Worldwide, the best known horse of the forty or so breeds raised in lands encompassing the former Soviet Union, is the Orlov Trotter. But the Trotter isn’t Russia’s only Orlov. Few horse fanciers outside of Russia know that Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov-Chesmensky (1737-1807) also developed an elegant black cavalry and classical riding horse. It too survives, as today’s critically endangered Russian Warmblood, or Orlov-Rostopchin sport horse.

Shortly after Catherine the Great overthrew her husband, Czar Peter III, she rewarded her co-conspirator and lover, Count Orlov, a cavalry officer and avid horse breeder, with his choice of fine horses from her imperial stables. The count picked Drakon, an Oriental stallion said to be Arabian (but probably a Turkoman, today’s Akhal-Teke) previously presented to Catherine by the Shah of Persia; thirty-eight unraced, Russian-born English Thoroughbred mares; and a selection of Turkoman, Arabian, Karabakh, Neapolitan, and Danish Frederiksborg mares, which he transferred to Ostrov, his estate near Moscow.

From the beginning Count Orlov stressed type and beauty, trainability, intelligence, and disposition. Every horse bound for Ostrov’s breeding sheds was schooled in dressage. Those unsuitable, he culled. He practiced judicious inbreeding, mating best to best. His superior Russian horse began to emerge. Then, during the Russo-Turkish war, Catherine appointed him Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Mediterranean fleet. A brilliant military strategist, Count Orlov’s forces pounded the Turks at the Bay of Chesman, for which Catherine bestowed upon him the surname addition ‘Chesmensky’. Perhaps more to his liking, by war’s end he had purchased or taken as spoils of war twenty-one Oriental horses: twelve stallions and nine mares, including Sultan, a brown Turkoman, and a silver-grey Arab he renamed Smetanka.


Smetanka, the Count believed, was a wonder horse. He paid 60,000 gold rubles for the stallion, a staggering amount in an era when the sum total for all horses sold by Russian state studs that year (1774) amounted to just 5,609 gold rubles. To avoid the hazards of sea travel, he had the horse transported overland from Turkey to Russia by way of Hungary and Poland, under a protective charter issued by the Turkish government. The journey took two full years.

Meanwhile, Ostrov was considered the best studfarm, state-owned or private, in all of Russia. However, because of the harsh climate, Count Orlov was forced to stable his delicate Oriental acquisitions up to eight months each year. Sultan expired during his first Russian winter. Worse, Smetanka died too. At his request, in October of 1776 Catherine granted Count Orlov 325,000 acres of virgin black-soil steppe in the Bobrov district of Voronezh province. There, where until Orlov’s horses arrived, only tarpans and antelope had roamed, the Count established Khrenov studfarm. Orlov Trotters are still bred at Khrenov today.

By the turn of the century, 600 broodmaresalmost three thousand head total—grazed Khrenov’s broad grasslands. There, the Count labored to develop a trotter line based on the bloodlines of Polkan, a son of Smetanka, and a riding horse line on those of the stallions Sultan II (by Sultan) and Felkerzam (by Smetanka). And he was successful.

When Count Orlov died in 1807, he’d achieved his dream. His Orlov Trotter had become Russia’s premier harness horse; his riding horse was the darling of its time. Tall, elegant, and classy, the Orlov Riding Horse was immensely popular at the new czar’s court, where classical riding was very much in vogue. Cavalry officers treasured Orlov’s big, invariably black chargers for their soundness, energy, trainability, and beauty. Orlov Riding Horse stallions were used to improve run-of-the-mill cavalry mounts (which affected the quality of horses ridden by Russian troops when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812), as well as numerous steppe horse breeds, the Don, and the Stretlets Arabian.


Meanwhile, at the turn of the century, Count F. V. Rostopchin developed his black Rostopchin Riding Horse by crossing three Oriental stallions with Karabakh, Don, Persian, and English Thoroughbred mares. He selected primarily for conformation and speed. He raised phenomenally successful race horses.

In 1845, the czarist government purchased Khrenov, as well as Count Rostopchin’s Annenkov studfarm. Orlov Riding Horse stallions crossed on Rostopchin mares created a new, dynamic breed. Thus commenced the Golden Age of the Orlov-Rostopchin. In 1866 nearly half of the breeding stallions used at Russian studfarms were Orlov-Rostopchins. Many were exported to Europe, where they fetched amazing prices. The czar favored them as gifts to foreign dignitaries. Shipped to the huge expositions of the day, Orlov-Rostopchins brought glory to czarist Russia. Frant, Fakel, and Fazan carried home gold medals from the 1867 Paris World Fair, as did Bayanchik and Vorobeiy, respectively, at the 1900 Paris and 1912 London World Fairs. Priyatel was pinned best riding horse at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, where he sold for 10,000 gold rubles. Priezd grabbed Grand Prix at the 1896 Chicago World Fair.


But those glory days paled. During World War I (in which 4.5 million horses on the Russian fronts were killed), the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the civil war that followed, the breed was all but annihilated. When, in 1931, under the supervision of Soviet government director Marshal S. M. Budyonny, breed reconstruction began, only nine purebreds could be located: five stallions and four mares. To this gene pool was added twenty-eight partbred Orlov-Rostopchin mares, nine Anglo-Arabian mares, and forty-eight mares representing Russian breeds of similar type and pedigree. By carefully line breeding to suppress non-Orlov-Rostopchin bloodlines and rigorously testing all young stock, culling all who didn’t meet muster, the old breed re-emerged, called now, by government decree, the Russian Riding Horse.

But Fate hadn’t finished with the Orlov-Rostopchin. During World War II, every horse at the studfarm was killed. The only known purebred survivors were three horses stabled at the Moscow Agricultural Fairgrounds: a mare and the stallions Buket and Braslet. Shipped to a studfarm in the Ural mountains, Buket and Braslet covered the remaining purebred mare, partbred Orlov-Rostopchin mares with added Thoroughbred and Arabian breeding, Russian Thoroughbreds and Trakehners, and Akhal-Tekes. Again light inbreeding was employed to suppress non-Orlov-Rostopchin bloodlines. But because of the harsh Ural climate, the horses failed to thrive. In the early 1950’s, the best horses were transferred to studfarms in the Ukraine. There they were used to develop the Ukrainskaya, the Ukrainian sporthorse.


Then, in 1977, at Starzhilovsky state studfarm, 89 miles southeast of Moscow in the Ryazan region, government-directed efforts began anew to reconstruct Count Orlov’s superior Russian riding horse. Ukrainskaya tracing directly to old Orlov-Rostopchin bloodlines were shipped to the studfarm to be bred to carefully selected Russian horses of similar color, disposition, type, and pedigree, among them Russian Trakehners, Thoroughbreds, and Arabians, Anglo-Akhal-Tekes, Anglo-Hungarians, and Orlov Trotters. Because studies conducted prior to WWII proved the breed was dominant in all crosses, preservators were confident the 19th century Orlov-Rostopchin could be recreated. And they were right.

And what does this reconstructed black horse of the czars resemble today?

A typical Orlov-Rostopchin (pronounced or-laav raas-TOP-chin; sometimes called Orlovo-Rostopchin, Orlov-Rostopchinsky, Orlov-Rostopchinskaya, or simply O-R) stands 16-16.2 hands. A few individuals, slightly over or under that ideal. The breed is predominantly black: 90% of all pedigreed Orlov-Rostopchins are true black, black bay, or darkest seal brown; the rest are bay or brown. Inspected and approved Orlov-Rostopchins sport at most a star or narrow strip, perhaps a low white sock or two. Excessive white markings are strictly taboo: no white above knees or hocks, no markings trailing off the side of the face are tolerated.


Three words best describe Orlov-Rostopchins: long, lean, and elegant. O-R heads are finely chiseled and wonderfully dry, featuring large, fluted nostrils, broad foreheads, neat ears, and prominent bony eye orbits over huge, expressive eyes. Profiles are straight or slightly dished. A characteristic cherished since Count Orlov’s time: a sliver of white sclera shows at the edges of O-R eyes. Long, shapely swan necks with long napes and crests meld into long, high, muscular withers set high atop Orlov-Rostopchins’ beautifully laid back shoulders. Their backs and croups, too, are long and muscular, their bodies lean, with rib cages nicely rounded. Orlov-Rostopchins are set high on long, lean, dry legs. Stallions average 8.2″ bone, mares proportionally less. O-R hooves are of moderate size, dark, and strong. There’s nothing coarse or clunky about Count Orlov’s perfect horse.

Its gait is distinctive: breezy and easy, naturally rounded with worlds of suspension and hocks naturally engaged. The breed carries itself proudly, even regally. It is naturally upheaded, alert, and aware. Orlov-Rostopchins are suave, charming, and personable. Bred for disposition and intelligence since Count Orlov’s era, these black horses are a trainer’s dream, wonderfully responsive and easily schooled for any sporthorse discipline. And to make certain every individual meets these criteria, all Russian Orlov-Rostopchins are evaluated by government inspectors at two and four years of age. At each government bonitirovka, horses receive marks for measurements/proportions, conformation, pedigree, capacity for work, and color. Two year olds are gaited in hand and tested over a free-jump course; four year olds in training, usually as jumpers or for dressage, are judged under saddle. Horses are then rated Elite-1, Elite-2, Elite-3, Class 1-1, Class 1-2, and so on. Only Elite stock may be used for breeding.

Until the late 1980’s, few outside Soviet Russia knew these horses existed. Then, in 1988, Orlov-Rostopchin geldings, Barin and Dikson, represented Russia at the Seoul Olympic Games. Barin also competed in 1992 in the Barcelona Olympics. Ridden by Russian team member Nina Menkova, Dikson shone at the European Championships, the World Cup (where he was pinned Reserve Champion), and the 1990 World Equestrian Games. Folks outside of Russia erroneously called them ‘Russian Trakehners’. Gert Reuter did when he imported, by way of Europe, the first Orlov-Rostopchins known to set hoof on American soil. Soon thereafter, an article in Dressage and CT, “The Russian Warmblood Horse” by Russian biologist Dr. Alexander I. Polozkov, piqued interest in the breed. More importations followed.


Today there are 30-40 (the exact number is unknown because not all are registered in the American studbook) Russian-pedigreed Orlov-Rostopchins in North America, about 600 world wide. And while restoration efforts continue at Starozhilovsky studfarm, shortages of everything from feed to medicines to manpower to muck stalls made keeping the project afloat increasingly more difficult.

It was from Starozhilovsky studfarm’s program that Dr. Barbara Weber of Solstice Farm, then of Sandstone, Minnesota, imported Iskusnik, an Elite-1 stallion who tested best colt at his two year old evaluations in Russia (pictured left). He was one of only two Russian-bred, approved Orlov-Rostopchins standing in North America when, as a four year old, he shattered a hind leg and was subsequently euthanized at the University of Minnesota’s veterinary facility.

Hoping to perpetuate Iskusnik’s superior conformation and athletic ability, Dr. Weber retained all of Iskusnik’s daughters and three of his sons, which she crossed with Russian-approved breeds (Trakehners, Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Hungarians, Akhal-Tekes, Orlov Trotters, and crosses thereof) to establish an American Orlov-Rostopchin restoration project. Today, the project continues. Learn more at


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