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Breed Organization Information

Samantha Matson
Russian Sporthorse Association of North America
210 West Grant Street #113
Minneapolis, MN, 55403
Phone: (612) 359-0322
Fax: (612) 359-9523
[email protected]

About the Breed

Orlov-Rostopchin is the original name of the breed dating back to 1845 when the Orlov Riding Horse and Rostopchin Riding Horse breeding herds were combined. Nearly a century later the breed was renamed the Russian Riding Horse (Russian russkyi verkhovod, German Russisches Reitpferd, Swedish rysk ridh?st) by officials of the former Soviet Union. Today russkyi verkhovod is used officially by Russian agricultural officers but “Orlov-Rostopchin” is a term which has returned with the restoration of the breed, which was made public only in recent years. Contrary to some reports the terms are both used in Russia when referring to the same breed. Less accurate is the use of the term “Russian Warmblood” to specify this breed as there are several Russian breeds which are warmbloods and their studbooks are not combined. There is no literal translation in Russian for this term.

The history of the Orlov-Rostopchin dates back to the middle of the 18th century, when Russia was breeding horses not only for carriage and military use, but for dressage riding. Through its associations with the French court, the Tsarist upper class was introduced to and practiced horsemanship as an artistic pursuit, and the foremost breeders of that day were called upon to develop a riding horse which was to be the horse of the Russian court (Catherine the Great is said to have enlisted the talents of the Orlov brothers from the prominent land-owning family of the day). Some of the initial foundation blood of this horse is shared with the Orlov Trotter, but the riding and driving breeds diverged as specific lines were formed.

The breeding program of Count A. G. Orlov-Chesmensky (1737-1807) was to produce both the Orlov Trotter and the Orlov Riding Horse. The Orlov Riding Horse and the Trotter both trace back to two stallions, the imported Saltan and Smetanka being the key progenitors when crossed with the produce of mares bred to the previously-acquired Shah and Drakon, stallions from one of the “Arabian” strains then in use by Persia, perhaps the Muniqi which is thought to be related to the Turkoman or Akhal-teke. Mares of these lines were also imported and all were introduced to Count Orlov’s stable, which already contained horses of Spanish, Neopolitan, Danish, English and Persian origins. The acquisition of broodmares continued, especially the newly-created Thoroughbreds from England, which were seen by the Russian breeders as excellent riding horses beyond the racetrack. From these mares crossed with Saltan came riding horse lines named after the stallions Sviryepy, Saltan II, Ashonok and Yashma. Lines from Smetanka included Felkersam and Polkan, the latter of which was used strictly in the breeding program for Trotters. Breeding stock continued to be culled until the results were uniform. The newly-created Orlov Riding Horse no longer looked like its Arabian or European ancestors in phenotype and were producing true as well. The result was a horse of both size and beauty, good bone without sacrificing refinement, and a temperament which was sensitive without being flighty. The predominant colors were black and dark bay.

In 1802 Count F. V. Rostopchin started his verkhovod (riding horse) breeding program in a different manner, but one which was to produce a strikingly similar result. During the early 19th century, he crossed his imports Rishan, Kadi and Kaimak, Bedouin-bred Arabian stallions of Siglavy and Koheilan strains, with mares of native stock such as the Don, Kabardin and Karabair, as well as Thoroughbred, Arabian and Persian stock. The Rostopchin Riding Horse was swift and nimble, and was also usually black or bay in color. By purchase of the state, the Rostopchin Riding Horse breeding herd was, in 1845, combined with the Orlov Riding Horse, by then a well-established breed, to be called the Orlov-Rostopchin. The practice was usually to cross Orlov’s stallions with the mares of the Rostopchin program. In the 1880’s the Orlov-Rostopchin was bred specifically as a mount for officers pursuing dressage in the cavalry (but not en masse as a battle horse). This horse also enjoyed a position of favorable nature in the Tsarist court and was exported for trade or as gifts, just as its ancestors had been imported. They were highly successful when shown at international exhibitions of the mid-19th through early 20th centuries, earning numerous gold and silver medals for their excellence as riding horses. Some world-class examples were Fakel and Fazan, Priyatel and Priezd, Vorobei and Bayanchik. These horses all traced back to Felkersam I and Saltan II.

Like many treasures of the land, the Orlov-Rostopchin suffered severe threats to its existence during the First World War, the subsequent revolution and World War II (“Great Patriotic War”), after which some sources prematurely declared it extinct due to both conditions of war and a stud farm fire which took the lives of most mares and young stock. However, each time consequences appeared to be most dire, surviving specimens were located and identified by horse breeders who knew and recognized the black beauties, and large infusions of new blood were obtained by breeding horses of similar type to these survivors. Such an effort was undertaken starting in 1931, when 82 broodmares were introduced by absorption breeding into the restoration of the Orlov-Rostopchin, which now bore the name Russian Riding Horse as mandated by the Soviet government. This is also the time when stallions Buket, Braslet and Globus were born from pre-Revolution bloodstock. Examination of their “purebred” Orlov-Rostopchin pedigrees along with others both pre- and post-Revolution confirms that then, as now, the breed studbook retained a degree of openness as is the modern sporthorse breeding practice. In the brief decade before the onset of yet another devastating war, the breed was restored to a remarkably high quality, with the formulation and practice of new testing and evaluation standards still in use today.

Unofficial (undocumented but nevertheless conscious) restoration of the Russian Riding Horse was yet again undertaken in the 1950’s. This time success was found in Ukraine by breeding horses with original blood to Trakehners, Thoroughbreds and Anglo-Hungarians at the same time and in the same stud farms where the new Ukrainian Riding Horse was being created; the descendents of the old Orlov-Rostopchin were thus for a time referred to, in official documentation, as Ukrainian. It was during this Cold War era that the USSR rose again to international prominence in equestrian sport, especially in dressage, where gold and silver Olympic medals were contested with West Germany as the main rival. The stud farms of Aleksandriisky and Dnyepropetrovsky produced such contenders as gold medalist Ikhor while harboring the covert restoration of the russkyi verkhovod. By this method the restoration could proceed even as the tragic slaughter of fine riding and racing horses was carried out in Russia to fulfill meat quotas under Krushchev’s rule. In the 1970’s, this effort to restore the Russian Riding Horse was recognized and made official by the Institute of Horsebreeding (which then oversaw all breeds in the entire Soviet Union), and successful products of the programs on Ukrainian stud farms were chosen by bloodline and type to be moved in 1978 to Starozhilovsky State Studfarm, southeast of Moscow, to continue the project in its official capacity. In a rare gesture to the dedicated horsemen who foresaw the possibilities of yet another resurrection of the breed, the Ministry of Agriculture relinquished all control of the project and assigned supervision of the studbook to the National Agricultural Academy named after K.A. Timiryazev. In the introduction to the first printed manual, Starozhilovsky was designated the base for restoration of the “russkyi verkhovod (orlovo-rostopchinskaya).” Goals included the expansion of the broodmare herd to an eventual count of 300, a slight increase in size and height, continued pursuit of the traditional qualities of refined but athletic beauty and an emphasis on dressage over other sport disciplines, with light gaits and extreme trainability consistent in all mounts.

Breeding stallions containing pre-war Orlov-Rostopchin blood have been supplanted by Thoroughbreds known for success in sport or extreme similarity in type, two Akhal-teke/Thoroughbred stallions which were sons of the great Absent, and at any given time at least one Siglavy/Koheilan Arabian with proven sport bloodlines. (In Russia, purebred Arabians have reached top levels in eventing and jumping and have set new international standards for Arabian track racing.) The 123-head broodmare band has been increased to nearly 200 by introducing mares of Arab, Akhal-Teke, Trakehner, Orlov Trotter, Anglo-Arab and Karachaev (a native horse) breeding. The produce closest to old Orlov-Rostopchin type is to be kept in the breeding program, with small groups of horses born at Starozhilovsky gradually shipped to Sergeiyevsky and Korobovo State Studfarms, where further breeding continues. Limited private efforts have started in Russia, but control of the breed standards remains under Timiryazev’s control. This breed is still subject to careful experimentation as useful additions to its gene pool are evaluated, but these additions are now almost always Arabian or Thoroughbred. The first book of the breed’s restoration was published in 1994 by the National Agricultural Institute, Timiryazev Academy in Moscow. Out of only four printed books, RSANA (see below) possesses one, the only such copy in the U.S.A. An update is in the pre-printing stage.

Evaluations of young Orlov-Rostopchins are made at age two and age four. Horses are classed as Elite-1, 2 or 3 and Class I-1, I-2 and I-3 etc. Only Elite-1 or Elite-2 stock is retained for breeding with some late-blooming Elite-3 horses. In addition to type, the criteria used in the “bonitirovka” (evaluation) includes measurements/proportions, conformation, pedigree or ancestry (to indicate probability of traits passed on), color, and “capacity for work.” The last mark is, at age two, a test of gaits and free-jumping in the chute. At four, it includes more rigorous under-saddle qualities and height of jumps cleared. Horses under training for a particular discipline are evaluated by their performance while in training. Selected competition stallions return to stud farms to become breeding stock. The conformation ideal is that the horse be suitable for collection and extension and possess angles and a compact body type lending to overall athleticism while retaining traits of exterior beauty such as a long, graceful neck with high carriage and proportionately long and dry legs. While the mark for color is of less importance than others, the most desirable mark is for black with no marks or very little white (heels and small stars being common); over 90% are black or dark bay. No white is accepted above the knee or hock, off either side of the face or that which will cause blue eyes.

Breed Characteristics
The modern-day Orlov-Rostopchin stands, on the average, at 16 to 16.1 hands high, with individual variations from 15.1 to 17.1. While they have been bred for dressage and have had as representatives Dikson and Barin, both Olympic veterans with Dikson a Reserve World Cup Champion, Starozhilovsky has also bred the successful open jumpers Dialog and Durman, now privately owned and at stud, and current dressage mount Amaretto. Many stallions have been retired to a breeding career after showing performance potential at age five or six, so their public life is brief and they are not seen by the west. Not only a horse for professionals, the Orlov-Rostopchin is a sensitive, willing horse who will give much return for its rider’s respectfully-given requests. Their trainability is often noted as an impressive trait. A refined warmblood, it is a mount with superior lightness to the aids and lovely freedom of shoulder. It is an ideal mount for those who also love the Thoroughbred and Arabian but seek more sport qualities. Imports to America and young homebreds are training in dressage, eventing and conformation and working hunters – a testament to the breed’s overall athleticism.

At present the population of the Orlov-Rostopchin is approximately 500 head. Many of the young horses are at preliminary Russian dressage levels. The main breeding herd and young trainees are kept at Starozhilovsky. Unfortunately, their future is in the hands of the unstable government and the limited funding received by the Russian Equestrian Federation. The dissolution of the USSR has proved a mixed blessing to the fortunes of the breed. One one hand, it has provided connoisseurs across the globe access to this refined mount for the first time in nearly a century (though import is not easily negotiated and remains bogged by paperwork). On the other hand, the accompanying financial collapse was disastrous to the state-funded stud farms as well as to the national equestrian program which was successfully utilizing the breed in international competitions including the Olympics, World Championships and European Games. As a result some of Russia’s best stock is now being sold to competitors indifferent to the continuation and development of the bloodlines while the financially strapped studfarms struggle to continue with bloodstock remaining after necessary sales.

Thus far it has only been in the United States that there has been interest shown in conserving the Russian Riding Horse by breeding imports and showing the adults in open competition. Imports to Europe and even private purchases in Russia often mean a dead end for bloodlines represented. As the breed has survived through incredible hardship before, it is likely that it will again, perhaps aided by those breeders continuing the lines of those now being imported to North America. It is in this context that the following concerns are addressed.

The first Orlov-Rostopchins imported to the United States came through Europe with the onset of perestroika and were brought in under the incorrect breed attribution “Russian Trakehners.” (There are very fine Russian-bred Trakehners, but they maintain a separate studbook listing both fullbloods and partbreds.) Importation continues on a small scale; united conservation efforts remain crucial. It is important that breeders understand Russian studbooks, breed history and current restoration practices as well as points of the bonitirovka so as to aim for the same ideal to which Russian breeding managers aspire. Furthermore it is important to breed stallions and mares of appropriate lineage to each other; Russian studfarm managers have already identified successful combinations and conservators would do well to build on established foundations. Future importations to North America should be orchestrated amongst all interested parties so as to emphasize missing or underrepresented bloodlines and avoid overabundance of get from one currently fashionable line.

Breed Organizations
A note of caution with regard to the russkyi verkhovod in North America: one must carefully question Americans who claim to be “representatives” of studfarms, studbooks, or the breed itself. Outrageous as it may sound there has been an effort to copyright the terms “Orlov-Rostopchin” and “Russian Warmblood.” No formal arrangement has ever been made by the studbook managers in Russia with either European or North American registries, although European dealers have developed sales relationships with Russian representatives. The Russian Sporthorse Association of North America documents births of foals from imported horses in America for inclusion in the new studbook.

Information contained in this article comes from the 1994 register of the Russian Riding Horse (Orlov-Rostopchin), Studbook of the Ukrainian Riding Horse Breeding Group Volume I (1974), Konevodstvo i Konnozavodstvo Rossii by Boris Kamberov (1988, Rosagropromizdat Moscow) and personal conversations with V.A. Parfyonov, studbook manager and horsebreeding chair at Timiryazev Agricultural Academy (Moscow), V.K. Frolov, breeding manager of Storozhilovsky State Studfarm (Ryazan), A.I. Polozkov, D.V.M., Ph.D., former team veterinarian of the Olympic and World Games and supervisor of the annual bonitirovka.