Lithuania - the Come-back of the Horse
Basha O'Reilly FRGS
At the peak of its power, the Soviet Union controlled 22,276,060 kilometres (8,600,835 miles) of territory. The Baltic nation of Lithuania was an unwilling part of this vast empire.
Historians have recorded the loss of political rights which Lithuanians endured during fifty years of Soviet oppression. What has not been appreciated is how Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin also crushed the equestrian heritage of Lithuania and the other countries which came under his control.
Stalin was no friend of horses. In 1928 he seized control of all private farmland. His ambitious goal was to create an enormous agricultural collective. The first step was to confiscate every animal larger than a chicken. Horses were no exception. They were forcibly taken from the people and placed into state-controlled farms. Many owners preferred to kill their horses rather than have them confiscated by the communists.
A massive modern equinocide was one of the results of Stalin’s ill-advised agricultural policy. Experts have calculated that the equine population of the Ukraine alone dropped from 32 million down to 17 million horses.
Yet like other dictators before and since, Stalin realized that horses also presented a potent political threat. The Soviet system was designed to keep people close to home, where they could be kept under tight social, political and geographic control. Horses threatened to undermine this oppression. People who could ride could travel without permission. Resistance and rebellion could be spread from the saddle. Stalin decided to crush that possibility. In 1928 he passed a law making it illegal for private individuals to own a horse.
In addition, the Soviets devastated the national equestrian cultures of countries such as Lithuania. Only a handful of individuals were brave enough to hide horses. A rare few took steps to preserve their nation’s historic horse breeds. After decades of equestrian repression, the advent of glasnost and perestroika inspired the birth of an anti-communist independence movement. In 1990 Lithuania became the first nation to break free from Soviet control.
Political, economic and social changes were an immediate necessity. But once Lithuania’s independence had been assured, the country’s riders began to revive their ancient equestrian culture. Not only were traditions rejuvenated, a series of remarkable journeys were taken on Lithuania’s famous ˇemaitukai horses.
Gintaras Kaltenis is one of the modern Lithuanian Long Riders who is leading an effort to reclaim his country’s heritage and protect its horses.
He told the Long Riders’ Guild, “Lithuania can be proud of its rich history. It has the oldest Indo-European language and in the 15th century our ancestors ruled the largest state in Europe. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which spread from the Baltic to the Black Sea, held power across Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Poland, Russia and Ukraine. But long wars with Lithuania’s neighbours resulted in part of the territory being lost.
Many people have heard about Genghis Khan but only a few people remember how Lithuania’s ruler, Duke Algirdas, and his cavalry triumphed over the Mongols at the Battle of the Blue Waters. This victory prevented the khan’s army from further migration into Europe."
Lithuania is the home of the ˇemaitukai, an ancient breed descended from the wild Tarpans which originally inhabited Europe’s steppes and forests. They are small but strong and tough. Since Lithuania is historically a land of farmers and warriors, this horse has always played an important role in their culture. All their victories were achieved thanks to the ˇemaitukai. In battle, they would bite, kick and attack the enemies’ horses. The country’s coat of arms still shows a Lithuanian knight on such a horse.
In 2011 a team of Lithuanians decided to ride ˇemaitukai horses on a special equestrian journey from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The ride was made in honour of Lithuanian hero, King Vytautas the Great. According to legend when Vytautas reached the Black Sea, his horse drank from the salty water.
Gintaras said, “We wanted to see if 600 years later our modern ˇemaitukai horses could complete the same journey done by the king and his horses. Of course our journey was far easier than the one made by Vytautas. In addition to the riders, we organized a team of support vehicles which carried our tents, food, medical and farrier supplies. A veterinarian and a blacksmith were among the drivers. And we had no enemies!”
Whenever possible, they followed in the king’s hoofprints. This required them to ride through forests, wade across streams and cross swamps. But the safety of their horses was always of paramount importance. That is why the route was planned by specialists to avoid asphalt and stony ways.
They rode through three of the countries which were part of the Grand Duchy: Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.
Gintaras told the LRG, “Some people thought we were making a historical movie. They couldn’t believe that we were actually riding to the Black Sea. But I can honestly say that we met only friendly and hospitable people. In Belarus and Ukraine people were waiting with flowers, apples and pies. Teachers dismissed children from classes in order to organize meetings with us. Mayors invited us to dinner. Sometimes the whole village would gather round to meet us. Even the custom officials were nice. They always tried to find ways to help us cross the border.
|Even the customs officers were helpful!|
Even though they are not big in size, these horses are strong, smart, lively and emotionally dependable. Plus, our country’s history had shown that the breed has great stamina. Dr. Audrius Kučinskas is a veterinarian and the head of a university medical department. He joined our team in order to take blood samples, examine tendons and measure muscles during the journey. At the end of the trip, Dr. Kučinskas concluded that the horses had accomplished their task perfectly. They were in better shape than when they started. So our decision was proved to be 100 percent correct. But they did surprise us in one way. They developed a tremendously strong collective identity and became emotionally bonded to each other."
|The first Lithuanian Members of the Long Riders' Guild reach the Black Sea.|
Thanks to the success of this journey, Lithuanian Long Riders soon made another special journey. That journey was in remembrance of how King ˇygimantas Augustas escorted the body of his young wife Barbara Radvilaitė from Krakow, Poland to the Vilnius Cathedral in Lithuania. They rode 1200 kilometres (745 miles), through Poland, Belarus and Lithuania, along what is known as the “Monarch’s Love Route.”
Their next trip, which will also include carriages, will honour the Lithuanian engineers who built the road to St Petersburg in 1836.
After the Second World War the ˇemaitukai were close to extinction. They only survived because of the enthusiasm of a few breeders who realized the importance of the breed. Even today there are fewer than 500 of these fine animals. But Gintaras told the LRG, “One of the goals of our journeys is to tell the world that the ˇemaitukai horse is peerless in travel, endurance racing and tourism.”
There is a saying in Lithuania. ‘Whoever has no past has neither present nor future’. When the Lithuanians make a ride, they travel along the path of their nation’s history but at the same time always looking towards the future.
Gintaras Kaltenis has written about the Lithuanians' ride to the Black Sea. The book includes a DVD about the journey.
Copyright (c) 2014 Basha O'Reilly
Main Stories from the Road page
Top of page