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DON HORSE

Don Horse
Europe

Breed Organization Information

Russia 391128 Ryazan
Rybnovsky Area
VNII konevodstva
M.U. Kibort
vniik@ryazan.rinf.ru

About the Breed

The Don Horse, the oldest continuously bred Russian riding horse, traces its origins back over 200 years to the steppes of Southern Russia. The powerful Don River gave its name to the grassy, treeless plains that bordered and fed it, to the Cossacks who inhabited the area and to the remarkable breed of horse that developed from this symbiotic relationship between a people whose lives came to depend on horses and the horses who thrived in the harsh conditions of the arid steppes. In this semi-nomadic region, passing herds of horses left their genetic mark on already diverse local equine populations of the Nogai type. Preexisting breeds that most influenced the development of the Don breed included Karabakh, Persian and Turkmenic breeds, later Arabian horses (often introduced to the Don Cossacks? herds as war booty), and, lastly, the thoroughbred, then identified as "English pure bred."

The Cossacks trace their heritage back to the sixteenth century, when runaway serfs (slaves) settled parts of southern Russia. These peoples, who achieved their freedom at some risk, eventually became called Cossacks, after the Mongolian word "Kazak," meaning a lightly armored warrior on horseback. They lived semi-nomadically, loosely overseeing their horses that ran free in huge herds. The Don Cossacks did not become farmers and were not rooted to the land; their life determined the kind of horse they most valued and they played a major role in defining the traits of their horses.

The Don Horse evolved from the Cossacks? need for reliable horses for mounted combat. And, perhaps in turn, the Cossack life became viable thanks to the distinguishing features of their horses: speed, agility, physical and mental strength and stamina. Despite the initial diversity of breeds that contributed to the Don Horse, the highly specific and uniformly stressful conditions in which they lived produced a consistent type of horse.

The Don Cossacks earned their reputation as fearless combatants and superb riders riding superb horses. They inhabited a large buffer zone on Russia?s southern border that frequently brought them into conflict with their Turkic and Tartaric neighbors. By the mid-eighteenth century these fierce Russian warriors began to serve officially in the Russian army. 60,000 horse-mounted Cossacks from the Don region served in the Napoleonic Wars. When he assessed his disastrous invasion of Russia, Napoleon allegedly made special note of the superior skills of the Cossack regiments.

The first private stud farms devoted to the breeding of Don Horses appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. The Don Horse became well known as a distinct breed in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. By mid-century over half the horses in the Don steppes were direct descendants of the original Don horses; that number dropped by half by the end of the century. Crossbreeding of Don mares to Streletsky, Orlov-Rostopchin and especially English-bred stallions refined the Don conformation at the expense of some of its warmblood characteristics. The Don Horse became the favored all-purpose breed of military horse, used for work under saddle and in harness, not only by the Cossacks but also the entire Russian army. Throughout the nineteenth century Cossack regiments, almost exclusively mounted on Don Horses, enjoyed special prestige in military circles. They were among the tsar?s most loyal defenders during the 1917 Russian revolution.

If the warrior spirit of the Cossacks is now largely a memory, the Don Horse has survived mostly intact into the twenty-first century. World War I demonstrated that the days of mounted soldiers had passed. The decimating losses to the Don during the war and the subsequent civil war delivered a crushing blow to the breed; only a few hundreds of horses survived. A systematic government-sponsored breeding program centered in the Rostov area revived the breed in the thirties and forties and the Don continued to serve in the Russian military until the cavalry was disbanded in 1954.

1948 marked the official separation of the Don from the related Budenny (a.k.a. Budyonnny) breed, an Anglo-Don cross.

Breed Characteristics

The Don Horse presents a refined warmblood appearance, with a well chiseled head, a muscular chest and strong legs. Dominant colors include chestnut and bay, often with a gold cast.

Current measurements for stallions is 166 cm at the withers. Other current measurements are not available.

The Don Horse is currently bred for sport: recreational riding, equine tourism and sport competition; it excels in this last category.

Breed Organizations

During the Soviet period outstanding study farms included the Budenny Stud and Zimovnikov Stud, both near Rostov. The Issyk-Kulsky Stud (Kirghizia) and Lukovsky Stud in Kazakhstan. The two Russian farms have remained active in the post-Soviet period and have collected some of the best specimens into their herds.

The studbook for Don breed is regularly published by the All-Russian Institute of Horsebreeding (VNIIK). Volume XIII was published in 1997; Volume XIV was scheduled for 1999. Passports for horses registered in the Don breed are authenticated by VNIIK. Each year VNIIK publishes a catalog that evaluates and ranks eligible breeding stallions. The 1998 catalog evaluates horses born in the period 1994-1996.