Legendary Kabardian Horses Galloping To Comeback

A rider with her Kabardian gelding Mashuk in the Austrian Alps in 2013
A rider with her Kabardian gelding Mashuk in the Austrian Alps in 2013

By Pete Baumgartner | RFE/RL

The Kabardian horse's strength and endurance were legendary as it carried Circassian warriors battling Imperial Russian forces in the high mountains of the Caucasus in the 1800s.

But the animal was in a dire situation as the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991, nearly vanishing into obscurity.

Now, breeders and animal registries suggest the Kabardian has been resurrected in its home region and is even flourishing in stables farther West. "At the fall of the Soviet Union, the breed was close to extinction," Pawel Krawczyk, who has bred, trained, and raced Kabardian horses, tells RFE/RL.

Hundreds of animals from a dwindling population were being transported at the time to countries like Italy for meat, he says, "essentially to make sausage" -- as the Soviet and then Russian breeding programs broke down amid the chaos.

Russian stud farms were soon left with "thousands of horses, no money to feed them, and expenses such as the salaries of the workers," he says.

"It was a very difficult situation."

A Kabardian mare in the Caucasus

The Kabardian -- a sturdy, medium-sized horse usually entirely black, bay, or gray -- has been bred by Circassian tribesmen in the mountainous northern Caucasus since at least the 1500s. The animal is renowned for its intelligence and obedience as well as its ability to endure harsh conditions and nearly unmatched stamina.

Its agility over narrow mountain passes and in frigid temperatures made the breed invaluable to Circassian resistance to Imperial Russia's bids for control of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries.

An account from a Habsburg officer during the Russo-Circassian War describes how the foe's princes rode "160 versts," or about 170 kilometers, in 14 hours ahead of a raid in the Kuban region. "Only the [Kabardian] horse was capable of this," the officer, F.F. Turnau, wrote enviously.

Kabardians were used by tsarist armies in many military campaigns, and the breed was often favored by Cossacks along Russia's extensive frontiers as the empire expanded to the east and south.

The animals were even depicted playing a role in the partitioning of Poland in the 18th century, such as in the famous 1898 painting Circassian Cavalry Charge In Warsaw, by Wojciech Kossak.

'Something Special About Them'

The Kabardian's almost mythical stature made the breed's near demise in the aftermath of the U.S.S.R. especially alarming for equine enthusiasts.

Tobias Knoll, a German expert on the breed who, like Krawczyk, helped lead a revival of Kabardians in Europe, puts their peak number in the Caucasus at around 100,000 animals.

But several hundred registered mares were all that existed in the entire republic of Kabardino-Bakaria, where the breed originated, by the early 1990s.

Knoll says he happened across a lone Kabardian horse in Bavaria in 1996 and fell in love with the breed. He was later told they were rare and decided to breed them and establish a herd at his farm northeast of Munich.

"Why save another breed," he asks, with hundreds of other breeds around the world? "There is something special about these horses which other horses lack -- this needs to be preserved."

The efforts of Knoll and other breeders are now at the heart of a cottage industry that has fed interest in the Kabardian in Germany, where there are now around 400 of the animals.

They are mainly used for riding, tourism, and endurance racing.

A robust network of horsemen breeds and trains Kabardians for competitions that test the animals' and their riders' endurance, where they compete admirably with Arabian horses.

Krawczyk says he helped a group of broke Kabardian horse trainers from Russia's North Caucasus region set up stables near Krakow, Poland, in the early 2000s. They trained and competed across Europe and in the Middle East in grueling races -- some as long as 160 kilometers -- with their transplanted animals.

There are now said to be around 70-100 Kabardians in Poland.

Their racing success also helped promote the breed elsewhere in Europe, and small herds have arisen in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland, Knoll says.

Kabardian from the Botesch [Ботэщ]. Early 20th century.

'Symbol Of Our Freedom'

But crucially, breeders say, the Kabardian-horse population should be revived in their homeland of Kabardino-Balkaria, a tiny slice of rocky, verdant land that borders Georgia and is home to dozens of lakes and rivers as well as around half a million people.

The Caucasus region has been racked by eruptions of conflict and instability in the decades since the Soviet Union's demise, some of it reflecting historic tensions between its southern Russian republics and central authorities in Moscow.

The animals are a "strong symbol of our freedom," says Islam Tekushev, a Caucasian political analyst. "The Kabardian horse is an integral part of our identity and played a major role in Circassian history through the centuries."

The local recovery effort has only taken hold in recent years, led largely by a relatively small number of breeders. Krawczyk says one of the results is that "a lot of rich people, oligarchs, businessmen" breed the horses and keep herds of hundreds of Kabardians.

Breeder Knoll puts the breed's current numbers at between 10,000 and 12,000 in all of the Caucasus. "Here in Europe, we will not save the breed. It's really there that we need to save the horses," he says.

"The most important thing is that people in the [North Caucasus become] more aware that they have something special that is worthy of being saved."

Pete Baumgartner is a senior correspondent who primarily covers politics and sports in Central Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

Source: RFE/RL