Trakehner

  • HEIGHT: 16–17 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: East Prussia (Lithuania)
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Ground-covering gaits, regal presence, athleticism
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Show jumping, dressage, eventing

Most North Americans today think of the Trakehner as an elegant warmblood from Germany, but the breed was actually developed on the easternmost side of what was then East Prussia and is now Lithuania. Its very early history can be traced back to a local breed of small utilitarian horses, the Schweiken, known for their great endurance. The Schweiken itself has a long history tracing back to the ancient Scythians, who inhabited the area in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. Every Scythian owned at least one gelding to use as a riding horse, as well as rough ponies to use as pack animals. As revealed in their tombs, wealthy individuals had many horses: the best were Ferganas (ancient Turkmenians), but the majority were Mongolian horses. The little Lithuanian Schweiken was strongly influenced by both the best Turkmenian horses, known for their endurance and speed, and the unbelievably tough Mongolian horses.

When the Knights of the Teutonic Order conquered Prussia in the thirteenth century, they established one of Europe’s earliest stud farms at Georgenburg in 1264. Building more than sixty studs in the following decades, the order required that landowners supply horses to the cavalry, which supported their goal of spreading Christianity.

In the early 1700s, King Frederick William I recognized the need for lighter, faster horses for the Prussian army. War tactics had changed significantly with the widespread use of gunpowder. There was no longer a need for lumbering medieval warhorses. The king wanted his officers mounted on horses that were attractive and impressive enough to represent his army. These horses had to be sound and solid, with good stamina. They also needed comfortable, ground-covering gaits, particularly the trot, to enable them to travel long distances quickly and efficiently. The king chose the best horses from seven of his royal breeding farms in 1732 and moved them to a new, 15,000-acre stud at Trakehnen.

A Meticulous Breeding Program

The king’s famous mare herds, stabled at sixteen barns removed from the main complex, were sorted and bred by color, with the different herds representing different traits that were useful to the breed. The black herd consisted of strong mares that made the best workers. The chestnut mares were collected near the stud at Trakehnen; elegant and sensitive, they exhibited the greatest performance potential. The bay and brown mares had outstanding temperament and excellent rideability. There was also a herd of mixed colors.

At the same time, a significant number of mares still belonged to the small breeding establishments of East Prussian farmers outside of the official breeding program. The quality of these mares improved with the development of the Trakehnen stud and with access to the best stallions.

After the death of Frederick in 1787, the stud was transferred to state ownership under the direction of a chief stud administrator named Lindenau, who established well-defined breeding objectives and began to improve the entire local horse population. He allowed private breeders to bring their mares to the state stallions, and he eliminated two thirds of the royal stallions and one third of the broodmares. Then he brought in new blood, beginning with the hardy Lithuanian Schweiken and eventually adding Thoroughbred, Mecklenburg, Danish, and Turkish stallions. In the final stage of the breed’s development, a Turkmenian (what we know today as an Akhal-Teke) stallion and three of his sons exerted considerable influence. Breeders added the blood of selected English Thoroughbreds and Hungarian Arabs between 1817 and 1838. The Trakehner studbook was started in 1878.

The noble Trakehner is the result of centuries of careful breeding.

During World War I, the population of Trakehner horses dropped by nearly half, but by 1938, there were nearly half a million horses living in East Prussia. The breed was tremendously successful until World War II, excelling as a military and endurance horse while also doing light draft work on farms.

In action, this breed is graceful, elegant, and athletic.

International Achievement

The breed has produced outstanding performance horses. Trakehners won both the gold and silver medals in dressage in the 1924 Olympics and the bronze medal in three-day evening in the 1928 Olympics. The year 1936 is sometimes called the year of the Trakehner. At the Olympic Games, Kronos won the gold and Absinth the silver medal in dressage, and Nurmi took gold in three-day eventing. Also in 1936, the Trakehner Dedo won the Prix de Nations in show jumping at Madison Square Garden. Between 1921 and 1936, the Pardubice, the second most difficult steeplechase in the world, was won a total of nine times by East Prussian horses. The East Prussian warmblood, as it was also called, was exported all over the world.

Devastated by War

World War II nearly caused the extinction of the Trakehner. In 1944, almost at the end of the war, the Soviets were closing in on the area around Trakehnen, and orders came to evacuate the horses from the stud. About eight hundred of the best horses were moved by rail and by foot, but they did not go far enough west, and most of them, along with their documentation, fell into the hands of the advancing soldiers and were shipped to the Soviet Union.

THE TRAKEHNER TREK

Private Trakehner breeders were not permitted to leave their farms until 1945, after the Russians broke through the last of the German lines. Hitching their horses to wagons filled with all their possessions and all the feed they could carry, a group mostly of women, children, and aged relatives fled in the middle of winter with about eight hundred horses, including many broodmares heavy in foal. They headed west, running for their lives, unable to stop when mares foaled or when horses went lame or became sick. Their feed ran out. The “trek,” as it came to be named, covered six hundred miles and continued for two and a half months, during which time they were relentlessly pursued by ground troops and by Soviet planes.

At one point they were trapped on the shores of the frozen Baltic Sea, their only escape across treacherous ice. At times knee-deep in water, they crossed, galloping to stay ahead of breaking ice, still being strafed by aircraft. Many did not make it. The survivors, with one hundred pitifully starved horses, many with burlap bags frozen to their feet in place of shoes, limped into West Germany.

Of the 80,000 Trakehners in East Prussia before the war, only about eight hundred to one thousand made it to West Germany by the war’s conclusion. Many of those were lost to the breed, from injuries sustained during the trek, from continuing hardships after the war, or simply because they were never located when efforts at breed recovery began.

Recovery and Resurgence

The next decade was spent reestablishing the breed in West Germany. In addition to the group that had survived the trek, other East Prussian refugees and their horses were scattered all over West Germany. The West German association, known as the Trakehner Verband, was founded in 1947. Over time, many of the surviving horses were located and accounted for. The German federal government joined with the state of Lower Saxony in 1950 to provide support for a small breeding farm. The last original Trakehner broodmares from the main stud were collected there and used to breed future generations.

The war and politics separated East and West Trakehners. In Poland, herds of stallions and mares were gathered and identified by their brands or registration papers. Poland reestablished many of the East Prussian studs to continue the breed, although right after the war they selected for moderately heavy horses that were able to perform farmwork. Today the Polish Ministry of Agriculture registers Trakehners in its Great Polish Horse Stud Book.

During and after the war, Russia took many stallions from Trakehnen and used them wisely, becoming a respected source of good-quality Trakehners. A stud in Lithuania has 950 purebred Trakehner mares. Some say that in Russia all the best sport horses are actually Trakehners, and that a Trakehner there will bring seven times the price of another breed.

The Trakehner brand.

The American Trakehner brand.

The Canadian Trakehner brand.

To North America

In 1957 German-born Gerda Friedrichs imported four Trakehner stallions and twelve mares to her farm in Canada; she added eleven more mares in 1963. An approved stallion and a mare that had actually survived the trek also arrived in the United States in 1963. From that point on, interest has grown steadily.

Breed Characteristics

Trakehners are recognized for their distinctive type, which displays sound conformation, compelling presence, and nobility of bearing. These horses present a picture of refinement and elegance. The skin is fine and thin and lies close to the bone, with the veins close to the surface and musculature well defined. In motion, the gaits are light and flowing. The athletic ability of the breed is undisputed.

TRAKEHNER VERBAND RULES

Although other warmblood breed associations frequently admit stallions of various breeds, including Trakehners, for “improvement” of their own, the Trakehner Verband only rarely allows infusions of very carefully selected individual Thoroughbreds and Arabs. No other breeds are ever used. Offspring that result from crosses between approved Thoroughbreds or Arabians and Trakehners are full-blooded Trakehner horses in the eyes of the West German registry.

This horse exhibits the rectangular shape characteristic of the Trakehner breed.

Conformation

The Trakehner is a rectangular horse, standing between 16 and 17 hands but with a shorter length of leg than most Thoroughbreds. The head is distinctive in its charm and nobility, reflecting the breed’s Arabian ancestry; many show a slightly dished profile. The forehead is wide with large, kind eyes. The throatlatch is slim and well defined, the neck long and graceful. The withers are prominent.

Compared to heavier warmbloods, the Trakehner has lighter, medium bone. The girth is deep with round full ribs. The chest is deep, the shoulders sloping and well muscled. In general, the Trakehner has flatter hindquarters than other German breeds, and the tail set is higher. The croup is very gently sloped. The legs are well muscled with clean joints, clearly defined tendons, and solid hooves. The pasterns are of medium length and slope.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the American Trakehner Association (ATA) (founded in 1974):

• About 11,000 horses are registered with the ATA.

• Some 300–600 new foals are registered each year.

• The breed is found throughout both the United States and Canada and is, of course, well known throughout Europe.

The Polish Trakehner differs slightly from the German strain. These horses are larger and heavier, with more substance. Some believe the Polish horses have a calmer disposition. Polish breeders do not emphasize a pretty head. The Poles are said to prefer big, strong, galloping, free-moving horses, especially well suited to three-day eventing and jumping.

Color

The most common color is chestnut, then bay, brown, black, and gray. White markings on the face and lower legs are common but not excessive. Piebald (pinto) horses do occur in this breed and, although not encouraged, may be registered if their conformation and other characteristics are good.