|A Noble Horse of the old Kingdom
|The story of the Salzburg Exiles in East Prussia, and especially those of them who settled the area
around Gumbinnen, cannot be told without mention of a horse. The Teutonic Knights discovered a
small, primitive horse, the Schwaikenpferd, native to the Baltic area around East Prussia in the 13th
Century and used it to breed military horses. Later, farmers used the horses for light work.
Our Soldier King, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, needed a faster, sounder horse, and he established
the breed for his soldiers in 1732, at the time of the Salzburg exile. War tactics had changed and a
lighter horse with more endurance and speed was required rather than the heavier horses previously
needed to carry armor and haul heavy equipment. The Trakehner is therefore one of Germany's
oldest warmblood breeds.
He chose the best horses from seven of his royal breeding farms, and established a stud farm in East
Prussian at Trakehnen and had his soldiers clear the forest between Stallupönen and Gumbinnen. In
1739, the king gave the stud farms to his son, the future Friedrich the Great.
The results were very successful. The best quality, the Trakehners, were reserved for his army, and
the "average" horses, which were sometimes bred with everyday East Prussians local horses, were
sold as riding horses. The stud farm became state property after his death and was named the
Königlich Preußisches Hauptgestüt Trakehnen. The breed was steadily improved, and between 1817
and 1837, Arabian, Turkish, and Thoroughbred blood was added to the Schwaike mares.
The Trakehner evolved into an outstanding, beautiful and respected horse the world over. Alas, war
would have a severe impact on these beautiful animals. By 1918, 60,000 mares were bred to East
Prussian stallions each year, but after the punitive Treaty of Versailles limited Germany's army to
100,000, the horses were again reduced to farm work and heavier reinforcement sires were used to
make the horses stronger. In the 1920s and 1930s the breed was improved and it won medals in
various steeplechases as well as in two Olympics. By the 1930s, there were more than 10,000
breeders and 18,000 registered mares.
Tragically, fate would deal as fatal a blow to the magnificent Trakehner horse breed as it did to the
East Prussian people in the desperate, terrible flight out of East Prussia at the end of World War
Two. The orders came at the very end of the war, as the Red Army was closing in fast, to evacuate
the horses from the Trakehnen stud farm. Click to enlarge picture below
|The rescue of about 800 of the best horses was attempted, and after being hand selected by their
heart-broken owners and breeders, the horses were desperately sped out of East Prussia by train and
on foot. Above right: The horrible sight on October 17, 1944 of Trakehners in flight from East
Prussia run past the Soldier King's Monument in Gumbinnen.
Sadly, most of the horses, together with their documentation, fell into the hands of the murderous
occupation forces and were shipped to Russia, to be lost forever. The private owners and breeders,
also fleeing for their lives, hitched their heavy wagons to another 800 or so of these noble horses, and
headed west in the infamous "Trek'' during brutal winter weather. Others were simply set free.
Many of the horses were pregnant. For two and one half months on the horrible, frantic 600 mile
flight, the horses' feed ran out and many mares lost their foals, became ill or went lame. Many
perished along with the refugees when they slid into a watery grave in the frozen Baltic and others
were gunned down along with their owners by the Soviets circling overhead. Witnesses encountered
many of the noble horses dead along the route, shot to death and flattened by Russian tanks.
At the end, many beautiful horses were eaten by starving refugees, forced into heavy labor hauling
rubble or put to use as taxi drivers due to the severe fuel shortages, all uses they were never intended
for. By the time they reached the West, only about 100 of the Trek horses had survived and they
were in horrible condition. Others had spread out all over Germany, but only a few hundred of the
original 80,000 Trakehners in East Prussia survived.
However, these few tough, strong surviving horses became the founders of today's hardy Trakehner
horse breed. The last original Trakehner was Keith, born there in 1944 and died in November, 1976.
A very dedicated Dr. Fritz Schilke of the East Prussian Stud Book Society attempted the difficult
task of locating all of the East Prussian horses that had made it to the West, and in 1947, the West
German "Trakehner Verband" was established with a Trakehner Stud Book that continued to
document the breed. Later, unlike other German breeds, the Trakehner had no mother state and
could not depend on government funding. Therefore, re-establishment of the breed originally
depended on the determination of its members and the generosity of others.
At the time, many Trakehnen horses could be identified only by the Ostpreußische Elchschaufel, the
East-Prussian moose horn branding of a single moose antler brand on their right hip or by the double
moose antlers on their left hip. Today, all Trakehner breeding stock has to undergo rigorous grading
methods to maintain the high standards.
|THE TRAKEHNER HORSE OF EAST PRUSSIA
|Photograph from a painting by Carl Engel.