The Amazing 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 —50°C; and, like the Akhal–Teke, to +50°C.
The Yakutian horse
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, horsemanship, 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.
The Russian Don
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.
A horse is good for nothing in Russia if it cannot survive in harsh Russian climates, with the merest 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.
There are some breeds in Russia that could be called “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 result is stunning.
True Russian Horsemen
Most of the credit for 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.
History of the Russian Horse
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 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.
Russian Draught Horse
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.
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.