Horses of Russia
The Russian Don horse breed is robust and sturdy. The Don and the Orlov Trotter are the only two breeds endemic to Russia that have survived to modern times.
The Don was the horse of the Cossacks who selectively bred for endurance and toughness. They developed a rugged horse able to withstand the extremes of temperature so typical of Russia. It was small, tough and wiry, independent of character, with great endurance and seemingly impervious to the harsh winters and searingly hot summers of its native steppes.
The Don has continued to have a great capacity for travelling long distances and still copes well with extremes of temperature. The reputation of the Don was advertised to the wider world after the Cossacks, a Russian cavalry unit mounted on Dons, pursued Napoleon's army all the way to Paris during the Napoleonic wars. The Cossacks were recognised as exceptional horsemen and during the 1812 war against Napoleon, they harried the exhausted French through Europe and back to Paris arriving there in the spring of 1813.
Napoleon badly underestimated the severity of the merciless Russian winter and the ability of the Cossacks' mounts to carry on under the dreadful conditions. Many of the Spanish horses collapsed and died during the trek which took place in freezing temperatures and over rough terrain.
The Russian Don evolved near the Don and Volga Rivers in the south-west of Russia. This area is known as the Steppes Region. Originally the breed was small but during the 1800s and later in the 1900s, infusions of Orlov Trotter, Arabian and Thoroughbred blood saw the height increase to between 15.1hh and 15.3hh.
The fall of the Soviet Union saw the breed neglected for some time. Numbers fell dramatically but luckily the best mares and stallions survived. With the stabilisation of Russia's political circumstances and its enhanced economic situation, the Don is again being selectively bred. However, its conformation problems have not all been overcome. The hip joint structure and angle of the pelvis often results in a shortness of stride that can be very jarring. Also, the breed is inclined to be straight in the shoulder which again impedes the action somewhat.
It is still tough, strong and independent in character. It is bred on the Steppes and given little in the way of care by its owners. Today it is used mainly as an endurance horse. When crossed with other breeds, it infuses hardiness and stamina into the progeny.
Chestnut is the most common colour, followed by brown and there is often a metallic sheen to the coat. Blacks, greys and bays are sometimes seen. The head is clean and the profile straight. Open nostrils help give it its incredible stamina. The ears are small, shapely and pricked.
The endurance of the Don is its main feature. In 1951, a stallion named Zenith travelled 311 kilometres in 24 hours which included four hours rest. Russia is justifiably proud of its Don and has featured the breed on several stamps.