Meet Russia’s Orlov Trotters!

Their story is intertwined with the history of Russia itself, and the Russian people and the Russian culture, and they count nearly three centuries of loyal service to those who have loved them over the years.  These are spectacular horses, mostly grey and often shown in teams of three – “troikas” – flying through the Russian forests, skimming across ice and snow to the song of harness bells, subduing the vast Russian steppe with their tireless, ground-eating trot, necks arching proudly, eyes flashing, thick flowing manes and tails tossed in the wind.   Renowned for their charisma, spectacular good looks, their strength and endurance, these Orlov Trotters are also the gentlest, most sensitive and most versatile of horses, combining the power and beauty of Pegasus with the innocence of lambs.

Orlov trotter stallion Vzryv. Gulkevich Nikolay (1863-). Types and breeds of horses of the Russian Empire, 1908.

The Orlov Trotter breed exists because of three people: the greatest of all the Tsarinas of Russia, a War Hero of epic proportions and a Serf, who combined all the innate talents and folk wisdom of the Russian peasantry.  It all started early one morning in June of 1762.  The Princess who was to become Russia’s Catherine the Great was racing to St. Petersburg to claim her throne, when the horses of her carriage broke down.  As she waited for the replacements that might not come in time, her driver, the Muscovite Warrior, Alexei Orlov, promised her a new breed of horse, one that would be hardy and enduring, and as beautiful as she was.  Catherine did manage to claim her throne in time, and she rewarded Alexei for his support and military service with the title of Count and lands and money that made him the richest man in Russia.  True to his promise, Count Orlov began the work of developing the new breed of horses that was to be named for him, the Orlov Trotter.  The young serf Vasily Shishkin, assisting Count Orlov and mentored by him, took up the lines of these Orlov Trotters when his beloved teacher and sponsor died, and he was the one who consolidated the special features of the new breed – for which Emperor Alexander I awarded him his freedom.  The purebred Orlov Trotter has retained its unique characteristics to this day.

Orlov trotter stallion Kanyk on Hippodrome.

Count Orlov in 1775 acquired from a Pasha of the Ottoman Empire, a very special Arabian stallion, and he had this silver stallion, called Smetanka after the sour cream that was the very lifeblood of many Russians, hand walked all the way from his Arabian birthplace to Moscow.  The Count and later Vasily Shishkin bred Smetanka and his progeny to the finest Danish, Prussian, Spanish and Dutch mares (and a few ancestors of the Thoroughbreds, Hackneys and Akhalteks as well), crossing, back-crossing and re-crossing the bloodlines for that steady, ground-covering trot and the spectacular looks and kind temperament inherent in the breed today.  They meanwhile kept the breeding program closed and recorded the results at each step.  In just a few generations, they achieved a light harness horse capable of traveling great distances at speed, whose rhythmic strong trot made light of terrible roads, long distances and severe weather, and whose elegance and powerful charismatic temperament appealed to the wealthy and the nobility – who were soon organizing trotting races for their treasured acquisitions.

The Orlov Trotters of yesterday and today average between 15 and 16 hands at the withers.  They have deep, broad chests and muscular bodies with well-sprung ribs.  Their heads are strongly boned, with big expressive eyes and a long, naturally arched neck.  The legs are strong, with large joints and well defined tendons.  The back can be long.  The brood mares are a little finer in type.  The dominant and preferred color is grey, but there are quite a few true blacks, some bays and a rare chestnut.

Famous Russian troika.

The diverse potential of the Orlov Trotters as a breed remains poorly explored.  In Russia today, they are used mainly for trotting races, although they are not as fast as Standardbreds or the mixed-breed Russian Trotter, and so they race in their own category.  Competitions for the three-horse troikas in speed and figure driving have recently been revived, very special and highly colorful events often taking place at festivals in the ancient towns ringing Moscow.

There are some recent clues as to what the Orlov Trotter can do if asked reasonably.

  • Jumping: the Orlov Trotter Unipol placed first over Hannoverians, Trakheners and other European warmbloods from three countries in the three-day international sport horse tests.
  • Dressage: the Orlov Trotter Balagur, a graduate of the circus and a former police horse placed 5th and 6th in Dressage at the Beijing Olympics – at age 18!
  • Endurance: the Orlov Trotter Nature’s Ballet competed five times in California’s 100-mile Tevis Cup after the age of 14, placing fifth one year.
  • Competitive Driving: the Orlov Trotter Zibki competed successfully at Canada’s highest level with the international driver Doris Ganton.
  • Pleasure Driving: Canada’s Lyle Telstad drove Khrenovskoy-bred Bunchuk and Shakovskoy-bred Zakon on the country roads of Calgary and Nova Scotia for years until these two equine family members moved on to greener pastures.
  • Trail Riding: The bay colt Samorodok carries his 80-year-old owner across varied and unexpected terrain in company or alone, and
  • Hunting: following the custom of Marylanders since the 1600s, Samorodok, aka Gryphon, and his mistress will follow the hounds and chase (but never kill) the wild foxes, a part of the annual autumn pageant that is an outing with Carrolltown Hounds and ten or so other local hunt clubs.

Orlov Trotter Balagur and Aleksandra Korelova.

In conclusion, the Orlov Trotters have exerted tremendous influence on the course of Russian history as the one-time chief mode of transportation, both urban and across the countryside.  They have contributed mightily to Russia’s socioeconomic development through agriculture and sport.  Finally, they have played a role in the lives of their people that is unlike any other equine breed with the possible exception of the Arabian. These are the horses who drew the fancy carriage of yesteryear’s aristocrats, taxied the city folk through the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, crossed endless distances with travelers and mail and harvested wheat alongside the Russian peasants.  These grey beauties delighted all who saw their flying trot at races on the ice-covered rivers, the Neva in St. Petersburg and the Moskva in Moscow, and on the hippodromes in cities and towns flung like pebbles across the expanse that is Russia.  The Orlov Trotters accompanied the Russian soldiers to wars with Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler to the West and the Japanese to the East.  Russia itself, a land of heroes and poetry, resounding triumphs, enormous suffering and despair, has been likened to a wild and storm-driven troika careening through time and distance towards an unknown destiny.

Each of the colts bred here at Moscow Stud Farm #1 and offered to you, is the heir to generations of hope and planning, to a tradition of companionship and loyalty to people in all walks of life.  Each of these colts carries deep in his soul, a knowledge of triumph and tragedy, and the memory of those people through the centuries who have loved him.  We ask you to recognize and care for this treasure when it is given into your hands.  You are about to become a part of a tradition.

Orlov trotters mare herd. Moscow stud farm #1.