermann joked it is the only good use for a Haflinger. (Please—no hate mail for this reference; eating horse meat in Europe is customary and they are not particular which breed they use.)
Blonde Oberlander stallion Veltin, owned by Herrmann Mayr.
The next morning was Sunday. Peter’s congregation planned to walk up the road about three miles to visit another church. Since many of the parishioners were elderly and couldn’t make the walk, Peter took them via wagon pulled by his two Oberlanders.
Meanwhile, Peter’s friends Renate and Peter Hausmann took us to see an older Bavarian farmer named Anton Mair. Although Anton’s place isn’t fancy, his stock regularly wins in shows. Anton is one of the exceptions in beginning his horses’ training early, as he doesn’t get them ready any too soon for testing. As Peter Lerch put it, “Good thing they are some of the calmest and most willing of the Oberlanders.”
Our last stop was Georg and Elizabeth Sappl’s farm in Beuerberg, where Peter caught up with us. Here we saw one of the most impressive stallions Gigolo, and his full sister. The horse barn had a spectacular paved brick center aisle. The barn and horses were impeccable. I fell in love with his bay mare. Again, their hospitality was outstanding.
Bricked aisleway in Georg and Elizabeth Sappl’s barn.
Although we had started the trip unsure we were willing to give up our two Percherons for a new breed, our whirlwind two days in Bavaria convinced us we wanted to own Oberlanders. But before we made a decision, we wanted to travel to Cranbrook, British Columbia, to see Hans’ Oberlanders. As luck would have it, in August I had a farm accident that could have ended our draft horse hobby—I fell and broke my back. I felt lucky to be alive, and while I was healing I had time to contemplate both the brevity of life and my quest for Oberlanders. That unfortunate accident—or maybe it was the pain killers—galvanized my determination to finish the hunt. Six weeks later I was well enough to travel to Canada to visit Hans.
Georg Sappl’s Oberlander stallion Gigolo
At Cherry Creek Ranch—20 miles off the paved road in the middle of the most beautiful country in the world—we were met by Hans and his farm manager Charlie Rowely. They showed us some of the best Oberlanders yet. We looked at all of Hans’ horses and were introduced to the four he had in mind for us. After a fantastic lunch supplied by Charlie’s wife Sue, we drove those four horses. Their temperament was best demonstrated by the stallion Necho, one of the most docile stallions I have ever seen. Clearly Hans had imported and bred the best of the best.
Even after all this, the decision to move forward in purchasing Oberlanders was not taken lightly by us or Hans and Charlie. Jennifer and I left Cherry Creek Ranch undecided, as we digested the idea of breeding Oberlanders and what it would mean to our lives back in Illinois. However, still realizing we didn’t completely know what we were getting ourselves into, we decided to give the beautiful breed a chance. Last October our four Oberlanders arrived in Byron, Illinois.
Netieva, Hazel, and Dirngräfin (left to right) on their arrival at Tim and Jennifer’s farm in Byron, Illinois; Dirngräfin was the first Oberlander born in North America. Photos by Jennifer Kaffenbarger
Tim Kaffenbarger of Byron, Illinois, welcomes visitors in person (call 815-979-7424)
FIRST BORN - 2008
On Good Friday our vet was scheduled to put a foal alert device on our Oberlander mare Hazel, since she was carrying her first foal. As birthing began, a magnet would separate from the transponder, and the base unit would automatically send a message to up to four telephone numbers. But Hazel didn’t wait for the vet.
When my wife Jennifer and I went out to do chores, Hazel was showing some milk, so before I left for work I told Jen to keep a close eye on her. As luck would have it, Jen is a school teacher and had the day off. She had to run a few errands, so checked on Hazel before she left and again when she got back.
Being a city girl about to witness her first blessed event with any animal, when Jen saw two little feet sticking out of Hazel, she says, “I about freaked.... I couldn’t dial the vet’s number properly. I couldn’t think straight.” She managed to get in touch with the vet, who was at least an hour away, which to Jen might as well have been a world away.
Jen called me at work, a little more than a mile away, and I rushed home. Jen says she was praying fervently the whole time, but I don’t know how she had time to pray, because by the time I got home she had called me twice more. As I arrived, so did little Hilde. After it was all over we had time to sit back to laugh at ourselves, and marvel at the first Oberlander born east of the Mississippi—not counting Germany.
Hazel checks out baby Hilde 10 minutes after birth. Photo by Jennifer Kaffenbarger
reprinted with permission of Rural Heritage magazine © 2008