The East Prussian Warmblood of Trakehner Origin, more commonly known as the Trakehaner, is a frequent occupant of the winner’s stand. The breed especially excels in dressage, but is also seen in show jumping and eventing competitions. They are admired for their athletic ability, excellent endurance, and elegant way of going. The Trakehners of today are all descended from a small number of horses that survived a grueling flight ahead of the Russian army at the end of World War II. But for their strength and endurance, and the determination of a handful of people, the breed might easily have been lost to history.
The East Prussian region has a long history of horse breeding. The local horse, called the Schweiken, used by farmers as a general utility horse, clearly descended from the wild Tarpan horse. It was a small, hardy horse that required little fodder, was a willing worker, and was remarkably healthy. Organized breeding programs aimed at adding to the size and weight of these sturdy horses came and went beginning in the 16th century. In 1726, driven by the need to establish a reliable supply of cavalry remounts and royal horses, Friedrich Wilhelm I decided to create a centralized stud bringing together the stock from numerous regional stud farms. He selected 8600 acres near the estate known as Trakehnen, and in 1732 the Trakehnen Central Stud was opened.
Early breeding programs at Trakehnen met with mixed success but in the 1780s Friedrich Wilhelm II chose Count Karl Lindenau as stud manager for Trakehnen. Both men were knowledgeable horsemen and they enthusiastically developed a new and well planned breeding program. One of their first actions was to dramatically increase the number of stallion stations. Two hundred and sixty nine state stallions were selected and distributed to regional studs at which private owners could bring their mares for service. At the same time, strict guidelines for the mares were developed and only those meeting these high standards were permitted to be covered by the state owned stallions. This system served to drastically improve the privately owned stock. At the same time a review was conducted of the stock at the Trakehnen stud. Twenty-five of the thirty-eight stallions and 144 of the 356 mares failed to meet the standards and were removed from the breeding program. From this carefully selected foundation the development of the Trakehner horse proceeded. The herds of broodmares were distributed among five farms sorted by type, carriage vs. riding, and by color. Improvements to the breed were made through the careful infusion of Thoroughbred and Arabian blood.
After the First World War the goal of the breeding program shifted from a light cavalry horse to one with more substance. Any horse put forward by his owner as a possible sire was sent to Zwion for training and testing at the age of two and a half. After a year’s training during which the director evaluated a stallion’s health, temperament, action, and habits, a final 3 day cross country test was administered. Roughly 10 percent of the stallions selected to go through the process failed to meet the necessary standards for inclusion in the stud book as a sire. Mares were also tested before being selected for breeding. They must be registered in the East Prussian stud book, show capability in plowing, pulling heavy loads, and demonstrate paces under a rider.
The use of privately owned horses in addition to the state owned horses and the application of such strict breed standards resulted in great national pride in the Trakehner horse. These beloved animals were prized possessions for both the private individual as well as the state. Due to wars and unrest in the region the Trakehnen Stud was evacuated several times between its founding and the Second World War. But the horses always returned and the breed survived and eventually thrived again in its traditional home. Sadly that would not be the case in the evacuation precipitated by the Russian invasion of Germany during World War II.
In the fall of 1944 the Trakehnen stud was finally given permission to evacuate the horses. This was accomplished by old men and young boys as the men were all conscripted into the German army. Despite valiant effort and overcoming a variety of demanding trials most of these horses ended up in Russian or Polish hands or died during the journey. Very few state owned Trakehners succeeding in finding safe homes in the West. The privately owned mares, many in foal, joined their owners in a brutal overland trek of up to 900 miles through mud, snow, and biting cold. Most horses were unshod, there was little to no food available and very little shelter. Often the mares remained in harness overnight. The most treacherous segment of the journey was a five mile walk over the frozen lagoon Frisches Haff during which many people and horses were lost beneath the ice. In her book, Flight of the East Prussian Horses, Daphne Machin Goodall includes letters from people that survived the journey. All are heartbreaking maybe more so for their lack of emotion. This is an excerpt from Albert Shenk’s account:
“I left Kreis Bartenstein on 28 January in driving snow and above 20 degrees of frost with a waggon weighing over 40cwt. It was impossible even to think of finding shelter at night. For more than six weeks by day and night the horses were harnessed to the waggon without being taken out, and endured every kind of wind and weather. In January and February, when it would be impossible for two horses to go forward in the deep snow, four would be harnessed together. As we came near the Haff, it began to thaw, the ice was cracked and water stood over it. From the beach, the waggons went over with fifty yards distance between each waggon, one behind the other; many were not careful enough and drove too near each other and therefore many waggons were lost. Near Leisunen we drove on to the Haff, and thought only to drive across to the Nehrung, but we were not allowed on, and had to drive to Kahlberg, the whole distance of the Haff.
We had to spend the night on the ice, and then came to a place where for about 200 yards the horses had to be driven through at the gallop — the ice rolled behind the waggon like waves of water… When we had the worse part of the journey behind us, their foals were born. The foals were completely developed but had starved to death before birth. There were days when we had done over 50km. Usually we made 30km per day and we arrived after a journey of nine weeks.”Goodall (1973) p. 74-76.
In the end, out of over 50,000 Trakehners, fewer than 1,000 would escape to the West. The Trakehnen central stud was never reopened, and the horses never returned to their homeland. The survivors were scattered and isolated but determined individuals endeavored to save the breed, in particular Dr. Fritz Schilke and Siegfried Freiherr von Schroetter, both officers of the East Prussian Studbook Society in Königsberg. The Trakehner Verband was founded in 1947, and continues to govern the development of the breed today. The first West German Trakehners were born in 1948 and in 1950 the West German government joined the effort to rebuild the breed and funded a Trakehner farm. With 40 stallions and 700 mares the Verband managed to register 650 mares and 50 stallions by 1954. Those numbers increased to 1600 registered mares and just under 200 stallions by 1970.
Today the breed continues to thrive. The Trakehner Verband still runs the show in Europe and there is an American Trakehner Association in North America. The breeding program continues to be guided by performance tests for both stallions and mares. The Trakehner is often used as a refiner in the breeding programs of other breeds. I find the breed’s story inspiring. They were forced through the most drastic of performance tests and their stoic endurance served them well. The Library has several books on the breed and its history. We are not currently open due to the pandemic but I’m hopeful that this summer you’ll be able to visit and read all about the Trakehner.
Clough, P. (2009). The Flight Across the Ice: the escape of the East Prussian Horses. Haus Books.
Goodall, D. M. (1973). The Flight of the East Prussian Horses. David & Charles.
Strickland, C. (1992). The Warmblood Guidebook. Half Halt Press.
Velsen-Zerweck, E. and Schulte, E. (1990). The Trakehner. J. A. Allen
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 450 years of the history of equestrian sport, fly fishing, wing shooting, other field sports, and country life.