TRAKEHNER HISTORY – As published in Equine Excellence
The Trakehner warmblood horse is the oldest warmblood breed in the world with a history spanning over 275 years. The prevalent horse breeds in that geographical area of Germany, East Prussia, were cavalry horses of the Knights in AD 1500. However, heavy horses did not meet the requirements of the emerging Prussian Empire in terms of war remounts and good carriage horses, so a breeding program was established. The new breed was developed by breeding English and Persian Thoroughbreds and Arabian to heavier working stock horses infused with some Iberian blood on the basis of a local pony breed called “Schweike”. 1732 saw the formation of the Royal Main Stud Trakehnen in East Prussia. It was here that King Friedrich Wilhelm I selected horses that were faster, lighter and possessed power and endurance to be used as cavalry mounts. He also put emphasis on these mounts being attractive enough to be used for his officers in representative functions. These horses survived very tough conditions and evolved into what we see today in the modern Trakehner – world class all around athletes that are more of an Anglo-bred background than your average warmblood. The Trakehnen Stud was huge and elaborate with some 15,000 acres and the most amazing setup. A paradise for horses some would say. The herds were bred and maintained according to their colour. Each herd had particular characteristics and much detail was paid to these when breeding with their stallions. There is still much importance placed on the mare lines of the Trakehner breed today, and in contrast to many other warmblood breeds, the first initial of the mare line is what determines the name the foal. However, much of the interesting history of this breed and the “Mythos Trakehnen involves the war years in Germany. Over the course of time, Trakehnen was evacuated several times – from the Napoleon Wars to the World Wars in the 20th century, the people and horses of this stud were certainly used to troubled times. Nobody could foresee that in 1945, the existence of the biggest and most successful stud farm of all times would end.
Before the Second World War in Germany, the breed of the East Prussian Horse of Trakehner Origin had a studbook numbering 27,000 horses. After the “trek” of these horses from East Prussia to safety in the West, the survivors numbered only 1600. The post-war conditions of the horses’ owners further reduced the numbers to only 700 mares and 60 stallions, scattered across a war-torn country. Only thanks to the dedication of a few, sufficient numbers of these last links to a lost world were rescued and today, comprise one of the most successful sport horse breeds int he world.
The description of what happened to the horses and owners is described on the “Trakehners International” website:
In the terrible and cold winter of 1944/45, the “Trek” began; a gathering of tens of thousands of people and some 18.000 East Prussian horses bundled their most precious belongings in wagons and began walking and driving westbound. For many, that included a trip over the barely frozen East Sea over the so-called “Frisches Haff”, where treks formed on the thin ice and tried to avoid daylight, because with that, bombers came that shot the ice to shreds and left humans and horses drowning in ice-cold sea water.
Mares were heavy in foal and sometimes there wasn’t food for days. Thousands of lives were lost, horses that wouldn’t make it any further had to be left behind, the horror of these months is hard to describe in words. Eventually, most East Prussians reached the safety of the West, but at a terrible price. By the end of World War II, Trakehnen was no more. This “Horse Paradise”, once a virtual “City of Horses” was laid to waste, and only a handful of Trakehner horses survived the horrific performance test that forever after would be referred to in hushed tones as “The Trek”. From the legendary, great mare herds of Trakehnen – once grouped by color – only the strongest survived . . a mere 21 original main stud mares.
Maren Engelhardt is a German-born descendant of a family that was part of the ‘Trek’. She is very involved with and passionate about the Trakehner breed today and although currently living in the United States, is often back in Germany. She has a big interest in the international development of the Trakehner breed. Maren has a very interesting historical experience related to her by her Grandmother.
Denise: “Maren I believe your family has origins in East Prussia with the Trakehner horse”.
Maren: My great grandfather worked at one of the Main Stud’s famous satellite farms called Gurdzen, where the black herd was maintained. His son, my grandfather, decided to join the army as a 16yr old and since his biggest love in life was horses, he ended up in the cavalry. He was a member of one of the most famous units of the time, the so-called “Reiterregiment I”, which at times was stationed at Trakehnen and certainly rode no other horses but Trakehners. My grandparents married young and maintained a guesthouse in a small village called Rosenfelde, just a few kilometers outside of the main compound of Trakehnen in the county of Gumbinnen. During peace times, I’m grandfather was a competitive rider and showed Trakehner horses at the highest levels in show jumping, winning many big competitions in East Prussia.
Denise: “Tell me about your families experiences through the war”.
Maren: For the early years of World War II, East Prussia remained somewhat of an idyllic quiet zone. While Germany was attacking its European neighbors, the small enclave that was East Prussia, bordering with Poland, Russia and Lithuania, barely took notice other than men being drafted. The war came in so much more of a fury later on though. With the attack on Russia, Germany had finally entered into a fight it could only lose. The Red Army advanced steadily towards the West and in late 1943 it was clear to many that East Prussia would soon be left alone – a German island surrounded by enemy nations; nations Germany had attacked, humiliated, and committed unspeakable atrocities in. My grandmother is 93 years old in 2009, and she was in her twenties when the war broke out – her recollection of political events that played very little part in her life at the time is sketchy at best. However, she does recall very vividly that everybody was scared of “the Russians” – knowing probably what Germans had done to them, adding to that propaganda from a deranged political leader in Germany and knowing that East Prussia was the first German territory Russia would enter, everybody was scared. My grandmother had 4 siblings, 2 sisters, and 2 brothers. Her youngest brother was killed as a soldier on the Western front, however, compared to the losses of other families, the Engelhardts at the time counted themselves as “lucky”.
When the war came to an end and it was obvious that East Prussia would be lost, my grandmother had four children to worry about (the youngest was my dad). Her sisters, along with their children, and her mother all left home on foot and also partially by train and tried to make it westwards. The group of women was separated during the tumultuous times of the trek, and while they were fighting for survival in one of the harshest winters in years, all men of the family were trying to stay alive fighting on the Eastern front. The advancing Red Army shot my grandmother’s father, who refused to leave his land. His wife, who initially was able to flee, lost track of her family and the group only reunited many weeks later just outside of Berlin. For my great-grandmother, it was too late though – she starved a few days after her daughters had found her.
Denise: “How did your family recover from the war?”
Maren: My grandfather ended up in a Russian POW camp and didn’t make it home to Germany until late 1949. The trek took the rest of my family West. Unfortunately, my grandmother and her sisters decided to call a small town in Thuringia their new “home”. At the time, everybody thought this was just a temporary relocation, and that after the end of the war, all would return to East Prussia. The years went by, and in the early 1950s it finally sank in that there would be no return – and that Thuringia was not a safe place either – the GDR was founded under Russian control, and the wall in Berlin became a reality. My grandmother’s oldest sister was tired of running, and decided to stay in East Germany (I met her for the first time in my life after the Berlin wall came down in 1990!). My grandmother fled her second home, once more leaving everything she owned behind, just getting her kids and herself over the border into West Germany. They found a temporary home with family members in Hanover in North Germany, but soon had to leave there as well. In the State of Westfalia, they ended up in a refugee camp, of which many existed in Germany after WWII. Eventually, in the early 1960s, the family found a home (two rooms) at the State Stud in Zweibrücken, a city in Southwest Germany. My grandfather became stud manager and had stallions to work with, while the entire rest of the family operated a restaurant and canteen for American troops stationed in the area. It was not until the late 1960s that my grandparents were able to call a real house their new home – they had been on the move for two decades. The small house in the little village of Waldmohr soon had a small horse barn (build by the family), and my grandfather started a riding school. In 1976, he was able to buy his first Trakehner since leaving East Prussia in 1944. It is pretty obvious to me that there really never was any true “recovery”. My grandmother, who worked so hard her entire life, still misses East Prussia and had the heart to travel there and look for her old home in 1994 – nothing was left of Rosenfelde. She was able to determine where the house once stood by a few trees that were still standing. For her, the horses were the last connection to her country, and she infused that love in us. I have a connection to a country I’ve never lived in. We must be thankful to have been given a second chance – so many were not.
Denise: “I believe your family began breeding with a mare relating back to the original stud in Trakehnen.”
Maren: This first Trakehner my grandfather was able to afford in 1976 was a bay mare called Donautor (everybody called her Liebchen at home). She was by a stallion called Imperator, a grandson of the main stud stallion at Trakehnen. Donautor’s mare family also traced straight back to the main stud. The mare had two fillies for us before my grandfather unexpectedly died after returning from a trail ride in the summer of 1981. We kept the fillies, and while one stayed with my grandmother in Waldmohr, the other was given to my dad and relocated with him when he moved. I was six years old when this filly was born at my grandparents’ place. She was my best friend, the horse that taught me how to ride, how to have patience, how to jump, how to be fearless. Her name was Dolores. She was my first competition horse and a good one. When my parents moved into the house of my grandmother a few years ago to keep her company, Dolores (then retired) returned with them. She passed away in the summer of 2007, at the age of 28, in the very same stall she was born in. She is the sole reason I am involved with these magnificent horses today. I miss her a lot, also because it was the last piece of my grandfather that was still around. Dolores was infertile and never produced a foal for us. We don’t have this family in our breeding program anymore, others have taken this place now, but Dolores to this day is the one horse that keeps the family together.
The history shows both the Trakehner horse and they’re breeders have experienced many challenges contributing to their stamina and determination, both important qualities in the modern sport horses.
The Trakehner breed has been in Australia for many decades and has certainly helped shape the warmblood breed here, I’ll look forward to writing about some of the influential horses. Many imported Trakehners can still be seen in successful sport horse’s pedigrees here.
Many regular riders and owners often relate the story of a Trakehner that they have had that not only performed well but had a very special bond with them. Those who have experienced this would know what I mean and those of you who have not I recommend they do. I will leave you with a piece from an article on the Trakehners International website called “The Ideal Sport horse” that I feel describes my experiences with these special horses:
“Because of its very unique history, the Trakehner was developed as and continues to be, the ideal sport horse. The combination of Arabian blood for intelligence and stamina and English Thoroughbred for toughness, size, and courage has -over the centuries- developed a modern riding horse that is one of the most intelligent and sensitive in the world. This noted sensitivity is perhaps a reason why many hold a prejudice against the Trakehner.
We accept that the Trakehner is not the horse for everyone. However, those of us prejudiced in favor of this noble breed equate the intelligence and sensitivity to the difference between making an omlette and a soufflé. Both are wonderful egg-based dishes, but the lightness and air of a perfect soufflé requires patience and skill found only in the most accomplished chefs. A heavy hand ruins a soufflé, but a light, deft touch – and perhaps a bit of poetry of soul – produces a little bit of heaven here on earth . . . the same can be said of our Trakehner.”
Written by Denise Rutzou with the help of Maren Engelhardt.
Trakehners International can be found at http://www.trakehners-international.com/