I get asked a lot about Trakehners, mostly with a baffled expression. The kind of expression that says, “do you have a death wish??” and “why are you doing this to yourself?!” Honestly, along my riding career, particularly after getting double barrel kicked in the chest by a young Trakehner stud colt, I’ve asked myself some of the same questions. Ultimately, this breed stole my heart for a myriad of reasons, and people deserve (and need) to know more about them.
Trakehners are not what I (or anyone else) would consider a “mainstream” warmblood. Like any breed, there are a lot of misconceptions. However, when I dropped a question box on instagram asking what people had heard about Trakehners, I was ASTOUNDED at the low standards of the breed that have been perpetuated. the only time I’ve heard equally repugnant things about a breed are stereotypes of OTTBs and Arabians. My favorite thing I’ve been told is “Trakehners cannot compete at the highest level of any discipline, because they are not strong enough, mentally or physically.” This was from an industry professional a few years ago. Clearly, this specific person had never been around an actual Trakehner and was feeling the trickle down effect of uneducated, misinformed platitudes.
One of my most requested topics has been to talk about my history with the breed and why I “chose” them. This is to address those questions and so, so much more. When gathering information, people usually ask the following questions, and that’s how this will be organized: history, how, who, what, where, when, and why. This, part one, will cover the two Hs: history and how. The history is extensive, so you have been warned, friends.
Pre-WWI: The East Prussian Warmblood
The history of the Trakehner makes them one of the oldest warmblood breeds in the world. The main stud of Trakehnen was founded in 1732, with the official name being “The East Prussian Warmblood Horse of Trakehner Origin.” While that does not exactly roll off the tongue, neither does Trakehner, but both are certainly better than that or the “Schwaikepferd,” a small, primitive local Prussian breed that the breed originated from. The stud was located in East Prussia, and the Schwaike was well known in the surrounding areas for its versatility and endurance. When local mares were crossed with Arabians and English Thoroughbreds, the Trakehner, the ideal Calvary mount, was created. King Fredric Wilhelm began to systematically breed horses for the changing tactics of war in the early 18th century. This is an entire history lesson in itself which I will not bore you with. Essentially, calvary mounts needed to be faster and lighter, with unending endurance and power. The mounts needed to be attractive enough to be officers’ horses while simultaneously tough enough to survive the harsh environments and pressures of battle while still coming out sound. Concurrently, East Prussian farmers were in the process of breeding a different strain of horse, based from the same bloodlines, to be used for hard work in the fields. The breed’s reputation as a hard-working horse with very little need for maintenance developed.
The military and civilian herds were often crossed to combine the best traits of each. The Trakehnen stud compound (Königlich Preußisches Hauptgestüt Trakehnen) was an incredible accomplishment of breeding, a city within the stud covering over 15,000 acres. Outside of the main stud compound, 16 “vorwerke” (more distinct barns) housed the famous mare herds prized so dearly by Trakehner breeders. One of the most fascinating things about the vorwerkes was that Trakehners were separated into herds based upon color and were subsequently bred based upon the traits each color of Trakehner represented. A little strange? Absolutely, but keep reading about the most famous vorwerkes – it makes sense.
The black herd at Gurzden contained mares that had the most substance, were incredibly strong, and had outstanding work ethics. Famous stallions like Ararad and Jagdheld crossed with these mares to balance them out. Today, these are still considered heavier genes and typically found in the older style Trakehners.
By Perfectionist xx (Persimmon xx/Perfect Dream xx/Morion xx), out of Jagdfreudin (Optimus (East Prussian)/Jahel/Malteser). 162cm.
By Jagdheld (Perfectionist xx/Jagdfreudin/Optimus (East Prussian), out of Ara (Polarstrum/Arabis/Euphony)168cm, one of the central stud´s most consistent stallions. A stallion of substance and long lines, known to be extremely strong in breeding.
The chestnut mare was held closely within the stud of Trakehnen itself. These mares, descended from famous Thoroughbreds like Thunderclap xx, were considered to exhibit the most performance potential. They were elegant and sensitive, and they were highly prized. The famous Hanoverian A-line, beginning with Absatz (out of Landmoor), developed from a chestnut herd stallion, Abglanz, and is considered one of the most influential stallions of modern times in the Hanoverian breed. Abglanz, a dark chestnut with a long blaze and four stockings, was light and carried more “blood” than the average warmblood stallion. He was considered to be royally bred, with his dam, Abendluft, being full sister to the remarkably influential stallions Absinth, Absalaon, and Abendstern. Specifically, Ablganz and his offspring are credited with improving the head and neck of the Hanoverian.
By Mickle Fell xx (Caton xx/Emma xx/Whisker xx), out of Toise (Isarmo/Afanasia/Carol). 168cm. A top halfblood stallion, perhaps the best which was born in Trakehnen until 1908. Head, neck, withers, chest depth and croup; kidney not perfect. Strong legs. Hocks somewhat steep.
Despite his some defects, he created a herd of Guddin mares.
By Termit (Hyperion/Tecknik/Tempelhüter), out of Abendluft (Poseiden/Abfahrt Russian TK/Pirol EP). 164cm.
Kalpakin is where the bey and brown mares were collected. These mares were known for their tremendous temperaments and rideability.
Bajorgallen is where the “mixed herd”, which included all colors (including most of the grays), were bred to the Arabian stallions. Famous Trakehner foundation mares , like Kassette and Donna, whose influence has been less researched) came out of this group, and their names are still found in the pedigree of some of the most historically relevant Trakehners
By Harun Al Raschid ox (Hassan oa/Nigra Zcheiplitz ox/Mazud ox), out of Kasemate (Flieder/Kaiserkrone/Parsee xx). 158cm. Tall, leggy, elegant gray mare whose daughters and grand-daughters formed the Mare lines T7A1-T7A4
Thousands of other mares were raised and used in smaller, private breeding farms of the farmers of East Prussia. Trakehnen was also known for being one of East Prussia’s biggest agricultural farms, with 500 horses exclusively used for farm work.
“A chief sire at Trakehnen lived like a king. Each stallion had a huge paddock that was fenced by trees and bushes. The stall was a stone house, open to one side, built like a round pen with a luxury roof and beautiful steel ornaments. Each stallion was assigned a private groom, always older and proven men that had spent their lives at Trakehnen and had that special "6th horse sense" built in. It must have been a special view each morning when the men opened the giant barn doors at Trakehnen and waves of gleaming horses made their way along the paths to the pastures. There were no fences at Trakehnen, the horses were guarded by a man on a horse, watching over "his" friends every day. Weanlings were kept in large herds and had all the freedom a young horse could dream of. At three years old colts were started under saddle and thoroughly tested to determine their future: cavalry, riding horse or future sire for Trakehnen and the East Prussian local studs. Obviously with so many high quality horses, only the very best were chosen as potential future sires. These - the cream of the crop - next underwent the stallion performance test. Performance testing lasted a full year and was held at Zwion, the state's stallion test station and the first of its kind in the world. The colts were driven, raced, used for hard fox hunting and eventing, trained in dressage and tested over jumps. All colts were evaluated thoroughly on character, rideability and temperament. Only the very best of these magnificent animals were chosen to contribute to the prestigious gene pool at Trakehnen.” Courtesy of the Trakehner Verband.
The Closed Studbook: What Is It?
Trakehners, both in Europe and in the States, operate as a closed studbook. Let’s take a brief detour to understand what this means. A closed studbook means that no other breeds, minus Trakehners, Thoroughbreds (xx), Arabians (oo), Anglo Arabians (ox), Anglo-Trakehners, and Arab-Trakehners, can be registered. There is a hardship exception in the American Trakehner Association, but it is a wiggly concept, and I’m unsure if it exists in the Trakehner Verband. So, while an approved Trakehner mare or stallion could be bred to outside warmbloods and have those foals registered with other registries, the only breeds allowed into the Trakehner books are Trakehners, Arabians, Throughbreds, or some conglomerate of this. To break it down, let’s use the example of E.H. Gribaldi (E.H. Kostolany). E.H. Gribaldi is a licensed Trakehner stallion of high notoriety for his grand prix career with Edward Gal and prolific, famous progeny. They include, to name a few, Anky Van Grunsven’s Painted Black (KWPN - dam line Ferro), Hofrat (Trakehner - Dam line Guter Planet), Sisther De Jue (a grand prix mare - KWPN - dam line Amor - Holsteiner) and probably most famously, Edward Gal’s Totilas (KWPN - dam line Glendale).
(Pictured as a young horse). 172cm
(Formerly Moorland’s Totilas) 170cm
We’re going to focus on Totilas for the sake of this explanation. E.H. Gribaldi Is an approved and licensed Trakehner stallion. He is also approved and licensed with Danish, Selle Francais, KWPN, Hanoverian, Oldenberg, Swedish, and Rheinlander registries. When he was bred to Lominka, a KWPN, the subsequent foal, Totilas, is 50%/50% KWPN/Trakehner, and could not be registered as a Trakehner - only a KWPN. Totilas has been licensed by bunch of registries, including the KWPN, but cannot be licensed by the Trakehners. Thus, if Totilas was bred to a registered Trakehner mare, The foal would be 75% Trakehner, 25% KWPN, and STILL not be eligible for Trakehner papers and would have to be registered with the KWPN. Compare this with E.H. Gribaldi being crossed with, let’s say, an OTTB mare. The mare could be registered in one of the sub-Trakehner studbooks and the foal would be eligible for Trakehner papers. Essentially, a Trakehner cannot be bred to another type of warmblood and that foal be allowed in the studbook, though Trakehners are allowed (and in some cases encouraged) to join other, more mainstream warmblood registries. This consistency in blood quality maintained the integrity of the breed, while freshening it up with added rideability and sensitivity. How are you doing? Feeling confused? Welcome to warmblood registries.
WWI and WWII: The Trek
Between WWI and WWII, Trakehners ruled the Olympics. Piccolomini (Fischerknabe/Polenmaedel/Red Prince II xx) won gold in dressage in 1924, and the 1924 silver medal went to Sabel. Dressage gold was once again won by a Trakehner, Kronos (Carol ep/Eule ep/Larifari ep), in 1936, the individual gold medal was won by Numri, while the gold medal German eventing team was made up of two Trakehners and a thoroughbred. Trakehners were also used for various disciplines, including fox hunting, driving, and racing. The hardest steeplechase in the world at the time, The Pardubice Steeplechase, was won nine times between 1921 and 1936. While East Prussia retained nearly 500,000 (1,100 alone in the main stud) horses, Trakehners were also exported to the rest of the world.
By Carol ep (Kronos ep/Grete ep/Jupiter ep, out of Eule ep (Larifari ep/Euroxia ep/Sulla).
World War I and II nearly exterminated the breed. During WWI, half of the Trakehner stock was lost, and breeders worked tirelessly to redevelop the breed to pre-WWI standards of quality and numbers. Unfortunately, most of these efforts were futile. In WWII, the Russian Army invaded East Prussia, forcing most people to leave everything behind to save their own lives. The main stud of Trakehnen was evacuated in 1944. 800 of the best stock (mares, stallions, and colts) were loaded onto trains to be driven west, and ultimately, lost to the Russians. Private breeders were not allowed to evacuate until January 1945, leaving almost no time to preserve themselves or their horses. The details are heartbreaking. Tens of thousands began the infamous “Trek”, with over 18,000 East Prussian Trakehners and all their valuables packed into wagons and desperate for the peace that lay west. This, for many, meant crossing the half frozen East Sea, where bombers would shoot at the crossers and ice, stranding and drowning horses and humans alike in the ice water. Leaving in January meant many mares were in the last few months of pregnancy, and food was scarce at best. Humans and horses not strong enough to continue on were left behind. The results were devastating. Of the thousands of main stud mares, once grouped by color and characteristics, only 21 survived. Many of the most influential stallions were shot by the army or, if they were lucky, were captured, traveled to Kirov, and became the foundation bloodlines for Russian Trakehners.
In total, of the 1,000 main stud Trakehners, a mere 100 survived, including the 21 mares mentioned above. Of the horses that did survive, the injuries were devastating. The exact number of Trakehners who belonged to private breeders is unknown as they scattered all over Germany, and following The Trek, great effort was put into relocating, collecting, and cataloging the few horses which were successful in their evacuation. In late 1947, the Trakehner Verband, previously known as West German Association of Breeders and Friends of the Warmblood Horse of Trakehner Origin, developed to replace the East Prussian Stud Book Society. The new central breeding facility was formed in 1950 in Hunnesrück, Lower Saxony. Partnered with the stud farms in Rantzau and Schmoel. Hunnesrück became the home of the remaining great broodmares like Kassette, Polarfahrt, Donna, Tapete, Halensee, and Herbstzeit, as well as the few remaining stallions, including a famous son of Pythagoras, Totilas. Private breeders boarded mares at the Hunnesrück stud, where foals born belonged to a corporation created to preserve and promote Trakehners known as the Trakehner Gesellschaft.
Post WWII: Reunification
The heartbreak that obliterated Trakehnen was not the only collapse felt in the Trakehner breed. Trakehners that had been imported to the GDR (German Democratic Republic) faced similar fates. Soviets had closed the borders, and Trakehners remaining in the GDR were separated across the country. Private breeders and lovers of fine horses began to collect and reestablish the breed as much as possible until Germany reunified in 1991.
The Canadian Trakehner Horse Society (CTHS) began in 1973 and The American Trakehner Association (ATA) was formed in 1974, after Gerda Friedricks, a German born breeder relocated to Canada and started to imported West Trakehner stallions in 1957, including the four highly influential stallions Antares (Kobalt), Prusso (Totilas), Slesus (Tropenwald), and Tscherkess (Tropenwald). Additionally, Friedrichs imported mares, 23 between 1957-1963. In 1963, she imported the approved stallion Carajan II (Carajan), and the final stallion imported in 1968 was Mikado (Impuls). The interest and love for the breed began to grow, and in 1979, the ATA and the German Verband signed an Agreement of Cooperation. This agreement granted the ATA use of the coveted Ostpreußische Elchschaufel – the East Prussian moose antler brand.
How I got into Trakehners is the second questions I get, usually following “what is a… trak-en-her?” It’s a pretty simple story, but they were my first exposure to the warmblood world. It’s a complex, ridiculous, backward, and ignorant story.
My childhood trainer loved the breed and had three mares for breeding and riding. All were of impeccable Trakehner bloodlines. The imported foundation mare (and one of the many mares of my heart) was a mare named Fair Rock (E.H. Rockefeller/Fiona VIII/Postmeister – I’m drooling even typing those names out), and Farah and I became friends. Our time together was short – she died tragically during the foaling of her last filly (by Huno) on my 13th birthday. Before this, I had become very close to Joy’s dam, Fair Diva (Rock Point xx/Fair Rock/E.H. Rockefeller). She was acquired by my childhood trainer as a broodmare prospect, after a freak pasture accident when she was a yearling left her not riding sound. Additionally, there was a blood bay mare (E.H. Ravel/Fair Rock/E.H. Rockefeller) that had been 3-year-old HOY for the ATA. There was something about the way that these three mares moved, looked at you like you could have no secrets, and interacted with the world around them that was intoxicating. And terrifying. I remember the honor and anxiety that came with being granted the ability to help tack up, warm up, or cool out one of these mares. None of them ever did anything to me directly, but I noticed how two-faced they could be. As an adult, I attribute most of the troublesome personalities to a lack of consistency in handling and training. That’s the thing with Trakehners. They need a job; they need consistency. They are one-person horses. Without it, they can be destructive.
Working at this stable was also my first peek “behind the curtain” so to speak of breeding and the importance of quality control. It was also my first look at the work that goes into producing a stallion prospect. The E.H. Ravel mare mentioned above was bred to Windfall *Pg* (Habicht/Wundermaedel xx/Madruzo xx). Windfall gained his notoriety in the eventing community for being started by Ingrid Klimke in Germany. He reached shortlisting for the 2000 Olympics with Ingrid Klimke and made additional appearances at Rolex (2nd after dressage and withdrawn after steeplechase in 2005, 1st after dressage and withdrawn after XC in 2006), competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics with Darren Chiachia, placing 12th individually and helping Team USA to Team Bronze. Eventually, he was retired from eventing and became a successful Grand Prix horse.
By Habicht (Burnus ox/Hallo/Goldregen), out of Wundermaedel xx (Madruzzo xx/Wunderbluete xx/Kaiseradler xx). 170cm. German Horse of the Year 2000, Trakehner of the Year 2000 and 2004.
The cross resulting in a remarkable quality young colt, the spitting image of his sire, 2-year-old HOY for the ATA and champion on the sport horse in-hand circuit. To say this was the exact trial by fire a young teenager rider needed to learn about producing stallions is neither here nor there. He was similar to his dam in his hot/cold personality, and on the ground could be a menace. At 14/15 years old, you just sort of think that’s how young stallions are. Thank goodness I became more educated. However, working with him set me on my path of starting young horses. He was professionally “broken”, but when he returned, I was the lucky one who was there to continue his training. The days were either really good or really bad, and thankfully, he never reached minimum height for a stallion prospect (15.3h) and was gelded. Knowing what I know now about handling sensitive, hot horses, I know I could be the rider he deserved. In fact, he and Joy could have been twins. At the time, I was too young, too green, and too inexperienced to be tasked such a task with such a quality horse. Our partnership ended after, for no reason I’m aware of, he turned and double barrel kicked me in the chest when I went to get him from the pasture. He was aiming for my head, and I was lucky enough to be able to cross my arms across my chest before he made contact. No severe damage, but I refused to work him again. I was only 16, he was only 6.
And yet, this breed stuck with me. No matter the hell they kept putting me through. At one point when I was young, I dreamed of breeding my own mare; a mare that didn’t exist. I made a joke I would never breed to a Trakehner. In hindsight, I find this hysterical, especially considering what a saint my first homebred is. Not only did my childhood trainer perpetuate this stereotype of “the crazy trak” to her students, including me, but also pressured me to appreciate them. It wasn’t until I was doing some part-time work for a trainer that would become my mentor that I interacted with any other warmblood, and I noticed something missing. This trainer specialized in KWPN, some of the nicest ones in the country, but as I rode them or handled them, I found myself missing the opinion and brutal honesty of Trakehners. These KWPNs, even the stud colts I was working with, felt like a spark was missing. They didn’t act out to tell me something, they just did it because they wanted to. While their movements might have been a huge improvement upon a Trakehner, the brain was different. They never told me I was doing something wrong, in the saddle or on the ground – they just put up with me. If there is one thing to know about Trakehners, it is this: they do not suffer fools lightly.
It’s like hearing a song on the radio and being like “ugh, absolutely not – that is not for me,” and slamming the off button, only to find yourself humming it weeks later while doing dished and enjoying it. The earworm got to you! That’s how Trakehners were for me. I didn’t realize what I needed until I was in a void, and what I need is a partner that holds me accountable. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you one of the most important things to me is accountability, and that decides my preference of horse. I don’t want something I bully around. I want a partner, with opinions and deep-rooted feelings of right and wrong, where if mistakes are made, they are my fault for not doing a good enough job to prepare my partner for the task ahead.
Before Joy had stolen my heart, another two Trakehners came into my life. My first tastes at what old Trakehner blood was like. An imported St.Pr.&Pr.St mare out of E.H. Hohenstein, by Hoffnungsvolle (E.H. Herzzauber) came to us. This mare was not to be a broodmare and had supposedly slipped her foal before traveling from Germany. She was the pinnacle of what I knew a Trakehner could be. She was all of the opinions and hard work wrapped into a professional moving, feminine, substantial package. She was the best of both worlds, the old Trakehner blood and all the TB/Arab blood added. I was smitten. She inspired me to realize there was middle ground between (I say this AFFECTIONATELY and jokingly) dumb-bloods and ghost pepper hot Trakehners.
Well, surprise! She hadn’t slipped her foal and while sparing you details, her foaling was the most traumatic experience I have been a part of. Her colt did not present correctly, vet couldn’t get there soon enough, we fixed it, colt got hip locked, we got him out. He wasn’t breathing, we got him breathing. He was a dummy foal, we squeezed him. By some miracle, he lived and his short, complicated life began. He had multiple surgeries on his hocks due to joint sepsis and a ton of other things I can’t remember - he was born the year before Joy, so I was only 13. Minus that, he was a truly spectacular example of breeding. His sire was C’est Bon, by Distelzer (E.H. Grimaldi/Distelgold/Arogno) and out of Coonya Vom Klosterhof (Tycoon/Charisma Von Klosterhof/Sokrates). It’s been 13 years, and I have still yet to meet a horse of such quality. He unfortunately was put down at 18-months due to colic complications. I haven’t thought about him for a very long time, but it made me smile. Posey is a lot like he was. They would have been friends.
Joy was born way before my end with the Windfall colt mentioned above. That was 2011, and Joy was born in 2009. I had loved the history of Trakehners for years already, and I was fascinated with the influence of Trakehner blood in the modern sport horse (Totilas was making waves long before winning triple World Gold in 2010), but Joy put all of these hard lessons I had learned already into perspective. One of the reasons I think I loved her so instantaneously was because I knew, through my exposure to various different warmbloods and young horses, I knew where to begin to do her justice. I saw the Trakehners around me and could pint-point where people had gone wrong producing them. Most of all, I knew how special she was (in good and bad ways), and the thought of someone muting her loud and clear personality broke my heart. I wanted to curate her capability and larger than life opinions. It helped that she happened to be the most stunning foal I had ever seen.
Trakehners are not for everyone. In fact, that was a couple of the things people had heard about Trakehners – that they’re too picky, too finicky, and that they’re too much work for very little return. I understand that, genuinely. However, they are the great equalizer. There have been a couple of times where people, including trainers, have gotten on Joy and struggled. One time including a reach around and bite the calf of the girl on her. You must earn their good faith effort in work, you must respect their opinions, you must work with them and not make them work for you, and you must be willing to say I’m wrong. Most dressage riders don’t want this kind of uphill, at time emotionally debilitating, prerequisite to doing what they want to do. To put it in car terms, they don’t want to drive stick. It’s too much work managing a real gearbox and a clutch when you’re inexperienced in driving stick – you keep stalling out and get frustrated. Automatic gearboxes are so much easier and straightforward with less trial and error. A majority of drivers prefer automatic, but there are the few that appreciate a good, manual gearbox, and I gotta tell you, I would not trade learning to drive stick or ride Trakehners for anything in the world. I would miss out on my two greatest thrills: my rear wheel drive MX-5 and my devotion to the Trakehner breed through Joy.
Next time: Part 2 of Trakehners - the four Ws.
Joy’s sire: Magritte, by E.H. Van Deyk (Patricius xx/Vanessa/Ibikus), out of Mischka (Donaufürst *Ps*E*/Mottlau/Polarmond)