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Use and characteristics of the Don Horse
The modern Don horse averages 15.2 hands (62 inches/157 cm) to 16.2 hands (66 inches/168 cm) high. They are very distinctive, with powerful necks and broad chests. The crest is also prominent in these horses. Their coats are mostly chestnut and brown, with the glorious golden shine that can be seen in many Russian breeds with Central Asian ancestry. Their stamina makes them a good option for endurance riding, and so it is not surprising that many distance riders opt to buy a Don horse. Coach and carriage drivers who sell a Don horse know that they are strong harness horses, too. In their homeland, members of the breed can often be seen taking part in traditional carriage and sleigh work such as the troika and the tachanka, which is a four-horse hitch.
Origin and history of breeding Don Horses
Cossacks were some of the most feared and admired horsemen in history. Living on the fringes of society in demanding conditions on the steppe, they became superb riders with a reputation for ruthlessness. They were often enrolled as light horsemen in the service of the Tsar. Their small, strong horses had a reputation to match, having immense stamina and powers of endurance. The ancestors of these horses were probably Tartar and Polovtsian breeds, both of these being steppe nomads of Turko-Mongol origin. By the eighteenth century, the Don Cossacks and their horses mainly occupied the valley of the River Don and its tributaries. It was at this time that the modern type of Don began to emerge, as the Cossack horses were bred to Karabakh, Persian and other stallions. These cavalry horses entered the history books as the mounts of the 60,000 Cossacks who harried Napoleon on his retreat from Moscow in 1812, striking again and again at the French troops as they struggled through terrible conditions with their horses dying beside them. After plundering parts of France, these merciless horsemen returned to Russia. Their own horses, raised to cope with deep snowdrifts and temperature extremes, survived due to their natural robustness. This type was known as the “Old Don”. As the nineteenth century progressed, Don horses were bred with other regional breeds to increase their resilience and stamina. Orlov Trotters, Thoroughbreds and Karabakh horses were used to improve the Don horses in return. Breeding had to be very selective to ensure the horses retained their hardiness. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Don was a fine cavalry horse, typically chestnut with the golden sheen. After the losses of WWI and the Russian Revolution, the breed was restored in Russia.
Don Horses in equestrianism
The Don horse contributed to the creation of many breeds, including the Budyonny and Kushum breeds. Three types exist today: a saddle type, a heavier harness type, and an Oriental type.