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Extinction by NAIS
During October 1944 the whole civilized world was engaged in a huge struggle, World War II. As the Russian Army advanced west and south through Europe with the intention of taking territory and anything of possible value, they approached dangerously close to the Trakehnen Stud in East Prussia, Germany. This breeding establishment was begun in 1732 by King Friedrich Wilhelm I, long before the unification of Germany into one nation in the late 1800's. Friedrich Wilhelm I had seen the need for a new type of "using" horse with stamina, speed, elegance, and practicality; he wanted a versatile horse that could be used for farming the countryside, for pulling elegant coaches, and for providing Prussian officers advantages during war. The king started out with a small local horse, the Schwaike, known for endurance and versatility, and bred it mostly to heavier-boned horses and occasionally to Thoroughbreds and Arabians to create a custom "warmblood." The term "warmblood refers to a horse's temperament: a mix of high-energy hot-blooded light horses with cold-blooded milder-mannered heavier horses. Trakehner horses had become so beloved and popular in East Prussia that there were at least 80,000 head at the time of the Russian invasion. Because the Trakehner horses were considered a German national treasure, the director of the Trakehnen Stud gave orders to evacuate 800 of the best horses to safety. Most of these horses were confiscated by the Russian Army and shipped to Russia without their registration papers, which became hopelessly lost.
Private breeders were not permitted by the Russian occupying army until January 1945. At first the evacuation took place by means of railroad cars to the west, followed by individuals leading horses on foot. Hitching their precious Trakehner horses to wagons and carts that carried the most necessary personal possessions and all the feed possible, women, children, and elderly people left their whole lives behind in an effort to escape the advancing Russian army. It was the dead of winter with heavy snowstorms. Pregnant Trakehner mares, due to foal their babies in early spring, became tired easily. In desperation, as the refugee horses and their owners ran out of food, water, and hope, they unhitched and freed many of the horses. Their owners scavenged whatever food they could find while the horses that remained dodged Russian ammunition. Nevertheless, many owners and horses were wounded by bullets. Ragged strips from burlap feed bags were the only protection for the horses' feet, which eventually became frozen in the bitter cold.
At one point the only way to escape the Russian army that surrounded them was for horses and humans to cross the icy water of the Baltic Sea. Often they were knee deep in water that covered a layer of ice beneath, but there was no time to stop and rest or to dodge gunfire from the Russian planes above them. If they attempted to take either of these actions, they were doomed to drown in the rapidly freezing water. Fewer than 100 of the 800 once-proud, beautiful Trakehner horses survived the 600 mile journey, known to history as "The Trek," into the freedom of West Germany, which was the stronghold of democratic freedom and individual rights after the end of World War II.
As we also know from history, East Prussia and all of East Germany were soon absorbed by the Soviet Union, identified years later by U.S. President Reagan as The Evil Empire at a time when thousands and thousands of moviegoers in the United States watched the adventures of Han Solo and other valiant heroes in " a distant galaxy far, far away" against The Evil Empire. For moviegoers, "Star Wars" provided swashbuckling adventure and fantasy. In real life, however, the Soviet Empire was a very real threat to the residents of a divided Germany and to the preservation of the Trakehner breed.
For years Trakehner breeders struggled to keep the Trakehner breed alive. The East Prussian Trakehner Stud Book Society was replaced by the Friends of the Warmblood Horse of Trakehner Origin, or simply the Trakehner Verband. The Verband was able to establish a small breeding farm in Lower Saxony in West Germany with West German government support. Efforts were made to locate the struggling East Prussian refugees and their valuable Trakehner horses, scattered all over West Germany and barely surviving. Members of the Verband spent years trying to locate and identify Trakehner horses that had managed to survive the horrors of the 1944-45 Russian invasion. In the meantime, however, the Trakehner Gesellschaft was a West German corporation formed to help small breeders get their Trakehner mares bred to the remaining stallions. As in the very beginnings of the breed, both Thoroughbred and Arabian helped refine the Trakehner horses.
Because the Trakehner Registry is based on rigorous standards, only about two out of every 100 horses are accepted. Stallions are judged on athletic ability, conformation, willingness of attitude, and performance testing at the age of 2 1/2 years. Those that are accepted must undergo an additional 3 1/2 months of training at a government training center in the now unified Federal Republic Germany. Then they must undergo an evaluation while moving on a flat surface, two jumping tests, and evaluation of their gallop, feed utilization, trainability, and attitude. If a horse fails during this second round of testing, the Verband prohibits his use as a breeding stallion. Likewise, mares are evaluated at the age of three, and their test results accompany their registration records. The Trakehner horse is recognizable by the brand of the moose antlers, shown in the drawing above. The brand always appears on the left hindquarter.
Although the Trakehner Verband requires German horses to be at least 15.3 hands, the American branch of the Registry, the American Trakehner Association (A.T.A.) sometimes makes a few exceptions. In recent years the ATA searched for athletic Arabian horses to include as acceptable outcrosses for purebred Trakehner horses. In 2002, when the time period for inclusion had ended, the Arabian stallions, Al-Marah Quebec and AM Ghost Ship, though only 15 hands each, were included after undergoing rigorous evaluations. This inclusion means that Trakehner mares bred to either stallion will have foals that are still registerable as Trakehners.
Today the Trakehner Verband and the American Trakehner Association are alive and well. That the Trakehner breed survived the ravages of World War II and afterwards is a testament to the dedication of its owners and breeders alike.