Two notions that perhaps everyone associates with Russia are the immense distances and Siberian temperatures.
If one thinks harder, richly decorated churches, golden palaces, Faberge eggs, war and peace or revolution may come to mind, but what really stands out are the infinite Russian versts (1 verst = 1.06km). Amazingly, the maximum east west extent of modern day Russia is almost 10,000km, a distance encompassing 11 time zones and spanning nearly half the circumference of the earth.
And there is a native breed of horses, possibly little known abroad, whose qualities have come to match the extreme conditions perfectly: the Don horses. Named after the river Don in southern Russia, this breed is one of only two native breeds which have survived in modern times. The other such native horses are the Orlov trotters, bred by and named after the 18th century Count Orlov, one of the most influential figures in Catherine the Great’s Russia.
The roots of the Don horses go back to ancient times and the Nogajy tribes who inhabited the regions east of the Caspian Sea. These equine predecessors were famous for their exceptional stamina and the ability to survive equally well the freezing winters and searing heat of the southern steppes. Organised breeding began in the 18th century with the creation of special studbooks. Arab and thoroughbred stallions were introduced among the wild steppes mares. The result was an exceptional horse whose qualities came to be highly appreciated in the army.
The Don horses became the mounts of the Don Cossacks, the traditional community living in the southern steppe regions of Eastern Europe and Asian Russia who were famous for their particularly horsemanship. The Cossacks, who were also a mounted unit of the Russian army, and their horses’ full potential came to light in the 1812 war against Napoleon. Starting from Moscow in colds reaching 40 degrees below zero, the Cossacks pursued the exhausted French army throughout Europe and arrived in Paris in the spring on 1813.
The glory of the exceptional Russian horses spread all over continent.
In the Russian army, test rides to assess the endurance of the Don horses became a regular feature. In November 1883, four officers and 14 Cossacks rode the 1,128 versts (1,241 km) from Nijny Novgorod on the shores of the Volga through Moscow to Saint-Petersburg in 11 days in deep snow and temperatures down to -20ºC.
1899, Cornet (the third grade of a commissioned officer in a cavalry troop) Asseev rode from Luben in soutern Russia to Paris, a distance of 2457 versts (2633 km), in 30 days aboard the mares Vlaga and Diana with an average of 80km per day. The last day’s distance was 110 km. In Paris at that time was taking place the World’s Fair. The Russian cavalry hero came strongly in the public and media’s attention. No less than 200 newspapers published articles lauding the exceptional achievement.
In the 1940s and 50s more test riders were organised always with similar results: the horses stood up to the challenge, felt well, looked well, had a good appetite and were able to continue the exercise long after the riders and helping crews had collapses with exhaustion.
In 1995, the Don stallion Count Pompeii ridden by the famous traveller Basha O’Reilly covered the 4,000 km between the Volga steppes and England. The book Count Pompeii – Stallion of the Steppes recounts the feat.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had a harmful effect on Don horses. Careful breeding and selection were neglected, which resulted in a dramatic fall in numbers. Only a few hundred of fortunately the most precious mares and stallions survived.
With the stabilisation in Russian political life and improved economical conditions, the time has come to resurrect the glory of the past. Breeding of Don horses has resumed. Admirers from abroad are also making a contribution: in France an association of Don horse owners and fans has been created. But it is not only this exceptional horse that can benefit from the changing circumstances. The arrival of the Don horse on the international scene can be a significant asset to the FEI discipline of Endurance. A native Russian breed is gradually finding its place and its exceptional qualities are a true gift to the beauty of horse sport.