Most people in the UK will be familiar with the Trakehner breed, whether they realize it or not as the big, black horse which regularly featured in adverts for a well-known bank was a fine example of this breed. There is, however, much more to this breed than their famous refined looks.
The Trakenher came into being through the efforts of Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, who ruled what was then the Kindom of Prussia in the early part of the 18th century. Although the expression “the pen is mightier than the sword” is believed by some to have originated with him, Friedrich Wilhelm well understood the value of having a well-trained and well-equipped army and at that time cavalry mounts were vital to this aim. In spite of his many, well-documented faults (and few virtues), Friedrich Wilhelm was a highly capable organizer. He had marshland cleared to created space for the Trakehnen stud, named after the nearby town. The stud opened in 1732 and in 1739, Friedrich Wilhelm transferred responsibility for it to his son Friedrich. Access to these horses proved very useful to Friedrich when he became Friedrich II. In spite of Friedrich Wilhelm's nickname of “the soldier King”, he never actually started any wars and his involvement in military activity was both rare and reluctant. Friedrich II, by contrast, entered the history books with the nickname of “the Great” due in large part to his effectiveness on the battlefield, which gained valuable and strategically-important territory for Prussia. The Trakehners were used to provide mounts for his cavalry, which quickly gained itself a reputation for courage and discipline. Prussia's military became admired (and feared) throughout Europe and finally allowed the country to break free of the Austrian dominance which it had long resented. Friedrich was also an astute political operator and was quite prepared to export some of his famous horses either for money or for some other, less tangible, benefit. This built upon the healthy economic foundations laid down by Friedrich Wilhelm and meant that by the time of Friedrich II's death, Prussia was a respected power in economic terms as well as military ones.
Prussia continued to be a major power until the early 20th century and its Trakehner horses enjoyed an international reputation with mare owners willing to pay high fees for their mares to be covered by Trakehner stallions. The breed survived World War I but it was obvious that the era of cavalry horses was over so the Trakehner was bred to be sturdier and stronger, making it better for use as a work animal. Serendipitously, this also made them more desirable as mounts for competitive riding and they took the equestrian world by storm in the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately the outbreak of World War II nearly destroyed the breed as their homeland was annexed by Russia forcing residents and horses to flee. A combination of the gruelling trek to safety and continual bombing by the Soviets meant that only 700 Trakehners survived. Even after reaching safety the Trakehner was still under threat since they were effectively a stateless breed and no German authority had responsibility for them. Fortunately a combination of the efforts of their rescuers and the breed's reputation for quality, allowed it to survive and for its population to be rebuilt.
Even though the Trakehner was made sturdier in the early 20th century, it is still considered to be one of the lightest and most refined of the warmblood horses. It can stand between 15.2HH and 17HH and in theory all colours are acceptable although in practice most Trakehners are whole-coloured. Physically Trakehners are probably best described as Thoroughbreds with substance. The overall shape of their bodies is very reminiscent of the Thoroughbred and its characteristic light frame and rectangular shape. They also have the tapered heads of the Thoroughbred with a broad forehead narrowing down to a neat muzzle. At the same time, the introduction of heavier stallions in the early 20th century gives the modern Trakehner much more solidity and greater power in its quarters. The breed has truly exquisite gaits, particularly at the trot where they seem to float without hitting the ground.
Similarly to the above, in terms of temperament Trakehners are probably best thought of as particularly good-natured Thoroughbreds. In other words they are noticeably more sensitive and challenging to handle than other warmblood breeds, without turning into the out and out prima donnas some Thoroughbreds can be. The breed is known for its intelligence and willingness to learn. Experienced riders and trainers who are used to handling sensitive horses and can manage to be firm while remaining gentle and respectful are likely to find them excellent mounts. It is however highly unlikely that a Trakehner will make a suitable mount for a beginner or less experienced rider.
Thankfully the Trakehner is generally free from the genetic disorders and other numerous health issues which can lead to high vet bills for Thoroughbred owners. As athletic horses they are susceptible to leg injuries, particularly if they are being used for competition. While any athlete is going to be injured from time to time, injuries can be reduced by the appropriate use of protective equipment.
Caring for a Trakehner
Generally speaking the Trakehner's care requirements are in line with those of other sports horses. There are, however, a couple of points to note. Firstly Trakehners tend to have a similar metabolism to Thoroughbreds, which means they need a lot of food for their size. Secondly and arguably more importantly, their high intelligence means that they absolutely need to be kept entertained otherwise they will quickly develop stable vices and stress-related illnesses. In spite of their refinement, Trakehners can be prone to laminitis, but in their case it is generally brought on by boredom-related stress rather than over-eating. Likewise they can develop colic through lack of stimulation. While turn-out time will help with this, it is unlikely to be enough on its own. These horses need regular ridden exercise. If an injury leads to box rest then owners should talk to a vet about getting suitable toys for the stable.
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