Dole Horse

North American Dole Horse Registry

9650 46th Street NE

Doyon, North Dakota 58327

The Dole Horse is the largest of the Norwegian native breeds. It is an all-around horse, adept as both a pulling horse and riding horse. It is also known as the Gudbrandsdal or East Country Horse, denoting the area in Norway where it was originally developed.

Writings about Dole Horses date back to the 1530s, when Archbishop Olaus Magnus mentioned them. As early as the 1870s, the breed type was established, with the heavier type being most preferred. The first stud book was published in 1902, but many of the pedigrees can be traced back to about 1865. In 1947, the breed name of Dølehest was officially recognized by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, but Døle Horse (or Dole Horse) was, and still is, commonly used.

The Dole Horse is primarily used for farming or logging, but it also pulls light carts or carriages, which is what originally created the Norwegians’ desire to have a horse that carried itself in a refined manner and a flashy trot. Its conformation and disposition are a result of this, and it continues to have staunch supporters who appreciate its versatility and distinctive character.

It is a curious horse that has a quiet disposition and is easy to train. Dole Horses that have been trained once for a particular exercise will always remember it, even if they do not repeat the exercise again until years later. The Dole Horse tries hard to please and does a good job at whatever task it is given. Expending its all when working or performing, the horse will not stop if asked to work longer and will keep going until it drops.

The Dole is a versatile breed and can be used for riding, driving, lower classes of dressage, or jumping as a sport. Driving allows more freedom of having family time together during a great outing. The Dole is especially good in harness and loves to trot. With its calm temperament, it is often found in riding schools and used in riding classes for people with disabilities. It is a naturally healthy breed and is frequently active or working into its twenties.


Dole Horse. Marte Holen Stensli

In Norway

Veikle Balder is considered to be the foundation stallion of the breed. He was the first state-owned stallion to run with mares in the mountain summer pastures of Heimdalen and Sikkilsdalen in Norway between 1862 and 1869. Interestingly, on his sire’s side he is descended from the Thoroughbred, Odin, by Partisan and Rachel. Though Friesian traders were known to be in Norway from 400 to 800 AD, allowing the possibility of its influence on the Dole Horse, no one knows the ancestors of the breed for sure. It does, however, look similar to the Dale and Fell pony—breeds similar to the Friesian—only larger.

There are two types of Doles, but both are part of the same family and can be registered in the Norwegian registry. One is the heavier type, and the lighter of the two is the Norwegian Cold-Blooded Trotter, which was developed about 1880 or 1890. Both types have always been interbred, but each has its own registry with the Norwegian registry—one for the Dole and one for the Cold-Blooded Trotter. The Trotter is sometimes used for harness racing in Scandinavia, just like harness racing in America. Both types are good riding horses.

In Norway, Dole and Fjord horses are still used in forestry for thinning out and transporting logs over short distances. They cause less damage to the forest floor and can navigate narrower roads than tractors and logging rigs. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in these traditional uses of horses.

The Dole Horse has also been used in the tourist industry for a very long time. As early as the end of the eighteenth century, farmers, especially in western Norway, earned additional income by driving tourists around. The horse-drawn transport for tourism is once again growing in many parts of the country. Sleigh rides and transportation for wedding celebrations are extremely popular.

Many horses in Norway are sold on the first Tuesday in November at the Stav market in Gudbrandsdalen Valley, which has over one hundred years of horse trading traditions.

Norway’s Breeding

Norway has another unique tradition when it comes to its Dole Horses. For more than 130 years, around June 15 to September 1, mares are turned loose to run in the free-range mountain pastures with stallions. Studs are chosen by the breed association, and herds are separated into different areas. The mares are grouped according to the stud with which each owner wants his mares to breed. Yearling and two-year-old stallions are also released in summer pastures to teach them good social behavior. It also helps develop their agility and coordination. Grazing in the pastures prevents them from getting fat and enhances muscle development.


Dole Horse. Marte Holen Stensli

Since the mares are pasture bred in Norway, they foal later than in the United States. Often the mares will foal while in the mountains, where the weather sometimes becomes inclement and the foals are born in a snowstorm. Thus only the strongest foals survive, based on natural selection.

There is also the possibility of attack by bears (Norway has small brown bears), but horse owners are not worried about predators because of the studs’ ability to defend their herd. The last known case was in 1998 when a stud named Haugvar protected his herd from an attacking bear. This stallion circled the mares and foals and chased the bear around the outside, fighting it off. He was found the next day with deep gashes on his rump and hind legs; he was also very weak and having difficulty breathing. After close examination, his wind pipe was found to be restricted by bear fur he had pulled during the fight.

Norway’s Shows

The first official horse show was held by the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food in Lillehammer in 1857. Shows are still held in the Lillehammer area by the Ministry of Agriculture, The stallion show, however, has been separated from the mare show and is a three-day event that is always held at the end of April.

On the first day of the show, all the stallions’ legs are x-rayed. The x-rays are examined to ensure proper bone structure and bone mass. Stallions are also measured for height and are weighed. They are judged on their abilities to perform in driving and are shown at halter, although in Norway, bridles are used instead of halters. The horses’ temperament is also judged. Only stallions that excel in all these areas are prized, and only stallions that are prized at an official horse show can be used for breeding. If the stallion is not prized, the offspring cannot be registered, unless homebred under certain rules of application.

While the show is going on, there are about thirty to forty three-year-olds and ten to fifteen four-year-old stallions around the outside of the arena, each waiting their turn. Stallions that were not prized as three-year-olds may try again as four-year-olds. Stallions enter the arena one at a time at one end and exit at the other arena end. Unlike in the United States where there is only one judge, in Norway there are four judges evaluating the same stallion at the same time, which takes about fifteen minutes per horse.

Four-year-old prized stallions are then sent to a testing facility for a month. There they are tested on their abilities in riding, driving, and log hauling. All of the testing is done by the same person, who is a qualified riding and driving instructor. A stallion that does not pass this round of testing loses its certification. Stallions are then re-tested at six and nine years of age. Again if they do not pass, they lose their certification. This gives a certain amount of control over pedigrees and ensures the quality of breeding stock. Many stallions typically change hands at these shows.

Mares are shown in spring and fall, but in a totally different kind of show, in which they only have to demonstrate obedience in harness. Unlike the stallions, their legs are not x-rayed, and they do not have an open arena liberty type class. Geldings are not shown. Foals are shown with the mares, but there are very few foal classes.

All of Norway’s registered Dole Horses are blood typed and DNA tested, which was instituted in the 1980s. Also, all horses born in Norway after 1999 have a microchip.

The Dole Horse population as of 2000 was about four thousand. About 175 foals were registered that year. Norway does not register Dole horses in the United States.

In the United States

The first Dole Horse to be brought to the United State was Vollaug Silver, brought in 2001 by Marte Holen Stensli. Stensli grew up on a small dairy farm in Brumunddal, Norway. Silver was her constant companion during the last two years she lived in Norway, when Stensli oversaw two hundred cows on mountain pastures, keeping the cows and bulls in their respective areas. There were other herds three miles away, with the only barrier being a river whose banks Stensli and Silver patrolled to make sure each herd remained on its own side. They also returned straying cows and kept out a herd of reindeer that occasionally trespassed, chasing the herd back around difficult marshy land. This work entailed a heartiness for which Dole Horses are known.

Stensli’s family always kept Dole Horses, even when tractors became popular in the early 1970s. During the oil shortage in the mid 1970s, Stensli’s mother took a mare and drove her with a sleigh down the main highway in their hometown so residents could borrow it. Horse and sleigh were a great help to those in need at a time when most did not have working horses anymore.

After Stensli married and moved to North Dakota, she transported Silver over and began to bring him to local shows, which was the first time a Dole Horse was displayed in North America. She exhibited him in a string of state horse events, including many held by the North Dakota Draft Horse Association, which created much interest in the breed. In 2003, she imported three more Dole Horses—one stallion and two mares. One mare was a bay that foaled a black filly, and the other was a dun mare that foaled a palomino filly. The sire of both these foals was Stensli’s black stud named Skogstad Svarten (svarten is Norwegian for “black”) that later won Reserve Champion at the North Dakota State Fair. Stensli bred Svarten to her Bureau of Land Management (BLM) mustang mare, which foaled a sorrel colt. Thus began the first herd of Dole Horses in the Western Hemisphere. Stensli also began the first registry for both pure and part bred Dole Horses in North America named the North American Dole Horse Registry. Doles are still rare in North America, as there are only about twelve Doles in the United States.


Dole Horse team. Marte Holen Stensli


The Dole Horse should be low, rectangular, strongly built, muscular, well coupled, and have good bone and limb position. The overall impression should be one of a quality, all-around horse. Foals applying for registration must be from registered parents.

Height should be between 14 and 16 hands. The head should be well formed, not too heavy, with a good, wide forehead. The head should be well set on a well formed neck.

The Dole has a rectangular build and is much longer in the back than other breeds. It stands squarely and is not close or cowhocked in the rear. It should be deep through the heart, have good width in the chest, and be well ribbed up. A Quarter Horse saddle fits adequately on its back.

The back and loins should be well muscled, and the quarters lengthy, broad, and strong. Stallions and mares should have a wide chest, though mares’ chests are not as wide as stallions. Doles have a rounded croup and a medium tailset. Bone is medium, and the hooves are round shaped.

Doles usually have an abundant, full-length tail and thick mane, depending on the bloodline. Leg feathering is also profuse and similar to the Friesian—more than a Percheron, and not as much as a Gypsy Vanner. Feathering does not stay wet as long as that of other horses, but dries up faster because it is shorter and the quality of hair is different. It is stiffer, almost like a bristle brush, and would hurt if rubbed the wrong way with a hand. Cockleburs do not stick to Dole feathering.

Black, bay, chestnut, and sorrel are the predominate colors, but there are also duns, dapple grays, and palominos. White is considered an undesirable color for a Dole Horse, but markings such as a blaze, star, or socks are frequently seen. Spotted or paint coloration was last seen in the breed in the 1970s. No spotted stallion has ever been prized. This coloration used to be carried in the mares but was eventually bred out.

Movement should be active and free. Doles are great trotters and can turn quickly. They are good at an obstacle course under harness and can do tight corners easily. Their favorite gait is a trot, which is very smooth and easy to sit.

Dole Horses should have a calm but alert and inquisitive disposition. They try very hard to please.

Dole Horses are easy keepers. They do not need alfalfa, which is not grown in Norway. Any horse imported from there should not have any amount of alfalfa.

Dole Horses can live to an old age, up to twenty-five to thirty years, and can work most of that time.

Credit: Marte Holen Stensli

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