The Oberlander is a rare and exceptional breed, renowned for its combination of strength, versatility, and amiable demeanor. Thanks to the breed’s characteristic good temperament, stallions, geldings, and mares readily may be driven in the same hitch. Oberlanders are eager workers with lots of stamina due to their depth in the chest. They are utilized in farming, logging, driving events, shows, wagon and sleigh rides, feeding cattle, parades, hunting and packing, dressage, vaulting, dude ranch strings, carriage rides, jumping, and as a sport horse. Two Oberlander geldings have participated in fox hunting with the Moore County Hounds in Southern Pines, North Carolina.
Oberlander horses that have been imported and bred in North America are sorrel with white or red manes and tails. Horses of this breed may also be bay with black points, and many have white stockings and white on the face. A few Oberlanders are black or leopard spotted.
Because of their uncomplicated temperament, they are well suited for the average horse owners of today who have little experience working with horses and don’t work their horses regularly. The breeding target set forth by the Oberlander Horse Association is 15 to 16 hands high, with a canon bone size of 9" to 10", weight 1,500 to 1,600 pounds, and a strong-large frame—well-muscled and deeply set with a long, broad, and divided croup and well-positioned limbs with hard hooves and wide movements.
This horse has a noble and beautiful coldblood head, clean-cut legs, and great movement in trot. The horse’s size allows it to pull a heavy load and do the work required, but makes the animal easy to care for without eating you out of house and home. This trait comes from its humble beginnings in the foothills of the Alps, where to survive it had to efficiently use the scant available feed.
You might be saying you can find these traits in many breeds or crossbreeds in the United States and Canada, but one thing sets Oberlanders apart from all others. All horses in Bavaria and in North America must pass a performance test to be part of the registered breeding herd. The test, normally performed after the horse is at least three years old, consists of multiple parts: a single hitch driving test, which differs for mares and stallions; skidding a small log; sleigh pulling (with 30% of the horse’s weight on the sled); and conformation.
A typical Edelweiss brand on an Oberlander mare in Bavaria. Photo by Jennifer Kaffenbarger
During testing the walk, trot, body flex, focus of the horse on tasks, willingness to work, pulling behavior, nervousness, and manageability are all scored. Performance testing not only ensures the breed’s authenticity and the maintenance of standards as prescribed in the Stud Book Regulations, but also improves the breed’s image to the public and encourages its use in all occupations.
In Europe the Oberlander breed is known by several different names, including Noriker, Pinzgauer, and Suedduetsches Kaltblut (Southern German Coldblood). The formal association in Germany is the Suedduetsche Kaltblut Zuchtverband. Before 1948 and the creation of the name Sueddeutsches Kaltblut, the three names of the breed described the horses’ origin.
The original name was Noriker, since the foundation of the breed has been traced back to the Roman Empire, when Roman warhorses were taken to the Roman province of Noricum, now part of Austria. As the breed proliferated and was introduced into the Pinzgau in the state of Salzburg, the horse became known in that region as Pinzgauer. This branch, in earlier times, embodied the heavier type. The Oberlander was the same breed found in Bavaria, the southernmost province of Germany, where the horses were lighter and more graceful than the heavy Pinzgauer. Despite this variety of designations, all are considered to be the same breed of coldblood horse.
In 1478, due to dwindling numbers and the need to promote the breed, Duke Albrecht IV established stallion farms, and state owned stallions were made available for agricultural horse breeding. In 1769 the first state stud was established in Bavaria. The aim of state stud was to improve the stock of military horses, not the enhancement of horses for agriculture. Around 1860 the demand for strong, powerful work horses increased, so the state stud tried to influence the Oberlander with other breeds such as the Belgian, Clydesdale, Norfolk, Cleveland Bay, Norman, East Friesian, and Oldenburger.
The region is damp and cool a lot of the time and only a healthy, robust animal could deal with the elements, especially given the stabling conditions and marginal feed quality in those times. To survive, a horse had to be an easy keeper that could withstand poor rearing conditions. As a result, when other breeds were brought in for crossbreeding, most of their offspring didn’t thrive well enough to pass the required performance testing. The attempted crosses therefore did not substantially change the Oberlander breed.
Oberlander mare Hazel, imported from Bavaria to Canada as a foal, in the weighted sled portion of her performance test. Courtesy of Hans Plechinger
In 1957 the recorded bloodlines numbered 49, which declined between 1959 and 1970, along with the general horse stock numbers, to the five bloodlines of today. One of those five families/bloodlines has ties to a stallion named Weissfuss (White Foot). The bloodline of Weissfuss is the only family having origins in the failed attempt at cross breeding. Although this stallion cannot be traced exactly, he either descended from the Clydesdale stallion Albion, or his dam was a daughter of Albion’s.
Since 1881 the herd has been closed, and only certified and inspected stallions have been allowed to stand for public service. At the same time, the Edelweiss was chosen as the brand. This flower is branded on the right neck of each certified stallion and on the left lower hip of all purebred horses. About 4,000 of these horses are registered in Germany, of which 80 are certified stallions—representing the five bloodlines—owned by the Bavarian government and private breeders. Despite Sueddeutsches Kaltbluts being the official name of these horses in Europe, Bavarians still prefer to call them Oberlanders.
Oberlanders in North America
Through the years the Oberlander has changed, not unlike draft horses in the United States, and not always in the best interest of the horse. Hans Plechinger grew up in Bavaria’s Garmisch-Partenkirchen area and was around Oberlanders all his life. Bavarians are a proud people who hold tightly to their heritage. So in 1993 when Hans and his wife Patricia emigrated from Bavaria to Canada, they arrived with four Oberlander mares and one stallion, all purchased from the state stud farm of Schwaiganger, the southernmost stud farm in Bavaria.
Hans wanted to introduce to North America the breed he grew up with and to establish the breed at Cherry Creek Ranch, where he set up home in Cranbrook, British Columbia. He wanted the type of horse he remembered—a lighter, more refined and graceful draft horse. Since he was hoping to introduce the breed much as he remembered the Oberlander of his youth, and since we English speaking people struggle with the words Sueddeutsches Kalblut, he calls the breed by the designation preferred in his homeland—Oberlander.
The type of horse he imported was met with some criticism in Bavaria and by the Sueddeutsches Kalblut Association. As time passed, though, the association has embraced this type and has moved away from the heavier Pinzgauer type. In 1999 Hans established the Oberlander Horse Association, registered in British Columbia, applying similar breeding standards as those practiced in Bavaria. Also in 1999 he held his first production sale and sold 23 Oberlanders, seven of which went to Andrew Busch’s Grants Farm Manor (Budweiser) in St. Louis, Missouri.
Since then, three more stallions and one mare of different bloodlines joined Hans’ herd, and today 56 head of registered breeding stock are in North America. The Oberlander Horse Association now has 16 members, five of whom are active breeders. Three of these breeders (two have stallions and mares) are in the United States—Robert Ricketts in Polson, Montana; Tim and Jennifer Kaffenbarger in Byron, Ilinois; and Derek and Cindy Acker in Santa Barbara, California. The two active breeders in Canada are Hans and Heidelore Bokelman in Edson, Alberta, and of course, Hans and Patricia Plechinger in Cranbrook, British Columbia.
Tim Kaffenbarger and his Oberlanders live in Byron, Illinois.
reprinted with permission of Rural Heritage magazine © 2008