Haflinger breeder pushes the boundaries and redefines possibilities

As Haflinger stallion Mahzarin gallops down the training pen, plants his hind feet to powerfully glide into a sliding stop, he’s embodying the aspirations of his owner: to break the mould and showcase Haflingers’ versatility across a multitude of disciplines.

Mt Walker Haflingers, a breeding operation about an hour southwest of Brisbane at Mount Walker Queensland, is owned and run by Maxine Hobbs Laing, a dedicated horsewoman who has had a connection to the breed for more than 40 years.

“In Australia, I think there is a misconception Haflingers can only fit within a small segment of the equine industry, but our Haflingers are performing in reining, jumping, barrel racing as well as

carriage driving – just because they have a gentle temperament doesn’t mean they are only suitable to being a child’s pony club horse or a cart horse,” Maxine said.

“They have the raw power and smarts needed to be trained for many disciplines. As a breed, they have so much to offer.”

Mahzarin is currently being educated by Johnny Dudley, a cutting trainer also based at Mount Walker, and Maxine for reining and ranch boxing. While it’s unusual in southeast Queensland for Haflingers to step into a competition of this nature, the breed does have a precedence abroad.

Maxine believes her seven-year-old stallion, Mahzarin, who is out of Onni and by Marlon, has the intelligence, confirmation and athleticism to progress as a performance horse and also sire other competitive Haflingers.

In 2016, Alessandra Bellabarba’s Haflinger stallion Nitrito del Baldo won the A.V.C.R Futurity at the Italian Reining Championships with rider, Nicola Cordioli. Following Nitrito del Baldo’s career inspired Maxine to train Mahzarin for ranch reining.

“From the time Mahzarin was a foal, I could tell he was going to be a standout,” she said.

“He’s eye-catching, has perfect confirmation and his reining training is progressing well. My goal with Mount Walker Haflingers is to breed horses for people like me. I want to be competitive across a range of disciplines, but also stay safe and have a horse which is a wonderful companion.”

Running 15 Haflingers across 20 ha with the support of husband, Tony Laing, daughters, Vanessa Hobbs and Sarah Milne, and mother, Colleen Sparks, Maxine is confident Haflingers will secure a growing foothold across a wealth of equine disciplines.

Rusty’s lifelong shine

Maxine’s connection to the Haflinger breed came in the form of a four-year-old mare, Rusty, who was her horse as a teenager and eventually became the catalyst for establishing Mount Walker Haflingers.

The lead up to receiving Rusty was a turbulent time in Maxine’s life, who describes her younger self as being immensely introverted and struggling with school. Just shy of her 14th birthday, Maxine left high school to join the workforce picking strawberries.

Even at this young age her passion for horses was running strong and after about three months on a 90-cent-per kilo strawberry pick rate, she was able to buy her first horse, Mingo, for $320 in 1986.

However, Mingo was on an agisted block of land with poor fencing and died after being hit by a car just two years later.

Maxine’s dad, Barry Hobbs, began looking for a new horse for his daughter and soon found one from his neighbour at the time, who was a generous soul, and passed Rusty on for very little money because he believed “every girl needed a pony”.

“I remember being told at the time she was a Haflinger, but not knowing much about the breed,” she said.

Maxine joked Rusty had little training, so she just got on and rode, as kids do, occasionally wiping herself out on low-hanging branches but having a great deal of fun in the process.

“Rusty always had a gentle nature and later became the horse my daughter, Vanessa, learnt to ride on. Like all Haflingers, she was a good doer, and we looked after her very well so she lived until she was 39.”

In the 90s, Maxine was at the Royal Queensland Show, the Brisbane Ekka, when she noticed

Haflingers being paraded and queried with an Australian Haflinger Breeding Association member if Rusty could be registered.

Maxine was referred onto breeder, Caroline Sinnamon, from Hafloz Stud at Oakey, and after arranging an inspection Rusty was registered as a foundation mare.

Shifting paces

Maxine’s time aboard Rusty was cut short, as the trajectory of her life took a sharp turn when she was 20 and an accident coming off a horse left her with a C1 fracture in her neck – a serious injury that came with news she may never ride again.

Although devastated, Maxine showed sheer resilience and decided to pivot her skills and knowledge into harness racing instead, opting to drive horses from a gig opposed to riding.

Maxine described racing as being “addictive”. Before gaining her license, she asked prominent

trainers lots of questions and poured over equine books to learn as much as she could about building a horse’s fitness, creating a performance nutrition program, ensuring her horses had correct hoof

care and finessing her training methods to foster a winning horse.

Her dedication paid off, and Maxine went on the train and drive winning pacers.

Maxine retired from the racing industry in 2013, which paved way for her to focus completely on her Haflinger breeding program.

Harnessing Haflingers

After Rusty was registered as a foundation mare in late 1997, Maxine began breeding F1 Haflingers, then in 2005 acquired her first purebred Haflinger, a three-year-old filly called Onni who has become a foundational mare to her stud.

Onni was bred in Caroline’s Hafloz Stud’s breeding program and is by Wilhelm and out of Omega.

By 2009 Mount Walker Haflingers was well underway as Maxine had established her ‘O-line’ foals, which is progeny out of Onni. Onni’s foals have been sired by imported frozen semen from stallion Marlon.

“Onni has underwritten our breeding program and has foaled four fillies and two colts,” Maxine said.

With a goal to have her horses well rounded, many Mount Walker Haflingers are broken in to be ridden under saddle, with a focus on ranch riding, as well as being fully trained in carriage driving, which is a discipline Maxine has thrived at with her Haflingers.

She became interested in combined driving, working horses in pairs, through harness racing and said the discipline melded all aspects of her horse knowledge and experience.

The art of driving horses in pairs demands complete control to achieve a perfect technique for the dressage element, as well as elite strength and fitness for the cross-country and cone timed events.

Compared to her pacers, Maxine noticed the hardy Haflinger breed was superior when it came to building stamina.

“They build their fitness at a much faster rate than any other horse I have trained, they are energetic and want to work hard and go all day,” she said.

“When you are behind Haflingers in pairs, you can feel their immense power and their never-ending willingness to please.”

Maxine said the tough mountain breed was also exceptional when it came to nutrition, as her performing Haflingers have never been fed more than ruffage from the paddock and supplementary minerals and electrolytes.

In 2017, Maxine and her husband Tony competed at the National Carriage Driving competition in

Tamworth, with her stunning pair of Haflingers Orial and Orlina, winning first and also taking out the Jason White Memorial ‘Best Pairs’ award.

“They had only been broken into the carriage as a pair for about nine weeks before,” Maxine said.

“Orlina wasn’t confident when being driven as a single, but pairing her with Orial worked wonderfully as combined horses feed off each other’s energy.

“Carriage driving is the best fun you can have sitting down as you feel completely at one with the horses. It’s the ultimate act of teamwork,” she said.

Building aspirations

Mount Walker Haflingers’s breeding program is intending to further harness Mahzarin’s genetics in the coming years.

Maxine is confident Mahzarin will imprint his trainability and impressive confirmation on his progeny. Mount Walker Haflingers’ O-line has become synonymous with producing delicate featured horses, with striking heads, which Maxine believes is a nod to the Arabian origin of the breed.

Reflecting back, Maxine feels proud of the horses she has bred, and said she will forever be grateful for the companionship her Haflingers have provided her.

“I have never lost the love of working with horses. I have had great highs, some lows, but Haflingers have always been there for me… horses never judge you, they always appreciate you, and neverexpect more than to be fed and patted occasionally.

“Haflingers are my equine teddy bears.”