Catherine the Great, famous for her “love” of horses. Of course, she’s famous for lots of other things as well, but it’s mainly the horse thing that people are interested in. It’s deliciously scandalous, of course people are interested in it.
There’s been renewed interest in Catherine, primarily due to the show The Great, which is also deliciously scandalous. It’s addictive viewing with absolutely fantastic costumes, but of course, it touches on those rumors. It also touches on many of the things Catherine did, including embracing Russia as her new homeland and bringing culture and innovation there.
But, what I feel is one of the most important aspects is not brought up – her actual love of horses. Catherine was a horse girl through and through. As a fellow horse lover, this is terrible! We should all talk about women who love horses! And in a world bogged down by nasty rumors, it’s time more people learned the truth.
Who WAs Catherine the Great?
Catherine was born as Sophie in 1729, in the kingdom of Prussia. She was born noble, but her family was actually relatively poor, one family of many smaller nobilities spread around the area.
Her mother knew they were at a disadvantage, so Sophie grew up with the ultimate goal of landing a good marriage. She was trained to be a princess.
Sophie did land a good marriage – the future tsar Peter III of Russia. Her mother and Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, organized the marriage. Sophie first met him when she was 10, and formed an instant dislike of him. She did eventually figure out how to deal with him, but more on that later.
Sophie arrived in Russia when she was 15, and was taken with her new home. She spent a lot of time learning Russian and vowed to do whatever was required of her to wear the crown. She converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, and that’s when she took on her new name of Catherine.
Peter and Catherine were married in 1745. After their wedding, they were put in charge of a smaller area of Russia to practice ruling. Catherine still disliked Peter, and frequently hid from him in her rooms. She still wasn’t Empress yet, but she begin sowing the seeds that would help her in the future. She begin forming alliances with political groups that wanted Peter gone, planning to take over his throne.
In 1762, the Empress Elizabeth died, and Peter became Tsar. Also in 1762, Catherine led a coup against Peter and forced him to abdicate the throne, making her Empress of Russia. Also in Peter “died”. This all happened within 6 months. Catherine moved fast.
Catherine was one of the most successful and influential rules in Russian history. She would establish new schools and universities, reforming the educational system. She promoted science and the arts, making Russia a more cultured and civilized country. She encouraged the development of trade and industry, leading to economic grown. She expanded Russia’s borders through a series of successful military campaigns. She did amazing things during her time as the ruler of Russia.
She really is fascinating, and did much to advance Russia. But those all of these things can be easily looked into. What is less talked about is her true love of horses.
She Loved Riding
Catherine begin riding when she moved to Russia. She rode a few times in Moscow, but she had her first official lesson while she was on travel, at Roumiantzoff House. She hadn’t caught the horse bug at this point and was actually quite bad at riding, which really should be expected for someone who just started. But one summer, at the Summer Palace, there was nothing else to do so she rode. Catherine wrote this was when she got her passion for riding.
That summer, and every summer she was there, she filled her days with riding. She loved to ride. Some days she spent up to 13 hours in the saddle. Once, her tailor saw her riding and told her he wasn’t surprised she was in constant need of new riding clothes as all of her clothes continually wore out. Of course, it didn’t help that she rode in silk, likely one of the worst wearing clothes to ride in.
Those early lessons were a thing of the past as she gained experience. She was proud of her own ability. At one point, she compared herself to a noble who wished to ride with her. Catherine had leapt nimbly into the saddle, and the noble was awkward and uncomfortable. Catherine immediately took off, and the noble was left behind, unable to keep up. Catherine’s ladies were sure the noble was trying to imitate her own riding ability, and this became a long running joke to her and her ladies. (It was probably funnier if we had been there).
But regardless of whom she was forced to ride with, she genuinely loved it.
For myself, I cared little for the chase, but I was passionately fond of riding; and the more violent the exercise, the more I liked it, so that if a horse happened to run away, I was sure to be after it and bring it back.Catherine the Great’s Memoirs
Every summer, she resumed her daily, lengthy rides, eventually ditching her silk dresses and wearing “man’s dress” to be able to ride better.
One summer, Zimmerman, the best horseman in Russia, traveled to their palace. Catherine decided she would be taking horsemanship lessons with him. Her riding lessons became part of her daily routine. She got up every morning at 6am, dressed in men’s clothing, and rode in her specially prepared garden; a riding arena she had commissioned herself. She progressed rapidly, impressing Zimmerman at her progress, who awarded her silver spurs.
She made so much progress that Zimmerman brought a “leaping-horse” for her to ride. Unfortunately, the day she was supposed to ride him, she received orders to return to town, so it had to be put off until the following spring. A giant letdown for any horse girl.
She Had a Secret Saddle
The Empress Elizabeth, frequently seeing Catherine riding about, forbad her from riding astride. She was to only ride sidesaddle. Catherine, preferring the freedom of riding astride, came up with a new saddle to use. It still had the leg crook of a sidesaddle, but was designed so she could still bring her leg over and ride astride.
When Empress Elizabeth would see her off on her rides, she was sure to sit sidesaddle. When she was away from prying eyes, she would drop the stirrup down, pop her leg over and ride astride. Peter, despite his faults, didn’t care how she rode, and her attendants were devoted to her, so her secret never got out.
She Helped Establish Russian Stud Farms
Count Alexey Orlov was the military officer that organized the coup that overthrew Peter and put Catherine on the throne. Incidentally, he was a lover of Catherine the Great. He also loved horses, which could have been something they bonded over.
Count Orlov is credited with developing the breed the Orlov Trotter. His foundation sire was an Arabian stallion named Smetanka, purchased from the Ottoman Empire for 60,000 rubles, 12 times the usual price for a stallion in Russia.
He loved Arabians and received many as gifts from Turkish dignitaries and the Sultan. He gave 18 of these horses to Catherine, 12 stallions and 9 mares.
Catherine in turn gifted Orlov with the land for his future stud farm at Khrenovsky. There, Orlov built up a stable of 3,000 horses used for breeding purposes. Orlov was very protective of his new breed and would only sell geldings. Eventually, 20 years after his death, when the stud transferred to the Russian crown, they begin selling stallions.
Later on, Russian nobles would go on to establish Arabian stud farms.
She Loved Horse Art
Catherine loved art. She had works of art by Rembrant, Rapheal and many other famous artists. She purchased huge collections, and housed them all in a huge museum. She also commissioned many other works of art of her favorite subjects: horses, and herself.
One of the early works depicts Catherine sitting delicately sidesaddle on a horse. It was a painted as part of a series of equestrian portraits, including both her husband Peter and Empress Elizabeth.
One of the most famous works of art was of herself on her favorite horse “Brillante.” It was done early on in her reign, done to indicate she was ready to lead.
Another work was the Bronze Horseman, which was a statue of Peter the Great, mounted on a horse. It currently sits in Senate Square in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It’s believed Catherine had it commissioned to align herself with Peter the Great, and show she was the true ruler of Russia. After Peter’s death, she really didn’t have any other connection to the Russia throne, so any little bit helps.
Addressing The Big Rumor
One of the most persistent rumors about Catherine, the one alluded to earlier, is that she died while having sex with a horse. The verdict is that this rumor is 100% false. She actually died of a stroke, although she did have the stroke in her bathroom, which could also be an unfortunate place to be.
So where did these rumors come from?
It’s thought that after her death, her enemies wanted to discredit all the work she had done. She had accomplished a lot during her reign but not everyone was happy with the changes. There were never any rumors of her being intimate with a horse prior to her death, but someone must have decided she couldn’t defend herself after she’s dead. She had been known to have many human lovers and she also loved horses, so someone just married the two ideas.
There’s a lot of information about Catherine, but looking for her love of horses was tough. The internet is clogged with the sexual rumors, which is a shame as she was so much more than that. Much of the information I found about Catherine was from her memoirs. It wasn’t common for women to write down so much about their lives, but there were many things she did that weren’t usual for the time.
Her memoirs only cover the 18 years before she became Empress. It’s fascinating to read about her day to day life, as well as see how she sows the seeds of discontent against Peter. Some have suggested that Catherine, knowing she would eventually try to get rid of Peter, was writing about the things he did in order to justify it.
Catherine the Great was one of the most successful and influential rules in Russian history. Her impact on Russia was profound. She helped to transform Russia from a backward and isolated country into a major European power.
And, she showed the women of the world they should be proud of their love of horses.
She’s distinct in many people’s minds for that rumor, but hopefully people will see her true love of horses shine above it.
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