When I was horse shopping 12 years ago, I wasn’t in the market for a Trakehner. I didn’t really have any breed in mind. Mostly I wanted a horse to event. A horse that would have good enough movement to produce a decent dressage test, enough jump to keep me out of trouble, and brave enough to go cross country. Perhaps if I’d had a better idea of the rap that Trakehners get, I might not have bought him — they are reputed to be hot, stubborn, and sensitive with a reputation for unsoundness.
Twelve years later, I still own my Trakehner. Yes, he is sensitive, and certainly he can be stubborn, but he’s also very brave, athletic and built like a tank. He’s been very sound and he’s been a ton of fun. He is a horse that needs an individual approach, but if you are willing to work with him, he is a pleasure.
Trakehners are the oldest of the warmblood breeds, having been established in 1732. Their official name is “The East Prussian Warmblood Horse of Trakehner Origin”, a testament to their origin in the region of East Prussia that once belonged to Germany, and which was lost during Word War II to Russia.
The origin of the breed was a small, locally bred horse called a “Schwaike.” It was know for its versatility and endurance. The Trakehner breed resulted when the Schwaike was crossed with English Thoroughbred and Arabian stallions.
King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the father of Friedrich the Great, developed the Trakehner breed because he saw the need for a new type of cavalry mount for the Prussian army. War tactics had changed and now required a lighter, more comfortable horse with more endurance and speed than the heavier horses previously needed to carry armor and haul heavy equipment. The horses had to be attractive enough for his officers, but tough enough to survive harsh situations and come out sound. So he chose the best horses from seven of his royal breeding farms, and in 1732 moved them all to the new royal stud at Trakehnen.
This video shows young Trakehner horses in training — it certainly makes my foxhunting days look tame in comparison!
Up until the Second World War, the Trakehner was a most successful breed; it excelled as a military and endurance horse, and even did light draft work in the fields. As a performance horse, the Trakehner also gained visibility. Trakehners won the gold and silver medals in dressage in the 1924 Olympic games. In the 1928 Olympics, a Trakehner won the bronze medal in the three-day event. And, in 1936, Kronos, won the gold medal in dressage, while Absinth won the silver. The gold medal in the three-day event went to Nurmi.
At the end of the Second World War, however, the Trakehner breed was nearly wiped out. In October of 1944, as the Soviets closed in on Trakehnen, orders came to evacuate the horses from the Trakehnen Stud. About 800 of the best horses were hastily transferred both by rail and by foot. Most of them, together with all their documentation, fell into the hands of the Russian occupation forces and were shipped to Russia where their papers were lost.
The private breeders and their horses were not allowed to leave until January of 1945, when the Russians had broken through the last of the German lines. The evacuation — on foot — became known as “The Trek”. Hitching their precious breeding stock to wagons laden with personal possessions the East Prussians left with about 800 horses. It was the dead of winter. Snow was deep upon the ground, and the broodmares were heavy with foal. Many horses were left behind to be claimed by the advancing Soviets and many were lost or let loose along the way to be eventually taken in by the conquering troops or to die. In fact, only 100 of the horses survived and those were in precarious health.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s breeders struggled to rebuild their stock and it was several years before Trakehners again were seen in international competitions. In 1954 in Tokyo, the Woermann won the gold medal in dressage, and in 1968 in Mexico City, the Soviet Trakehner-bred horse Ichor won the gold. 1972 saw the gold and silver dressage medals go to Trakehner-bred stallions, the gold to the Swedish-bred Piaff under West Germany’s Liselott Linsenhoff and the silver to Pepel of the USSR under Dr. Elena Petushkova. Some lovely video footage of Pepel and Dr. Petushkova can be found on YouTube:
All in all, the breed has rebounded with great strength and today’s Trakehners excel in many disciplines. In Europe they are widely used for eventing, and the success of stallions like Windfall II have brought more attention to the breed in the US. Ironically, Trakehners were the first warmbloods to be imported into the US and were initially very popular. There were then surpassed by breeds such as the Hannovarian and Dutch Warmbloods which were considered to be more “amateur friendly.”
The breed is more distinctive in its appearance than many other warmbloods partially because they are the only warmblood breed with a closed stud book. This means that while some Thoroughbred and Arabians are approved for breeding, no other warmbloods are ever used. Because of the influence of the Thoroughbred and Arab blood, Trakehners are typically more refined than other warmblood breeds. They also have more of the temperament characteristics associated with them.
My own Trakehner was not approved as a stallion by the American Trakehner Association. I’ve never found out why, but his back is a tad longer than is ideal. However, he shows many of the ideal characteristics of the breed; athleticism, bravery, soundness and sensitivity. Now that I’ve seen some of the old videos and photographs of the breed, I also understand why he’s such a great horse to foxhunt: it’s in his blood.