Breed Organization Information
About the Breed
The Russian Trotter traces its beginnings back to the end of the nineteenth century, to the dramatic success of the American Standardbred on Russia’s harness tracks. Until that time the Orlov Trotter, Russia’s most famous native breed, was generally acknowledged to be the fastest harness horse in all of Europe, even in competition against American-bred horses. An added virtue of the Russian breed, as opposed to the American horse, the Orlov Trotter had a distinguished reputation as a stylish carriage horse and was therefore greatly valued even after its racing days were over.
By the turn of the last century, however, the American horse began to out race the Orlov on European harness tracks. European investors took advantage of a depressed American economy to purchase American harness horses in increasing numbers. The faster American trotter brought to Russia’s harness tracks talented American trainer/drivers, a light-weight harness and sulky (called “amerikanka”) with rubber wheels, and, relative to Russian sporting tradition, a more rigorous and effective system of training young racing stock. Just as important, when Russia adopted the American system of computing racing bets (the “totalizator”) in the 1780s, harness racing became a profitable commercial investment and provided a strong incentive to Russian breeders to use American horses in their breeding programs.
The “invasion” of the American harness horse threatened the viability of Russian-bred horses and wounded patriotic racing fans. Attempts to restrict purses to horses bred in Russia (in effect, to the Orlov breed) resulted in more than one ringer. In early, 1900, for example, the American-bred William C.K. began racing with false papers as the Orlov Trotter Rassvet in Moscow and Petersburg; within a few months the steel-gray stallion (characteristic coloring for an Orlov, but rare in the Standardbred) had won twenty thousand rubles in prize money. In June he beat the absolute Russian record of 2:14 1/2 at 1 1/2 versts (or 1600 meters, 9 meters short of one mile) held by the reigning champion, the Orlov Pitomets, by an unbelievable two seconds. A protracted and highly publicized trial followed; threatened by exposure, the owner of William C.K./Rassvet or someone else connected to the deception, had the horse poisoned, thus destroying the living evidence of wrongdoing.
Russian breeders responded to racing prohibitions against foreign-bred horses by crossing imported (American) stallions with native (Orlov) trotters. Sporting publications of the time even report cases of Orlov mares being shipped to America for breeding to Standardbreds! These crosses sometimes produced a faster horse than the purebred Orlov, but at the expense of the massive beauty and stamina which are hallmarks of that breed. In the process there arose an impassioned conflict among Russian breeders and racing fans — some arguing in favor of greater speed at all costs, others expressing outrage at the contamination with foreign blood of Russia’s most revered breed.
The greater speed of the American Standardbred, however, assured that cross breeding would continue. When the crossbred mare Kleopatra (2.17 3/4), bred from the American stallion Prince Varvik out of the Orlov mare Kralia, earned in excess of 92,000 rubles on Russian harness tracks and was awarded high honors at the 1910 All-Russian Equine Exposition in Moscow, a new era in Russian horsebreeding was confirmed. The pursuit of a faster harness horse led breeders to engage in sustained experimentation with selective breeding of cross-bred horses; in this fashion the breeding farms of Telegin and Lezhnev built the foundations of the future Russian Trotter breed.
Beginning with the First World War, Russian horse breeding fell into decline. The market for sport horses virtually disappeared and importation of horses ceased. During the 1917 revolution and the bloody civil war which followed, existing stock was severely depleted. The American-Orlov cross was especially hard hit; their limited numbers, either line-bred to themselves or bred back to Orlovs, were diverted from sport into agriculture and army transport. Nonetheless, some die-hard enthusiasts still bred for the kind of speed that could only find a home on the race track. The greatest trotter of the 1920s, Petushka 2.03.5 (Trepet – Prelest’), born in 1925 at the Smolensk Stud, was the first Russian-bred trotter to break 2.05. He won 50 of the eighty races he entered, including several races in Germany.
World War II wrecked new havoc on sport breeding in Russia, but selective breeding of the progeny of American-Orlov crosses continued to develop the type of horse which in 1949 became officially recognized and registered as a distinct breed: the Russian Trotter. The most outstanding example of the breed, the bay stallion Zhest 1.59 (Talantlyvyi – Zhelnerochka), born in 1947 at the Kul’tura Stud, became at the age of six the first trotter on the European continent to break the two-minute mark.
By the end of the 1950s, the Russian trotter lost ground to the French Trotter, a breed which had significantly developed after the war. The prestige of the Russian Trotter was further depressed by the increasing presence of the American Standardbred on European harness tracks. The intermittent thaws in the Cold War during the 1960s allowed for a limited purchase of foreign-bred American horses to reinvigorate Russian Trotter bloodlines, but it was not until the mid-eighties that American Standardbreds began to be imported into Russia in large numbers.
This second major influx of American-bred trotters virtually devoured the Russian Trotter; horses such as Lowe Hanover 1.59 (Star’s Pride – Linda Dean) and Reprise 1.57.6 (Noble Victory – Flouridate) had an enormous influence on harness breeding in Russia. The majority of American imports, however, were not of the highest quality — money allocated for the purchase of imported horses was tightly controlled by the government — and they did not justify their promise. More often then not, breeding to American horses weakened the well-established characteristics of the Russian Trotter and diluted the gene pool.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, newly wealthy private citizens have been able to purchase horses from abroad. Just as was the case in Russia a century earlier, the current demand for the American Standardbred horse is linked to the prestige and financial incentives of winning races; there is no other market for the Russian Trotter. Most Russian breeding specialists concur that the surest way to improve speed on Russia’s harness tracks is to continue the trend toward the “Americanization” of the Russian Trotter. The exclusive pursuit of speed places in jeopardy the gene pool and breed traits of the Russian Trotter.
In the 1980s the average measurements of the Russian Trotter were 160 cm (height at the withers), 162 cm (body length/barrel), 181 cm (chest circumference), 20 cm (cannon bone circumference). In appearance the Russian Trotter is similar to the American Standardbred. The most typical colors are bay, black, chestnut and gray.
The stud book of the Russian Trotter breed is maintained by the All-Russian Institute of Horsebreeding [VNIIK] in Ryazan. Volumes XXVII and XXVIII are currently in preparation.