Thursday 3 March 2016

The Trakhener Horse

“Every man in East Prussia had the right to own a breeding stallion.  That stallion had to be presented for approval every year.  These private stallions were only allowed to cover mares that were selected as not worthy to be covered by state stud stallions.  Failure to meet these criteria resulted in a fine of two thaler.”

Stud farm courtesy

Trakehnen, a town in the Gumbinnen district of East Prussia, was home to one of the biggest agricultural farms in the province.  It housed 900 cows, 600 sheep and thousands of horses.  King Friedrich Wilhelm I ordered 1100 horses for Trakehnen.  With a 400 year history, the Trakehner horse, bred in East Prussia, was the oldest of the warmblood breeds.  The oldest existing German stud book dates back to 1623.  

The Trakehner was a tall horse at 15.2 to 17 hands.  It came in the colours bay, gray, chestnut and black.  It had great versatility and endurance.  A horse was treated like a king at Trakehnen:  it galloped all over a paddock encircled by trees rather than fences.  It was well fed, well groomed and well trained.  

While it was engineered as an East Prussian workhorse, it was also used for fox hunting, racing and as a calvary mount; in fact it was the horse of choice for German officers.  Trakehners carried soldiers into battle at Waterloo against Napoleon in 1814.  During the battle and its aftermath, Prussia lost 75,000 horses, many of which ended up in Russia.  The Trakehner was sought after by the military in other European countries too.  By 1918, 60,000 mares were bred to East Prussian stallions each year.  

Trakehners competed in every Olympic Games but 1932.  In 1924, Trakenher Piccolomini won gold and Sabel won silver, both in the dressage event.  Nine thirty six was declared “The Year of the Trakehner” in which the breed won a gold medal in dressage (Kronos) as well as a silver medal in dressage (Sabel).  Trakehners also won the three day eventing gold medal at the Olympics along with the German Jumping Team Prix des Nations.  Between 1921 and 1936 Trakehners won the Czech Steeplechase nine times. 

Sadly, many of the breed were killed in battle during the First World War, its numbers cut in half.  Even more Trakehners were killed, froze to death or succumbed to disease during the Second World War, bringing it to near extinction (179,000 on the Eastern Front alone).  In fact, 80 % of the Germany Army rode on horseback.  The Trakehners pulled everything the soldiers needed either on horseback or by wagon.  The Germans could not mass produce automobiles the way the Americans did and did not have the same easy access to fuel.  The hundreds of thousands of horses needed the support of 37000 farriers and 236 companies of vets, the latter treating them and returning 70 to 75% of them to the battlefield.  

Eight hundred of the best mares were evacuated to the West in October of 1944 when the Red Army was on East Prussia's doorstep. Many East Prussian refugees mounted Trakehners for the 600 mile journey to safety, the Red Army at their heels.  Many suffered open wounds from shrapnel and the burlap bags froze to their feet.  Their horses often starved, drowned, froze to death, were shot or captured by the Russians.  The captured horses were taken to Kirov; these horses would become the ancestors of the Russian Trakehner.  The English Army took the best black and chestnut colts for the Royal Cavalry in London.  Out of 25,000 broadmares and 1200 stallions, only 1500 reached their destination in Germany proper.   The last original Trakehner was “Keith” who was born in 1941 and died in 1976.  The East Prussian Studbook Society dissolved on October 23, 1947.  

This black gelding named Absinth won a silver and gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics courtesy

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