The Swedish horse has been a faithful human companion for as long as history can remember. Archaeological evidence in what is now known as Sweden places the existence of the horse as far back as 4,000 BCE, and its evolution parallels that of Scandinavian settlers. For most of its early history, the Swedish horse was a simple working animal, meeting the basic needs of the people trying to survive the difficult conditions of their era. As is the case with all human history, with the growth and advancement of communities came the inevitable eventuality of conflict, and so the dreadful hand of war soon began to shape the future of the horse.
Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with saying, “without cavalry, battles are without result.” There can be little doubt that cavalries around the world have indeed played a decisive role in the outcome of battles and war, but despite its barbaric purpose, the warhorse’s influence has reached far beyond the bloody battlefields of Europe, across time and into our present, for it is precisely with the cavalry that the history of our beloved Swedish Warmblood truly begins.
Even by the standards of a country accustomed to severe cold and harsh winters, 1600’s Sweden was plagued by unusually unforgiving weather, making it difficult to produce quality horses under these callous conditions. During this time of heavy warfare, a successful military campaign required numbers somewhere in the vicinity of seven thousand animals, and the demand for cavalry horses quickly exceeded the breeding ability of the nation. Though the Swedish horse had earned the reputation as a resilient and dependable animal, Swedes were producing horses of considerably smaller size than those being bred in the rest of Europe at the time. Since warfare necessitated large and robust beasts, attempts were made to import breeding stallions from outside countries, but the incessant blood shedding of the era quickly depleted the cavalry resources of the small country. It would take several hundred years before Sweden would again attempt to improve its breeding program.
In the early 1800’s the government finally ordered the implementation of an organized breeding program for the nation. By this time, Sweden had stepped off the theatre of war and had adopted a policy of neutrality, but most of Europe was occupied with Napoleon’s ambition for world dominance. This translated to very few horses on the sales market, as most countries struggled to maintain their own cavalry forces. Russia, however, agreed to sale 200 horses to Sweden, under the restriction that they not be resold to any other European nation, and in particular not to France, as Russia’s Alexander I was then occupied by Napoleon’s futile but incessant attempts at invading the frozen empire. Russia’s willingness to sale horses during this time of war eventually resulted in 32 stallions being sent to Flyinge and Strömsholm, two of Sweden’s royal studs. The man responsible for executing the deal was none other than Clas Adam Ehrengranat.
Ehrengranat was a former cavalry officer and veterinarian who served as head of Flyinge from 1817 until his forced resignation in 1837, and his influence on the evolution of the Swedish horse extends well beyond his allocation of the Russian imports. Under Ehrengranat’s leadership, stallions were provided to cavalry units in order to have them produce their own military horses. Stallions were given to farms so as to increase the number of horses in the country, and for the first time the separate role of mare and stallion bloodlines was studied to determine their respective impact on the evolution of the horse. Ehrengranat was also responsible for introducing horse biomechanics to Sweden. His various articles on horse movement helped mold the warhorse into the more familiar sport horse of modern times. Appropriately enough, Ehrengranat’s writings would also help preserve the French art of riding, after it was nearly lost during the French revolution. With the death of the French aristocracy so too died the sport of kings, but its rebirth would be helped along by countries such as Sweden and influential people like Clas Adam Ehrengranat, who began looking at the horse as something more than just a working beast or a weapon of warfare.
As the technology of war changed so too did the military role of the Swedish horse. Larger and stronger horses were needed to transport cannons and pull carriages, and thus the influence of outside breeds became a significant aspect of Swedish breeding. Thoroughbred imports increased significantly during the 1830’s and were embraced for their “rideability” , which contributed to the final departure from the “work” horse Sweden had bred for so long. Anglo-Norman, now known as Selle Francais, horses were also introduced into the breeding program; their larger size was a welcomed improvement in the ever-changing role of the Swedish cavalry horse. The Hanoverian breed, having historically proven itself as a successful military animal, was now also an option for Swedish breeders looking to produce war horses for their country’s military.
As the turn of the century approached and the machinery of war evolved into increasingly modern and deadlier weapons, the role of the cavalry in military engagements became less and less pronounced, and once again the Swedish breed had to adapt to a completely new demand from their armed forces. Officers were now interested in a lighter, more elegant horse for the new style of riding becoming popular in the early 1900’s, eventually to be known as dressage. This new sports oriented style, however, was an insufficient market to sustain the Swedish Warmblood breeder. By 1925 the army had reduced their Warmblood force by more than 60%, and so the Swedish farms were forced to produce more and more work horses in order to stay in business.
With the Swedish Army being the primary market for Warmblood horses and with that market diminishing year by year, the military established rider associations throughout the country. Their purpose was to educate the Swedish breeder on how to not only produce but also train Warmblood sport horses, a role previously met by the Swedish Army alone. Swedish breeders would now have the ability to offer trained riding horses to the general public, once again increasing their incentive to produce Warmbloods in larger numbers. In 1928, breeders across Sweden formed the Swedish Warmblood Association (Avelsföreningen för Svenska Varmblodiga Hästen or ASVH.) The Swedish cavalry remained the dominant force in international dressage competitions throughout the first half of the twentieth century. By the early 1970’s the tide had turned and the military was no longer the primary source of sports riding, and ASVH became the sole body in charge of overseeing the Swedish breed.
Eventually, the appeal of the Swedish Warmblood would cross oceans and reach the peoples of the globe. By 1981, there were enough SWBs in North America to hold the first official ASVH inspection in the continent. Today, North American bred Swedish Warmbloods are among the best representatives of the breed.
Its history has been long, arduous, and often bloody, but victory is something the Swedish Warmblood knows well. From the battlefields of the past to the sports arenas of the present, the Swedish horse has faced its challenges with pride and elegance. The road ahead will undoubtedly hold new trials and new opportunities, and the Swedish Warmblood will meet them with unwavering confidence, as it has always done.