Breed Organization Information
Russia 391128 Ryazan Rybnovsky Area VNII konevodstva G.A. Rozhdestvenskaya, G.V. Kalinkina
About the Breed
The Orlov Trotter is Russia’s most famous breed of horse. At one time the fastest harness horse on the European continent, the Orlov’s massive beauty, weight-bearing strength and long-distance stamina have also contributed to its pride of place in the history of Russian horse breeding. The story of the Orlov Trotter is the stuff of legend, embellished by the romance of the Russian troika and ennobled by its representation in Russian literature.
The Orlov Trotter breed was conceived toward the end of the 18th century as a light harness horse of both speed and endurance (a parallel breed, the Orlov Riding horse, has not survived). The breed is named in honor of its creator, Count A. G. Orlov (1737-1807), whose involvement in the assassination of Paul III brought Catherine the Great to the throne. For valor in the Russo-Turkish Wars, the tsarina made a gift to the count of a huge tract of land in the fertile steppe region of central Russia (Voronezh). It was here that Count Orlov established the Khrenovsky Stud, the foundation stud for the Orlov breed. The farm is in operation to this day and several of the magnificent stone structures built by the count are still in use.
Beginning in the 1770s, Count Orlov set out to breed a type of horse that would tolerate Russia’s severe climate, its terrible roads and the long distances that travel in Russia typically mandated. That horse would need great powers of endurance and an inherently long-strided trot (the least taxing gait for sustained work at speed). The lack of such a horse in Russia gave urgency and clarity to the count’s vision. Just as important for a man so keenly interested in horses, the count wanted this new breed to be beautiful to the eye. Orlov’s expert knowledge of horses, his considerable wealth and his prestige in the highest political and social circles enabled him to acquire the very finest horses from Arabia, Persia, Turkey, the Caucasus, Poland, Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany, England and Denmark. His most famous acquisition, from a Turkish pasha, was the Arabian stallion Smetanka, a silver-gray horse, rather large and long-backed for the breed (an autopsy revealed that he had 19 ribs, i.e., an extra rib), with an extravagant trot.
Old-time breeders say that it takes at least seven generations to define a new breed. Within three generations, however, Count Orlov succeeded in creating the essential traits of the Orlov Trotter. How did he accomplish that extraordinary feat? By working on a massive scale — he kept as many as 3,000 horses at Khrenovsky Stud at one time, by keeping meticulous breeding and performance records, and by working with several different potential lines at one time. It goes without saying that Count Orlov had at his disposal enormous human resources in the form of serf labor; he himself tended to reside in Moscow, several hundred kilometers’ distance from the stud.
The count’s basic premise was to breed Arabian stallions onto European mares. After a few false starts, he bred Smetanka to a dun-colored Danish mare from the Frederiksborg Royal Stud and produced the gray stallion Polkan I (1778-1793). The great hopes that the count placed in Smetanka were crushed by the stallion’s untimely death a year later. Count Orlov continued working with the closest genetic material to Smetanka, his son Polkan I, whose pleasing exterior, however, was not matched by his trot. To correct for this defect, Count Orlov bred Polkan I to several Friesian mares that he imported from Holland, knowing that this old Dutch breed had a speedy, elegant trot. Polkan I and the Dutch mare No. 2 (gray in color, unusual for the breed) produced gray Bars I (1784-1808), generally regarded as the progenitor of the Orlov Trotter breed.
The sons of Bars I proved the superiority of this individual. Bars I was distinguished by his large size and harmonious proportions, his agility, strength and — especially important — by his swift trot. Bars I was bred to a carefully selected group of mares of analogous origin (Arab-Danish-Dutch crosses) as well as to mares derived from crossing other Arabian stallions with warmblood-type mares of other European breeds. Of Bars’ 11 sons used for stud at Khrenovsky, two individuals, both born of Arab-Mecklenburg mares, were of definitive significance to the development of the breed: Liubeznyi I (black, 1784-1819) and Lebed’ I (gray, 1804-1822). All modern Orlov Trotters trace back to one of these two stallions.
In pursuit of a healthy and hardy breed, Orlov mares, their foals and young stock lived for the most part outdoors, in large herds. All horses at Khrenovsky Stud underwent a program of training and testing, both at short distances (400 meters) and at long distances, up to 20-22 kilometers. No horse, no matter how beautiful, was used for breeding unless he or she possessed a trot, superior both in speed and in stamina. Similarly, even if a horse excelled at the trot, he or she was assigned breeding duties only after meeting stringent conformation and aesthetic standards. The fourth generation Muzhik ["Peasant"] I, for example, son of Liubeznyi I, despite his reputation as the fastest horse at the stud, was castrated for the white markings on his mostly black coat. The famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina) immortalized the unfortunate fate of Muzhik I in his novella Kholstomer ["Yardstick" or "Strider"], the title referring to the nickname of the exceptional trotter.
Beginning in the 1830s the Khrenovky Stud’s monopoly on breeding Orlovs broke down and, by mid-century, Orlov Trotters were bred widely throughout the country. To the Orlov goes the credit for introducing the sport of harness racing into Russia. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, there was no other trotting breed in the world that could match the Orlov for speed, stamina or hardiness. The Orlov enjoyed great prestige not only in Russia, but throughout all of Europe. Aside from sport racing, the Orlov Trotter was a popular carriage horse. Least celebrated among its many accomplishments, the Orlov was often used to improve Russian livestock; in this the Orlov’s influence exceeds all other Russian breeds combined.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, during the rage to cross American Standardbred onto Orlov Trotters, (see Russian Trotter), valuable Orlov bloodlines were diluted. World War I, civil war, collectivization (with its termination of privately controlled breeding), World War II and the deterioration in the agricultural sector preceding the break-up of the Soviet Union all took a toll on the breed’s genetic pool. Subsequently, the transition from a government-controlled horse industry to a free-market economy, has worked to the detriment of the Orlov breed. Keeping in mind that the Russian Trotter is faster than the Orlov, and that the American Standardbred is faster still, it is not surprising that investment by Russia’s newly wealthy leisure class has not focused on the Orlov Trotter. Nonetheless, the closing years of the twentieth century has witnessed a notable increase of interest in the Orlov breed.
Dedicated enthusiasts are determined to save the Orlov Trotter from the oblivion that threatens it if speed on Russia’s harness tracks is the exclusive criterion by which the breed is valued. To address the problems facing the Orlov Trotter, each year, beginning in 1996, a conference of leading international specialists has been held in Moscow. This conference was the brain child of Alla Polzunova, internationally-renowned harness driver, founder and currently director of the Moscow School of Harness Driving, and one of Russia’s most distinguished horsemen. It was resolved at the second annual conference (1997) to formalize an advocacy role for Orlov enthusiasts; thus was formed the International Committee for the Protection of the Orlov Trotter. Elected to the position of president was Dr. Gayana Rozhdestvenskya, leading Orlov breed specialist and Professor of Horse-Breeding Research at the All-Russian Institute of Horsebreeding in Ryazan. Recent incentives to the development of Orlov breeding include more harness competitions restricted to Orlov Trotters, added purses for Orlov winners in open competition, Orlov championships based on speed and conformation, and the resurrection of troika racing.
Aside from its brighter future on Russia’s harness tracks, the Orlov has great possibilities as a competitive driving horse, a potential for the breed that has not yet been tapped. The future of the Orlov Trotter, a unique breed of horse, with deep roots in Russia’s history, is not yet secure. But for anyone who has ever seen Orlov Trotters racing in traditional Russian troika harness — the center horse trots while the two side horses gallop — it is unimaginable that such a magnificently powerful and beautiful animal might want for enthusiastic supporters and benefactors.
The average current measurements for Orlov breeding stallions are 161.4 cm (height at withers), 164 cm(body length/barrel), 186 cm (chest circumference), 20.4 cm (cannon bone circumference) and for breeding mares are 160.3 cm, 163.6 cm, 186.2 cm and 20.1 cm. In appearance the Orlov is markedly a driving horse, characterized by a big head, large expressive eyes, and a long and naturally arched neck. The chest is deep and broad, the body is muscular, with well-sprung ribs, and the back is long. The legs are strongly built, with prominent joints and clearly defined tendons.
Color: Foundation breeding selected for gray, still the most characteristic color, which at maturity turns snow white. Black and bay are also common.
Famous Orlov Stallions
Krepysh was called “the horse of the century” for his record-setting 2.08 5/8 at 1600 meters (9 meters short of a mile) at the beginning of the twentieth century. The current record for this distance, 1.57,2, belongs to the chestnut stallion Kovboi, driven by Mikhail Kozlov in 1991; this record is also the absolute record for trotters of any breed raced in Russia. Kovboi (Blokpost – Krutizna) was born in 1984 at the Permsky Stud, where he now stands.
Ippik holds the record at 2,400 meters for any breed in Russia with a time of 3.02,5, TT [time trial, time against the clock]. Ippik, a gray stallion (Persid – Ifigeniya), stands at the Altaisky Stud, where he was born in 1980.
The record for 3200 meters, 4.13,5, TT, was set by Pion (Otklik – Pridannitsa), arguably the most influential Orlov breeding stallion in the past 30 years. Pion, a gray, was born in 1966 at the renowned Dubrovsky Stud in Ukraine and is the grandsire of Kovboi (see above). During his career at stud, Pion produced about 100 sons and daughters who beat Krepysh’s record.
The stud book of the Orlov Trotter breed is maintained by the All-Russian Institute of Horsebreeding [VNIIK].