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Russians and “Russians”

By Alexander Repiev

I was once shocked by a Swedish lady who arrogantly brushed aside all my arguments that Akhal-Tekes should not be bred in Scandinavia, lest she wanted them to turn into another Swedish warmblood in a generation or two, i.e., lest she wanted to ruin that noble breed. Scandinavians just like Akhal-Tekes and could not care less whether or not Akhal-Tekes like Scandinavia. Unfortunately much of the same goes for Arabians.

Leafing through Western Arabian magazines and surfing the Arabian Internet sites Russian Arabian horsemen find many things that raise their brows. One of such things is the presence of so-called “Egyptian”, “Polish” and “Russian” BREEDERS and even of associations of those breeders in countries where the climate and/or keeping conditions are a couple of light-years removed from those under which real Egyptians, Poles and Russians are bred.

Well, adult Arabians bred in the desert or hot steppe can adapt to wet climates and different food and keeping, although they will not necessarily look just the same. According to Tersk director Alexander Ponomarev, when visiting posh European stables he has difficulties sometimes recognizing in overfed and dull-eyed animals the vigorous steppe horses bought from him several years back. But, overall, straight Russians manage to remain Russian in whatever conditions.

Breeding is different. When you breed “Russians”, say, in Scandinavia, what do you get, especially drawing on your small genetic pool? A copy of the Russian Arabian.

One might counter that, although straight Russians are especially successful in international show-rings and racetracks, second-generation Russians and even their outcrosses are doing fine as well. This only goes to prove that Russian breeding school is strong enough to produce stock with qualities that make themselves felt though a couple of “non-Russian” generations.

Issue No 4 of Arabian-Link of the UK was devoted to “The Russian Influence”. In her exciting overview on “the Russian” in the U.K., Marcia Manfredi confided that “it would require a whole magazine to do proper justice to this great ‘Breed’”. Thank you, Marcia! But, strictly speaking, this appreciation is addressed not so much to the Russian per se, but rather to what has remained of the Russian; so to speak, to the Russian with an English umbrella.

Just as English and French Arabians brought to Russia become “Russian” in a generation or two, so Russians bred, say, in England or Germany, with the countries’ different climate, traditions, feeding, selection and culling criteria, training techniques, etc., become anglicized or eingedeutsched Russians, respectively.

Arabians in Europe

Disputes are going on for more than a century to date about whether or not it is good for Arabians to be bred in Europe. Serious doubts have been voiced by European breeders.

In Die Oesterreichische Pferde-Ankauf-Mission uder dem K.K. Obersten Ritter Rudolf von Brudermann in Syrien, Palestina und der Wüsten in den Jahren 1856-57 von Eduard Löffler one reads:

“The main condition of the quality of the Arabian horse is its staying in the desert and the nomadic life of Bedouins. As a result of that, throughout its life it breathes dry desert air, lives under open clear skies of the desert and feeds on special grasses of the desert and only rarely gets some barley, and sometimes camel milk, and is constantly in motion.”

The following are some excepts from a memorandum by Freiger von Hügel:

“The reason of the decline of the Arabian horse in our climate resides in sharp temperature variations and long spells of cold and dampness, which hinders the development of the young at liberty. As a result of this, their respiratory organs develop slower. This also affects their nervous system and all their substance.

“The Arabian horse is the creation of Bedouins who need stamina and speed. That horse when brought to Europe, where nobody expects of it those qualities, degenerates also because nobody requests former asserts of it, and so it is just a copy of the original, and any connoisseur and lover may tell a desert horse from one born under different conditions.”

A century later these words are echoed by Robert Mauvy (1892-1985), an outstanding French Arabian breeder with 70 year of experience, in his embittered article “The Massacred Race,” RaceWeek (International Racing and Equestrianism in the Gulf), January 18, 1996: “Western Arabians have not known the hot sun, nocturnal frosts, desert shamals, and winter storms. They are born and raised in a different fashion, a Western manner: fed oats and rich forage, a chemically controlled existence which is far from their origins...

“The Arabian was not bred for the show ring or the racecourse, he was a horse of war...”

“The breed itself is being inadvertently massacred and, in its genuine form, is actually in the process of disappearing — becoming extinct.

“You will ask how this can be? The Arabian continues to spread and become ever more widespread, especially in the West, but this is where I caution you. The breed is not an international one and is not coping with the transition outside of its natural state.

“Taken from its original environment and over successive generations bred in radically alternative conditions, any animal will change. That is undeniable rule of evolution.

“I have not been able to bring myself to go to an exhibition of Arabians for several years as the more I have learned, the less I like what my fellow breeders in the West have done with this amazing creature.

“In truth, WE are DESTROYING the Arabian.”

An honest Arabian breeder, that is one who really cares for the breed, should begin with the two basic questions: WHERE to breed, and HOW to breed.

Russians have always asked themselves those questions. For centuries.

Where to breed... in Russia?

Russia is a huge sparsely populated landmass with a wide variety of climates, soils and other conditions. It makes absolutely no sense to speak of Russian climate and breeding conditions, safe for the fact that they are nearly always harsh. No wonder then that Russia has produced dozens of equine breeds. No single breed would be ideal in the unfathomably huge space where Asia meets Europe; a space with more steppes and mountains than in the States, more forests than in Brazil; more tundra, taiga and permafrost areas than in Canada and Alaska; more deserts and arid wastelands than in Australia? What a horse can just survive in the utmost extremes of Russia’s climates, where, like the Yakutian horse, it may be subject to —50·C; and, like the Akhal-Teke, to +50·C.

It has always been clear to any Russian horseman that each breed should be bred in a place in Russia that suits it best. That experienced was documented in the 1930s, when Russian competent authorities made up the so-called regionalization scheme of Russian equine breeds. As far as Arabians were concerned, areas with climates resembling those of many countries of Western Europe were not recommended for their breeding.

This also explains why Russian breeding psychology, which is half-Asiatic-half-European, is different from that of Europeans; why, for example, no sensible Russian would ever breed Akhal-Tekes or Arabians on the Kola Peninsular, but Scandinavians think nothing of it. Even private owners of Arabians in Moscow in summer would send out their horses to the hot steppes the Caucasus to get some southern sun, steppe air, and freedom.

It has always been so. Count Orlov took great pains searching for place ideal to produce his famous Orlov trotters and Orlov-Rostopchins. In addition to the continental climate and calcium-rich soils of that steppe area, what decided him to place there his Khrenovoye stud (now a producer of superb Arabian racehorses) was the fact that that place was liked by Tarpans, the wild horses of the Russian steppe.

And so it was only natural that when at the turn of the century two Russian aristocratic friends Count Stroganov and Prince Sherbatov were laying the foundation of the Russian Arabian industry, they proceeded not so much from the fact that they liked Arabians but rather from whether or not Arabians would like Russia. They maintained:

“What concerns the natural conditions – soil and climate – some places in Russia should be considered more suitable than those in other countries for producing the Arabian horse.”

Count Stroganov, the founder of Tersk, was extremely careful to put the Arabians he had brought to Russia in an environment that resembled their homeland, one of the facts that account for the desert look and athletic excellence of Russian Arabians. When at long last he found a suitable place in a picturesque valley in Northern Caucasus, he wrote:

“The local conditions, i.e., climate and soil, are the most important factors in horse breeding, and so especial attention was paid to choosing a proper site for the stud. You can never count on retaining in the progeny of imported Arabians the truest of their inherent qualities in conditions that are far too different from those of Northern Arabia.

“The most important among these conditions are arid continental climate with a long hot summer; dry, hard and even rocky soil, and high quality green food. The piedmont area in the Northern Caucasus near Kabardin lands meets those requirements quite well, while pasturing on steep slopes is beneficial for the all-round development of the young.”

As a matter of interest, in 1898, when Poland was part of Russia, Prince George Radziwill commented: “Physico-geographical conditions make Russia the only state capable of solving that task (A.R. — preserving the Arabian horse). In Russia the Arabian horse will not only never lose its noblesse and stamina, but will also acquire more speed and size.” Speaking of Russia, he meant not the moderate climate of Poland, of course.

It is safe to say that Count Stroganov & Prince Sherbatov would have never started their Arabian program in Russia, if their extremely careful analysis had not shown that (a) in terms of climate and soils Southern Russia is the ideal place for desert Arabians; (b) Russian breeding habits and Russian attitude to the horse are similar to those of Bedouins.

How to breed?

But it is not only the climate that matters. As important are selection, training, culling, feeding, and especially keeping. Says Eduard Löffler: “Bedouins recognize that due to growing in the desert, the horse of North Arabia is more endurable, fast and agile than that of Nejd oases, grown tethered and without abundant movement, which is necessary for the development of the best qualities in an Arabian.”

The current keeping practice at Tersk and other Russian Arabian studs is based not only on Count Stroganov’s experience. The Russian Arabian is currently grown the way most Russian steppe breeds have been bred for centuries. Count Stroganov, although he had had first-hand experience of the Bedouin ways, tried at first to keep his desert Arabians in a more “civilized” manner, more or less like they do it now in Europe. But he was quick to recognize the fallacy of that.

When his horses began to be kept out in the hills, he noticed major improvements in movements and general health of his Arabians. The Russian Arabian mares and foals are always on the move, they breathe the hot arid air of the steppe. Among other things, this accounts for strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments and general robustness and soundness of the current Russian Arabians.

What would venerable Monsieur Mauvy have said if he had visited Tersk, where he would have seen much of “the hot sun and nocturnal frosts” (even on a mid-summer night one has to wear a Cossack felt coat when out in the hills with the herd of mares)?

He would have seen hot storms in summer and roof-ripping snow blizzards in winter. In spring he would have admired one-week-old foals trotting alongside their mothers to the hills, and their older companions happily cutting capers galloping over steep rocky slopes and lush alpine meadows.

On a hot summer day, he would also have watched stately Arabian matrons wading warily in a small lake snorting at crystal-clear water, and taking a nap afterwards in the melting sunshine with their tails sending away the flies.

A hundred-odd herd of Arabian mares, most of them in foal, would then flock together in a matter of seconds and trot away or even bolt, their tails flowing in the wind, to God knows where, leaving a careless Cossack herdsman to doze away in the shadow of a bush.

Free as the desert wind, happy as children.

The Russian Arabian is a Russian horse

Russian Arabians have qualities not to be found in Western Arabians but to be found in other Russian breeds. To cite one example, Andrea Stercken, a German endurance authority and aficionado of Russian horses, including Russian Arabians, maintains: “Many Russian horses have normal pulse rates from 25 to 30, which after work falls immediately from 100 to 40. This is an ideal metabolic requirement for an endurance horse, which cannot be achieved in other horses even after long-term training.”

Russian Arabians are as undemanding and economical to keep as other Russian breeds. They are as impervious to the elements and diseases as other Russian breeds. They are as athletic as other Russian breeds. They are as reliable and willing as other Russian breeds. They are Russian.

To breed or not to breed?

Historically many nations used to identify a part of the territory under their control that best suited the purpose of producing the horse they needed, and used it heavily for horse-breeding. Germans used East Prussia to breed Trakehners and other German Warmbloods, ancient Romans bred their horses around what is now Venice. In medieval Russia, when most of the steppe was not under Russian control, Russians bred only forest horses themselves and bought most of their remounts for cavalry and nobility from the Tartars and steppe nomads. This approach is worth looking at in more detail.

I do not think that there are many people like Robert Mauvy in Europe, the likes of the above-mentioned Swedish lady seem to be more common. Small European countries should perceive that their climate and breeding conditions are only ideal for their local warmbloods, and by no means for denizens of deserts and hot arid steppes. Of course, Europeans and even Northern Europeans will continue to breed Arabians, simply because they like that. Well, if they like what they get, it’s OK.

But if some of them notice the difference between “their” Arabs and those coming from the Russian steppe and want to have those horses, I would strongly recommend that they buy Russian horses from Russia, and do not breed them, lest they want to content themselves with copies.

To conclude, southern Russia could be made a regular source of superb steppe stock for entire Europe. Why not consider joint Russo-European programs, especially with private Russian breeders, to breed and train show and racing Arabians in Russia quite inexpensively, and race and sell them in Europe and elsewhere.

Troika, the ultimate Russian horse resource centre This article was kindly provided by Alexander Repiev of Troika, the ultimate Russian horse resource online. For further information on Russian horses and horsemanship please click here

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