Isn’t It Time You Rode a Trakehner?

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Matthew Boyd with his wife. (Photo by Vada Cunningham)

Renowned for its floating trot, the Trakehner is one of the lightest & most refined warmbloods. We are celebrating this breed as our March Breed of the Month on YourDressage! Join us all month long as we celebrate Trakehners with photo galleries and exclusive stories!

Dressage riders who choose Trakehners as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All Breeds Awards program – the American Trakehner Association and the Trakehner Association of North America (TANA) are both participating organizations.

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories about what makes these horses so special.  Here, the President of the American Trakehner Association shares about the fascinating history of this breed, and why you should consider one for your next competition mount.

By Matthew Boyd

As the current President of the American Trakehner Association, Inc. (“ATA”), I am pleased to be part of the celebration of the Trakehner horse for the United States Dressage Federation.  I am entirely biased, but in my view, the Trakehner horse is the most versatile warmblood breed in the world today, with top-tier suitability for jumping, eventing, and of course dressage, where the Trakehners celebrate one of the most impactful dressage sires of the 21st Century – the incomparable Gribaldi, sire of Totilas and hundreds of other Grand Prix dressage horses, and the spectacular Dalera BB TSF, the current Olympic and European Dressage Champion, and a triple Gold Medalist in Tokyo.  

ROTHMANN, owner/rider Amy Borner (MA)—2021 Prix St. Georges Open – Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Award winner for American Trakehner Association

In North America, the ATA, founded in 1974, is the only Trakehner breed organization supported by and affiliated with the German Trakehner Verband and its 300-year legacy.   For nearly fifty years, the ATA has partnered with the Trakehner Verband to support the cultural and sport importance of the Trakehner horse.  During the last several years, the ATA has entirely professionalized its inspection committee, which consists of FEI judges, veterinarians, published sporthorse conformation experts, and Advanced-level competitors in sport.  Further, unique to Trakehner organizations in North America, the ATA’s inspection process includes evaluators from the German Trakehner Verband, which further enhances the quality, consistency, and objectivity within the evaluation process.  The ATA’s goal is to unite Trakehner breeders, owners, and riders on this continent, and ensure the continued improvement of the breed for breeding and sport. 

And because I am a total Trakehner nerd, first a short history lesson:  the Trakehner horse is the oldest warmblood breed in the world, founded in 1732.  The breed originated at Trakehnen (then in East Prussia, but lost to Russia in World War II).  Trakehners are the result of a nearly 300-year-old focused breeding program combining the native East Prussian horses with English Thoroughbreds and selective influxes of Arabian blood.  The original purpose of Trakehners was as calvary mounts, and the athleticism, endurance, and ruggedness of the breed derives, in part, from that background.  At the same time, these horses had to be useful in peacetime, and so they also were used for military parade purposes and for daily work in the fields. From the standpoint of breed selection, that also is a major reason the Trakehner soon had the reputation of a hard-working, versatile animal with little need for maintenance.

GUILDENSTERN SOL, owner Samantha Kidd (NC)—2021 Four-Year-Old and Older Stallions DSHB – Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Award winner for American Trakehner Association

World War II impacted the Trakehner breed like no other.  Following the First World War, East Prussia was Germany’s easternmost territory, and separated from the rest of Germany by a narrow strip of land ceded to the newly-created Poland.  As the war turned against Germany in the east, East Prussia bore the initial brunt of the Russian counterattack.  In the harsh winter, as the Russian Army advanced, people fled for their lives.  The main stud at Trakehnen was evacuated in October 1944.  A few hundred of the best mares, stallions, and young colts were loaded on trains and sent west. Most of these horses, however, were lost to the Russians. 

The private breeders and their horses were not allowed to leave until January of 1945, when there was almost no time to escape. In the terrible and cold winter, the fabled “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 a barely-frozen lagoon in the Baltic Sea where people and horses attempted to cross the thin ice, usually in the darkness, as Russian planes strafed and bombed the caravans, leaving humans and horses drowning in ice cold water.  

Only a tiny fraction of Trakehners living at the time survived the trek to the west.  From the great mare herds of Trakehnen – numbering in the thousands before the war – only the strongest survived . . . a mere 21 original main stud mares; that group was supplemented by private mare owners who somehow managed to get their mares to the west.  Some Trakehners were taken east to Russia, establishing a small Russian segment of the breed.  The resurgence of the breed following the war was the result of a dedicated and passionate core of survivors who did not allow the breed to die.   At the end of the war, it is estimated that only 50 stallions and about 600 mares remained. 

As such, all Trakehners today derive from those hardy survivors of World War II.  It is not a stretch to say that because of this unique history, the legacy of toughness in the Trakehner breed has endured for the last 70+ years.  Just this year, the breed was awarded “intangible cultural heritage” status with UNESCO, as a result of this history.  

SB PARK AVENUE’S SONG, owner Gail Opatut (NJ), rider Eliza Banks (NJ)—2021 Four- and Five-Year-Old Mares Materiale – Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Award winner for American Trakehner Association

For dressage, the historical use of blood horses within the Trakehner’s closed studbook, when focused on dressage breeding, creates a genetic propensity for refinement, lightness, and grace sometimes absent from other breeds.  The impact of Trakehners on modern dressage breeding is not always obvious, in part because Trakehner sires have been leveraged heavily by other breed registries to improve rideability, lightness, and quality of movement in a non-Trakehner mare base. The best (but not only) example of this is E.H. Gribaldi (by E.H. Kostolany), the Trakehner dressage breeding sensation that Dutch breeders used to produce multiple champions, including Totilas. The Kostolany/Gribaldi influence is alive and well today within the Trakehner breed, with the exceptional mare Dalera BB TSF (by E.H. Easy Game) being a stalwart of the German National dressage team and a triple Gold Medalist at the Tokyo Olympics.  Dalera’s paternal half-sibling, Millennium, is similarly being used both in and outside Trakehner-dom to produce exceptional movers and FEI dressage competitors; and several Millennium sons (Ivanhoe, Helium, and Freiherr von Stein among others) are making a dressage impact as well.

Matthew Boyd (Photo by Vada Cunningham)

A focus of Trakehner breeding for the last 30 years has been upon improving rideability – the result of a 1980s-era reputation of Trakehners being overly “hot” horses. And while some still misguidedly revert to that outdated perception, I can assure you that Trakehners can be some of the most rideable and trainable competition horses in the world today. As an example of that rideability, Lord Locksley *Pg*, is a Grand Prix stallion who also serves as the mount for a top-level para-dressage rider. Trakehners are producing quality dressage offspring who are serving as quality partners for dressage competitors at all levels of the training scale.

My fascination with Trakehners started over a decade ago, when my wife, a FEI-level event rider, and I decided to use the multi-talented Trakehner stallion E.H. Grafenstolz TSF in our breeding program.  That breeding produced a filly, and later that year we attended the ATA’s Annual Meeting and stallion inspection to present her.  Attending that meeting, getting to know ATA members, learning the history, and seeing the quality of the horses involved changed our lives in the most positive of ways.  Fast-forward to 2022, and we have a full-blown Trakehner breeding program, have imported two Trakehners from Germany, have another three-year old mare growing up in Germany, I am the President of the ATA, and my wife runs the ATA’s Awards program. It has been quite a ride, and I could not be more proud of how the ATA has developed and improved over that time period.  

We have a pet saying:  “Isn’t it time you rode a Trakehner?” and I believe that to be true (for everyone!).  Seek out your favorite ATA member, breeder, and/or Trakehner rider to find out more. Or email me at maboyd71@yahoo.com – everyone is welcome to join the Trakehner Tribe and learn more about this historic and wonderful breed of horse.  

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