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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Colonist Horse -- the Russian Mennonite Horse

Ne Kol’ni'er Peat

Mennonites in Russia (c) MCUSA Archive.
   Out of curiosity due to conversations regarding American Amish and their preferred horse breeds, I did some research regarding breeds that were popular in Eastern Europe during the time of the Prussian and Russian Mennonites. 
    I was surprised to discover that just as the Percheron-Standardbred crossbreed is often associated with the American Amish, that the Russian Mennonites had been affiliated with their own breed or crossbreed – the so-called Colonist Horse or Mennonite Horse of Ukraine and Russia. 
    Researching the “Mennonite Horse” or “Colonist Horse” of Little Russia leads to very few clues, however, and while Mennonite livestock herds were still seemingly relatively intact at the time of the Russian Revolution, one suspects that many of the Russian Mennonite livestock-types probably degenerated into common Soviet stock – an almost certainty after the Great Famine, after the Holodomor and especially after Stalin’s post-War purges – any one of which could have easily eliminated entire breeds.
    Based in part on pure speculation, I am choosing to bring some of these clues back to the forefront in an attempt to record the past existence of these breeds and to indicate what is known of these horses.  But this is more of an attempt to alert others to continue research rather than to serve as a definitive description of the so-called lost Colonist Horse of the Russian Mennonites.
    GAMEO contains two important pieces of information in its article by Cornelius Krahn, Agriculture among the Mennonites of Russia (cited below):

1789 – 1860:
“The horses that the immigrants had brought from West Prussia degenerated during the first decades in Russia. Efforts at improving them were made through the use of stallions of local breeds, which were obtained from the Don Cossacks and later from government studs. The product obtained through this crossing was a combination of farm and carriage horse. It was strongly built, of medium height and usually black or roan in color. With the increase of grain farming, the demand for draft power also increased. In 1836 the number of horses per farm in the Molotschna settlement amounted to 6.2; by 1841 it had increased to 8.4, by 1855 to 10.6.” (ibid)
1860 – 1917:
“The expansion of the cultivated area required an increased supply of draft power, which was furnished during the nineteenth century exclusively by horses. The horses used by the Mennonites were known as the "colonist horse," which was in quality and appearance superior to the common horse. This breed was improved by crossing it with imported Belgian and Dutch sires; carriage horses were improved chiefly by Russian stock. These improvements were first made on the Mennonite estates, whence the horses found their way into the villages.” (ibid)
    Regarding the earlier period, 1789 – 1869 (the age of migration), it is probable that the Mennonites migrating from the Vistula delta and from further upriver to Ukraine brought a mixture of horse stock based on intended use.  Heavier draft horses, often referred to as coldbloods for heavy work in the fields and so-called warmbloods to perform lighter field tasks and to serve as carriage or buggy horses.
Groninger Horse
    Horses are often divided into three groups – coldblood, warmblood and hotblood – the terms having nothing to do with hematology but based rather on the purpose for which the horse is bred and differences in temperament based on those breeding goals.  Coldblooded horses would be ironically, at the same time physically the largest breeds of horses and yet the most content and gentle – often being known for their ability to pull large loads and to be led by children, and hotbloods would include the wily, smart and fast Arabian and Spanish breeds – often requiring more expert horsemanship to handle.  Note that I have found the terms to be somewhat ambiguous and used very inconsistently in respect to specific breeds, serving more as a general guide and organizational scheme.
    Based on the prevalence of breeds in the region bordering the North and Baltic Seas to the south and on the strength of interconnected Mennonite ties within the diaspora, one would look primarily to two breeds for the performance of heavy draught work – the so-called heavy warmbloods or Friesen and the Ostfriesen or Alt-Oldenburger, and later, the Groningen Friesian, all common to Frisia (comprising Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands and Schleswig-Holstein in Germany). 
Classic Standard Friesen
    Heavy draught horses had been the norm in the region during the Middle Ages – animals strong enough and powerful enough to both pull heavy carts and plows and able to support a fully armored knight, weapons and the horse’s own heavy armor.  As strength become less important, lighter hotblooded breeds were developed from Arabians in Spain and Austria, prized for agility, speed and intelligence.  While these Spanish breeds (including the famed Lipizzaner) quickly spread out amongst the German nobility, the lighter cavalries of Napoleon, Frederick and the Great and others quickly spread hotblood and the intermediate warmblood breeds throughout Europe.
    Throughout the Hapsburg and Holy Roman Empires, local farmers bred these prized Spanish stallions of the local nobility with their own heavier local draft field horses.  The result was the heavy warm bloods – the Friesens and Alt-Oldenburger.  Various breeding sites indicate that these cross-breeds were often bay or dark in colour.
    Other breeds were also quickly developed to serve a lighter role in transportation – pulling light carts, wagons and buggies.  One such breed was the Westphalian, purposefully developed under the direction of the Kaiser (notably Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm I) in emulation of similar state-directed breeding programs in France and England.
    Various Kingdoms, regions and civic delineations would sponsor a breeding stable of the best available stock.  For a nominal fee, local farmers would be able to breed their mares to the official or royal stallions to improve the over-all quality of the local stock.  Over time, regional breeds were developed and specialized, eventually being codified into the breeding guidelines and official characteristics passed on to us today.
    It would probably not be improper to speculate that the majority of draft and plow animals available to the first immigrants from Prussia to Ukraine would be dominated by early Friesen bloodlines such as the Ostfriesen - Alt-Oldenburger or the subsequent Groningen, a horse known for girth, size and strength. 
Russian Mennonite in fields (c) MCUSA Archive.
     Krahn mentions that the Mennonite immigrants to Ukraine had difficulty maintaining the quality and characteristics of the horse-stock brought with them from Prussia and turned to native or locally-available Don Cossack stock. 
    The Old Don or Russian Don is the cultural progeny of those native mounts first captured off the steppe and tamed by early Cossacks.  The Don is purported to be extremely enduring and strong – with a wide body, powerful lungs and well-muscled abdominal muscles.  Famously, in 1812, the Tsar’s Cossack Cavalry dominated the famous Spanish-descent breeds of Napoleon’s army.  While the Germans and French focused on Arabian-descent Spanish steeds, Russia would base its cavalry on these Dons.
    According to
Cossack Horsemanship
    “The early development [of the Don] produced a good steppe steed. It was a medium–sized, rangy, agile and brave horse of staggering endurance and vitality. It was again a product of the survival–of–the–fittest and primitive selection, so common with most of Russian breeds — thousands of horses were lost in raids through waterless and grassless steppes and deserts. …  A product of the centuries, the steed came to be known as the Old Don horse, which laid the foundation for the current Don breed. In later centuries the Don breed was upgraded using Orlov and Orlov–Rostopchin sires, and yet later [English] Thoroughbreds.”
    While horse breeders in the West were focusing on faster, lighter, more delicate horses, the Mennonites of Russia were combining the best of their Friesen descent stock with the new strength of the Don.  One can easily imagine the ability of those farmers to breed powerful horses of excellent stamina for the fields and distances of Ukraine.  The Colonist Horse would possibly have been quite a wonder.
    After Russian Mennonite culture entered its golden age after the Crimean War, Krahn mentions that they imported breeding stock from the Dutch and the state stables of Russia (probably established in imitation of the official German breeding stables).  By this time, the Dutch were breeding for greater adaptability.  Mennonite innovations in farm implements, notably the share or bukker plow, would have made it easier to plow more land with less focus on brute strength.  The Dutch were attempting to accomplish their goals by breeding between the Groningen and imported Thoroughbred stock from Britain.
    At the same time, the Russian military and nobility was perfecting another native Russian breed – the Orlov (Orlov Trotter) developed in the late 18th Century along the Bityug River in the Voronezh district – where many Mennonites would settle.  In 1784, Bars I, the first Orlov standard breeding stallion was bred from Mecklenburg, Dutch and Danish harness breeds ( 
    Due to their adaptability and strong presence in the region, much of the Colonist Horse breed was probably greatly influenced by crossbreeding with the Orlov.
    At this point, barring further research opportunities, one would speculate that the Colonist Horse or Mennonite Horse was a point of crossbreeding the heavier Friesen-style horses of the Mennonites’ native Lowlands with the endurance of the Don Horse.  A cross between Groningen and Don would indeed be a powerful, majestic animal.  Further attempts to improve the adaptability of the Colonist Horse with increased English Thoroughbred lines and Orlov stallions would have produced a quality “trotter” for pulling buggies and wagons.  Knowing the deep love that Russian Mennonite settlers in Nebraska and Manitoba had for their horses, much effort and expertise would have been extended by their forebears in Russia to produce the best mounts possible.
    The only question is whether or not any of the Colonist Horse descendants have survived to this day or if any were successfully transported with the immigrant refugees from Russia to North or South America to preserve the breed (or at least early photos of standard types).
Russlander leaving Ukraine on Foot ca 1944.   (C) NDSU Library Archives
    While Russländer stock would have proven useful in the dark, clayey soils of Minnesota, Manitoba and the Midwest, the lighter sandy soils of the Assiniboia Prairie (Saskatchewan, Western Manitoba, the Dakotas and Eastern Montana) and of the Kansas-Nebraska plains would have had less call for heavy muscle and more call for well-rounded saddle and wagon horses – endurance and speed in transportation probably becoming a higher priority than sheer “horse-power.” 
American Quarter Horse at Work
    Due to the heavy influence of the cattle and sheep industries in the Assiniboia and Kansas-Nebraska regions, other breeds were and are more likely to dominate – especially the quintessential horse of the prairie Cowboy – the American Quarter Horse, and to a lesser extent, Painted Horses or Appaloosas.  While this remains true in the settlement areas of Northeast Montana, Southwest Minnesota, Alberta and Nebraska – one does note an increasing modern tendency, especially in Minnesota, towards the more flamboyant Spanish-breeds, traditionally frowned upon by practical farmers and ranchers for lacking the legs and ankle-strength necessary to prove viable for the rough prairies.  While most animals casually observed in Mountain Lake seem to be Western-trained American Quarter Horses, Spanish breeds definitely exert a greater influence over regional stables in non-Mennonite areas to the north and east.
    Horses are also an important hobby animal around the Dallas and Salem, Oregon, regions, with a seemingly higher focus on English-style show riding and dressage than Western or Cowboy-style.  The author, however, has too little experience with Oregon’s stables to speculate on preferred breeds in that region, relying merely on observed facilities while visiting relatives.
    We do know that amongst the early Brüderthaler, Morgans were highly prized and assuredly, any Orlov-American lines would have been highly sought after by the Russian Germans.  Elder Cornelius M. Wall, of Henderson, was well known for his love of horses and for driving his matched team of blacks a bit too proudly and a bit too fast.  Assuredly, others also fell victim to similar temptations.
    For those interested in horses and their various types, breeds and uses, I strongly recommend that you take time to visit the local, regional or state fair.  The fairs provide an excellent opportunity to view and meet horses of various breeds, and often their owners.  Many 4-H organizations spend great amounts of time preparing for showmanship contests that can be attended free of charge.  Other fairs offer more general racing, dressage and riding competitions.  I would especially recommend the state fairs of Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.

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