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The Russian Horse


Russians often hear Western horsemen talk about the Russian horse. It behaves differently, they say, it moves differently, it is... well, just different. And even if its ancestors came from Europe, like those of Russian Trakehners, or from the East, like those of Russian Arabians, in a couple of generations they begin to refer to it as Russian.
     But is there such a thing as the Russian horse, or can there be such at all? One seemingly obvious answer is no. No single breed would be ideal in the unfathomably huge space where Asia meets Europe; a space with more steppes and mountains than in the States, more forests than in Brazil; more tundra, taiga and permafrost areas than in Canada and Alaska; more deserts and arid wastelands than in Australia? What a horse can just survive in the utmost extremes of Russia's climates, where, like the Yakutian horse, it may be subject to 50C; and, like the Akhal–Teke, to +50C.
    Also, Russia is a melting pot of Slavic, Turkic, Mongol, Finno–Ugric, Romance, Eskimo, and many other cultures and subcultures. Of Russians alone ethnographists identify around 70 types.
    The dozens of Russia's peoples are represented by their equine and equestrian cultures. Russia is a kaleidoscope of breeds, horsemanships, breeding & riding manners, testing rules, equestrian sports & games, horse trappings, saddlery, and what not. It is the land of Cossacks. It is home of the Troika.

    And still, one can talk of the Russian horse!
    Whatever the breed (and there are many of them in Russia), it is a no–nonsense animal, undemanding and hard working, manageable, and friendly.

"In the haywain and under the sovereign"

These words Russians use to describe an ideal Russian horse, an all–rounder. Life in Russia demanded a universal horse, and the Russian horse was universal. One example is the Don. Superb under the Cossack saddle, it makes a good carriage horse as well.
    The Russian horse has never been meant solely for the racetrack, but rather for hard practical work. And Russia has never been a country of equestrian sportsmen and gentleman riders, like England. It has rather been a land of heavy users of horses, on the road and on the battlefield.


I am a very vocal
of your wonderful
Russian horses.
I just wish that
we had more
of them over here
in the U.S.A.

Ann Stansbarger

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A Yakutian horse


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An Akhal–Teke

Surviving potential

A horse is good for nothing in Russia if it cannot survive in harsh Russian climates, with the meagerest of foods, having to cover vast distances sometimes unshod, or even when attacked by wolves.
    Some breeds spend most of the time in the steppe or forest fending for themselves and getting feed from under one meter of snow.


Many were the times that Russians were saved by their dear troika hacks or their brave mounts. A Don or another Russian steppe horse brings its master to safety through a snow blizzard or the densest of fogs. Many Caucasian mountaineers owe their lives to sure–footed and intrepid Kabardins. Many Russian horsemen have been saved in battle by their loyal chargers.
    Some Russian breeds are known as one–master horses, and they may be difficult sometimes when ridden by strangers.


Most Russians have never understood the use of some Western breeds produced only for speed on the racetrack, often at the sacrifice of endurance, presence, and other qualities.
    Even Thoroughbreds were assessed differently in Russia, as potential improvers of local breeds for cavalry. And a Thoroughbred Derby winner with conformational defects would not necessarily become a sire.
    The amazing stamina of the Russian horses, such as Dons, Budennys, Kabardins, Russian Arabians, Tersks, etc., makes them extremely good for endurance races.

Russian "extreme" breeds

There are some breeds in Russia that could be referred to as "extreme". These are horses of mountains, desert, and taiga. All of them are products of the extremes of temperature, aridness, altitudes, etc. It took centuries, sometimes millennia, for those horses to adapt to their respective conditions. The extreme Russian breeds are a good example of Darwin's theory in action. They are products of a combination of two selections: natural selection, as a result of which thousands of animals died from the elements, and primitive selective breeding by humans.
     Nature and breeders sort of joined forces to breed for survival and endurance, with speed and conformation often being of secondary importance. The end result is stunning.

For more details see Russian "extreme" breeds.

Breeding Russian horses outside of Russia

Most of Russian horses are easier and cheaper to breed than other horses. They are especially good as work horses in the field, where they have to defend themselves from the elements and cope with hardship and discomfort. They thrive on rough pasture and often need little or no extra feeding. Overall, they require little attention and are very reliable. They make good cowboy, trekking and military horses, etc. Russian steppe horses are second to none in cold climates.
     Russian horses bred outside of Russia respond positively to improvements in their care, of course. But quite often they suffer from overfeeding and lack of exercise. Used to meager diets, they become fat fairly quickly, which is not good for their shape. Even Russian Arabians, which are normally rangy and athletic in Russia, when met in foreign stables are uncharacteristically rotund, with their movement impaired, and eyes dulled.
     One should be a bit more careful with Russian "extreme" horses and not to breed, say, Russian desert horses in wet climates, Yakutian horses in hot climates, and mountain horses on the plain. Ironically, nobody would think of growing grapes or camels in Scandinavia, or Siberian pines or raindeer in Italy, but some European breeders may think nothing of producing Russian extreme horses in conditions that are exactly the opposite of what a breed is used to at the most profound level, including its blood composition, skin structure, subcutaneous fat accumulation, heat transfer characteristics, and so forth.
     We suppose that you, if you are a true lover of horses, will think twice before breeding a horse that comes from a different environment. At first, you will learn everything about that environment from books, Internet, consultants, etc.

For more details see Breeding Russian horses ourside of Russia.

Russian horsemen

Most of the credit for the fact that the Russian horse is still with us goes to thousands of obscure Russian horsemen: herdsmen, stable lads, grooms, and others. In the last war they had sometimes to fight desperately and pay with their lives to buy some time to enable their comrades to drive huge many–breed herds away from advancing Nazis.
    And it was not only at wars that Russian horsemen had to prove their mettle. When Khrushchov made a peremptory decision to get rid of all the horseflesh in the USSR, the Russian horse was saved by the harassed underpaid stalwarts at studs and farms.




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The taming of a wild horse.
A bas–relief on a silver vase of Nikopol, Russia


Some history

Russia has a rich equine and equestrian history, perhaps the richest in the world. The horse has been with the peoples that inhabit the huge spaces of what is now known as Russia for millennia. It is to the horse that goes much of the credit for the colonization of the wild Russian steppes and forests.
     A wealth of archaeological evidence tells us an exciting story of the early Russian horse. For instance, excavations at the Altai Mountains revealed remains of noble Oriental horses that date back to the 4th or 3rd millennium B.C.
    The horse was domesticated in Central Asia, and also in Siberian and Russian steppes, about 6 thousand years ago. It is believed that domesticated more or less simultaneously were the smaller steppe horses and the larger forest horses. Both of them belonged to the same biological species and their differences were only caused by the ecological conditions of their respective habitats.
    The last "real" wild horse, called tarpan (E. caballus Gmelini), was killed in the late 19th century in Ukraine. In the 1930s Russian and Polish biologists began to "reconstruct" it on the basis of the Polish konik. Experimental crossing of the konik with the Prjewalski horse produced an animal looking like the tarpan: a dun or mouse–colored 133–cm pony with a dark mane and tail, often with an eel–belt along its spine and zebroid legs. Hordes of restored tarpans now roam the forest of western Bielorussia and Poland.


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A wild horse,
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N. Samokish

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(E. Caballus Gmelini)

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Medieval Rus

In the forests of Eastern Europe early in the first millennium B.C. horses were used largely for meat. In the early centuries A.D. horses began to be used for military purposes and as draft animals for tilling the soil. More attention began to be paid to their height and bulk. Archeological excavations at Novgorod (North–Western Russia) revealed that 97% of horses in the 10th and 11th centuries were about 140 cm high.
    In medieval Rus horseflesh was valued very high. According to the laws of Yaroslav the Wise (11th century) the punishment for the killing of a stranger's horse was 12 grivnas to the Crown and one grivna to the owner, as compared with only 3 grivnas for the killing of a free peasant. The Russian Code ruled that horse–thieves should be turned out to the Prince to be stripped of all civil rights.
     In the late 15th century the office of the Master of the Horse was established at the courts of Russian princes and tsars. The Master of the Horse was in charge of the horse studs that produced horses for the court. Aristocrats and monasteries had their own studs. Sires at studs were mostly of Russian and Tartar origin. Beginning in the days of Ivan the Terrible sires of European and Arabian breeds began to be used at many Russian studs.
    Up to the middle of the 17th century horse trade in Russia was dominated by the Tartars who brought each year 30–50 thousand horses to Moscow, Tver, and Rostov. There were also a sea of home–bred horsed in Ukraine, Don, Kuban, Urals, and Siberia. Ukraine alone produced 60,000 horses suitable for military uses. Their type was heavily influenced by Oriental horses captured by Ukrainian Cossacks in their raids. Those horses were forerunners of the famous Don breed.

The Don emerges

By the end of the 18th century the Don breed became well established. It was improved not only by selection in harsh breeding conditions and raids, but also by uses of stallions that proved to be the best in wars.
    In the early 19th century Europe admired Cossacks on their intrepid Dons who came to Paris in pursuit of Napoleon. In 1945 Europeans saw new generations of Cossacks cantering on their hardy steppe steeds.

Early Horse Studs

Before Peter the Great the Crown studs had about 50,000 horses. Under Peter the Great several new state–owned studs were organized to produce horses for the army, and the many Peter's construction projects. In 1740 the Royal stables had 1685 horses, and their stock was mostly European.
    Much experimenting was going on through the 18th century, with studs organized, merged, reorganized, and disbanded. The same concerned crosses with various breeds, and breeding practices. Most studs produced mounts for cavalry, and through the century much attention was paid to height, type, and suitability to dressage.

First Russian stud breeds

The first Russian breeds produced at studs with system and method were Orlov trotters and Orlov mounts, better known as Orlov–Rostopchins. They took their names from Count Alexey Orlov–Chesmensky (1737–1807), a brilliant courtier at the court of Katherine II and the defeater of the Turkish fleet at Chesme.
    Orlov began his early breeding experiments in the 1760s at Ostrov near Moscow, then he moved to Khrenovoye near Voronezh, a place better suited for breeding.
    Because of his prominent position at the court Orlov had a nearly unlimited access to the stock brought to Russia, especially to Arabians and Thoroughbreds.
    Orlov tried ten crossing types. Anglo–Asian crossings appeared unsatisfactory. Arabian–Asian crosses yielded Sultan II, a prominent producer of good mounts. Among other combinations the most productive was Anglo–Arabian. Outstanding products of those crossings were Yashma I and Yashma II.
    Another famous production of Orlov's was Orlov trotters. All pedigrees of modern Orlovs have at the core Polkan I, a son of the Arabian Smetanka and a dun Danish mare. Later some Friesian and Barb blood was added to improve the trotting action. But the true founder of the trotting breed was undoubtedly Bars I, an elegant powerful trotter exactly what Orlov longed for.
     The reasons behind the successes of Orlov breeds were perseverance and skills of the breeders, very careful selections, and extremely rigorous culling system. Orlov's success would have been impossible without his fantastic stock of Arabians.
    The wealth or experience gleaned by Count Orlov has been well documented and used by later Russian breeders to produce other stud breeds, such as Budenny, Tersk, and many others. His ideas on the importance of Arabians for Russia were appreciated by Count Stroganov, the father of the Russian Arabian.

Early Stud Books

In 1836 the first volume of Stud Book of Pure–Blood and Racing Horses was published in Russia. It included 287 stallions and 222 broodmares. The book was badly needed at the time because there were already many studs producing racing horses. There followed many other stud books.

See also:

A History of the Russian Arabian

A History of the Akhal–Teke

A History of the Orlov–Rostopchin

Histories of other Russian breeds are to follow.



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Yashma II