There isn’t a more famous breed of horse that has come out of Russia than the Orlov Trotter. It is known for an exceptionally fast trot, with a stamina that is equally exceptional. Developed by Count Alexi Orlov at his stud farm near Bobrov, they have been used for riding, harness racing, and for other royal purposes.
For more than a century, the Orlov Trotter was thought to be the fastest harness racer in the world. As Standardbreds grew in popularity, their speed could beat the Orlov Trotter, which caused local breeders to focus on speed in their breed programs. Although the Orlov Trotter is more refined as a breed, the Standardbred was simply faster.
That led to the creation of the Russian Trotter, which comes from crossbreeding Standardbreds with the Orlov Trotter. The Russian Trotter could compete on a global stage for harness racing, which led to the almost extinction of the Orlov Trotter.
Beginning in the 20th century, preservation efforts to save the breed were started. Although population numbers are still quite limited, there are at least 15 stud farms in Ukraine and Russian that are working with this breed.
The Origin of the Orlov Trotter
The Orlov Trotter was developed on the Khrenovsky stud farm. The farm came about because of a reward that was given to Count Orlov for his efforts that would bring Catherine the Great to the throne in Russia. Orlov was heavily involved in the wars with Turkey as well, so a tract of land in central Russia was given to him.
Massive stone structures were built to support the newly established stud farm, many of which are still present today. Beginning around 1770, Orlov decided to use his new stud farm to create a new breed of horse that could handle Russia’s unique climate, have great stamina for travel, but still be a willing workhorse for the tough fields that would need to be plowed.
Orlov felt his work was quite urgent since horses struggled to survive in Russia. To create this new breed, he set out to acquire the best possible horses throughout Europe. His best find was an Arabian stallion named Smetanka. The Arabian had a longer back than normal thanks to an extra rib, a fantastic trot, and outstanding physical characteristics.
Instead of taking 7 generations to establish a full breed, Orlov was able to create a horse that could handle the demands of Russia in just 3 generations. He was able to accomplish this by working on a larger scale than most stud farms. At its peak, under Orlov’s guidance, more than 3,000 horses called Khrenovsky their home.
To hasten their development, the new horses were consistently exposed to the harsh climate of the region. Training programs involved long-distance rides and short-distance sprints. Specific traits were recognized and then immediately bred or immediately discarded.
Orlov gave the farm to his daughter Anna after his death in 1809, while at the same time, Vasily Shishkin, who worked with Orlov, worked to continue the breed on the farm. Orlov’s daughter didn’t have the same passion in breeding horses as he did, so the quality of the program began to decline. In 1831, Shishkin left Khrenovsky to start his own horse farm.
That departure caused the Orlov stud farm to decline until it was finally surrendered back to the Crown in 1845.
In the 50 years after Shishkin left, Orlov Trotters were crossbred with numerous other breeds to produce horses that were treated as being questionable in quality and temperament at best. In 1881, Khrenovsky returned to raising Orlovs only, but the best bloodlines for the breed now come from stud farms that worked with Shishkin over those decades.
In 1834, the popularity of the Orlov Trotter caused a trotting society to be formed in Moscow. The society held regular races and this helped Orlovs begin to grow in global prominence. They proved to be the best racers of their type in all of Europe. At one point, in 1867, an Orlov Trotter was able to go 3,500 feet in 92 seconds. That was even faster than a Standardbred at the time.
This created a “horse race” of sorts between the Americans and their Standardbreds and the Russians with the Orlov Trotter. The Americans had a clear advantage though. The Russians needed the Orlov Trotters to perform general work duties in addition to being a good racer. The Standardbreds had the luxury of being a general racing horse only.
To compete with the Standardbreds, desperation took over in Russia. Eventually the Orlovs were bred with Standardbreds to create a comparative horse in speed, but not in capability. Russian Trotters just couldn’t work like the Orlovs.
Once that was realized, the Orlov came back to prominence. By 1904, the Orlov Trotter had been improved in speed enough to be competitive on the global stage once again.
The 20th Century and the Orlov Trotter
Once the Civil War broke out in Russia, the equine world was devastated beyond belief. Numerous horses were killed in the battles that would take place. Desperate families were forced to slaughter their horses for food. Breeding horses was a luxury that few could afford, and those that could afford it were generally in hiding.
It wouldn’t be until 1920 that breeding programs would resume after the Russian civil war. When breeding was restarted, crossbreeding of Orlovs was expressly forbidden by the new government. Over that first decade, the breed was brought back to race breeding from agricultural breeding and by the 1930s, they were once again competitive on the world stage.
In the 1940s, during the Soviet-German War (World War II), Orlov Trotters were once again used frequently in battle. Their population numbers suffered greatly once again. Once the war was concluded, the need for agricultural work put racing horses out into farm fields to improve production.
Then, in 1953, the Soviet Union declared that the cost of raising horses did not make sense with improvements to mechanization. That resulted in a dramatic reduction in stud farms and those that did remain lost most, if not all, of their government support.
Between 1953-1996, the Orlov Trotter all but disappeared from the equine world. Families that were still involved in harness racing preferred the Russian Trotter or American breeds, which left the Orlov out of favor and ignored. In 1997, an international committee was formed to protect the Orlov Trotter and stud farms were established, which still exist.
The breed is still severely endangered, with an estimated 800 mares thought to be on the 15 total stud farms.
Characteristics of the Orlov Trotter
Orlov Trotters have a shape and presence that is similar to the Standardbred, but they are a bit taller and have a certain stoutness to their physical appearance. The average height of the modern Orlov is 15.8 hands, with an average body length, above average chest circumference, and a large head that has expressive eyes.
Some individuals may reach a height of 17 hands. Mares typically need to be at least 15.2 hands to be considered for breeding programs.
Orlovs should have a neck that is naturally arched and set high. Withers should be prominent and the croup should be broad. The horse should give off the impression that it is muscular, but not bulky. The legs are strong, joints are prominent, and the tendons are clearly defined.
Because the Orlov Trotter has Arabian origins, most of the horses will have a gray coat color. It is common for a foal to have a darker coat and then a lighter coat grows in as the horse ages. Gray horses will eventually become completely white. Black and bay coats are fairly common in the breed as well. Chestnut coats are possible, but are fairly rare.
These horses are designed to be strong, but fast, in any form of work. Their substantial bone structure gives them a certain sturdiness that is uncommon in the equine world today. They can be spirited, but are typically easy keepers, and they love a good adventure.
The natural curiosity of the Orlov Trotter is known to get an unsupervised horse into some trouble if there isn’t regular social contact. An Orlov that is left alone can also develop unwanted behaviors, but this is usually done as a way to attract attention back to the horse so social connections can be formed.
Orlovs love to exercise and make for an excellent riding horse, but they can sometimes be a struggle when working with someone new to horses. They perform well when they have confidence in their handler and the handler has confidence in the horse. Orlovs attempt to be supportive of new riders, but their spirit tends to limit their patience and eventually they’ll give up if they feel like someone isn’t “getting it.”
Although the breed is endangered, preservation efforts are working and the breed is recovering well. Given enough time, the Orlov Trotter may once again rise to dominate the world stage yet again.