Orlov Trotters - Horses Fit for a Tsar

Tsar Alexander III in an open landau harnessed by Orlov Trotters.

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It's said that it's a rare Russian that doesn't like a fast ride, but perhaps the most elegant and traditional way to do so is on the back of the famous Russian horse breed, the Orlov trotter.

In the fields they may be galloping, but it’s their strides on the race track that’s made them legendary in Russia. Orlov trotters are the oldest and most treasured breed in the country.

The head breeder of the Khrenovskoy stud farm, Tatyana Kalugina, says she fell in love with them at first sight and since then, the Orlov has been a huge part of her life.

“It’s something deep in your soul,” she said. “Working with horses was my childhood dream. And while these may sound like big words, maybe it’s about love for my country – for me there's nothing better than the Orlov, a truly Russian horse.”

The Orlov breed was created in the late 18th century by Count Alexey Orlov – hence its name. The Count and the future Empress Catherine the Great were rushing to St. Petersburg, where she was to lead the coup that brought her to the throne. But their fashionable European horses couldn’t sustain the pace, and the journey was only completed with a change of horses midway.

Count Alexey realized Russia needed an enduring and fast horse, and on the vast grasslands of central Russia, he spent 30 years creating the breed.

Count Orlov never named his horses until they revealed a key trait of their character or look, so they had names like Playful, Fiery or Fast. The tradition was dropped at the beginning of the 20th century, but these horses are still pretty fiery, quite playful and very fast.

Orlov's horses were considered the equine royalty of Russia, fit for a Tsar – here’s Aleksander III being carried in style. But it was on the racetrack that most were to win fame. Used for harness-racing by the nobility, the Orlov was king of the track throughout the 19th century.

The Khrenovskoy stud farm, cradle of the Orlov trotter, proudly shows off its past trophies and grooms its horses for future victories. Jockey’s assistant Tatyana Chemyrtan says the hardest part is “when you take foals from the fields and start teaching them. They don’t know anything, they have to get used to the harness.”

The historic estate now has some 400 trotters successfully sold at home and abroad. The Orlovs also make ideal troika horses and are great to ride. A riding-school at the stud farm draws youngsters from all over Russia who want to make a career in equestrian sports.

Russian horse-breeding collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the Orlov breed faced an uncertain future. But like its hardy charges, the Khrenovskoy stud farm is learning to survive and is still raising champions like Pallada, officially Russia’s best Orlov trotter. Trainer Leonid Makhinov, who drove her to victory, has been working here for more than a decade. But even his equestrian expertise doesn’t always save him from trouble.

“I once fell off when driving during a competition,” Makhinov said. “And I was leading the race! It must have looked quite funny – the audience could see me and then suddenly I was gone and the horse continued alone! But I wasn’t laughing at the time! I was lucky, as it was quite dangerous.”

As saying goes, only those who don’t ride don’t fall off… But if you’re riding an Orlov, you’re sure to be riding high.

Russia Today
15 December, 2009