The Troika Sleigh
Silence. The faraway roar of the wind in tree branches and the large, hurrying flakes dancing to the soft sound dampen the once lively town, now still with cold. A gentle crescendo of singing bells breaks the crisp quiet, first growing into a steady cadence and then into a thunder of hooves on packed earth and ice. A trio of horses follow this melodic rhythm, with feet so lightly touching the trail that they appear to be in flight! The horses—with necks arched wildly and steady, rhythmic movement—are more like a single, brightly haloed phoenix, three-headed and soaring through the frigid Russian terrain. One horse, carrying its head proudly despite its thick coating of ice and hoar-frost, cries loudly, as if to say, “Make way for the Russian troika!”
The troika is a traditional Russian sleigh or carriage drawn by three horses harnessed abreast. It was developed around the 17th to 18th century as a method of quickly crossing Russia's lengthy and hazardous roads. Harnessing three horses abreast increased stability and reduced strain on the animals. The troika was primarily used for mail coaches, but also transported passengers across the vast terrain. The sleigh would travel in stages, exchanging teams of animals at each post, to transport loads quickly. The troika introduced the first carriage drawn by multiple horses that did not require an equal number of drivers to guide the horses.
The troika is a uniquely Russian symbol, though it spread to other parts of Eastern Europe in different variations. Every detail and accessory of the troika has a specific purpose, reflecting the utilitarianism of the Russian people. In the summer, a wheeled carriage may be used, but given that many regions of Russia are snow-covered for the duration of much of the year, the sleigh is far more popular. One of the most distinctive features of the troika is the shaft bow (the duga)—the brightly colored centerpiece arc above the center horse (shaft horse)—which attaches to the wooden shafts that straddle the sides of the horse. The duga is elastic and spring-like upon a hitched horse, reducing the stain on the neck and shoulders, which is particularly useful to combat the impact of knocking movements on poor trails. The duga is scarcely seen outside of Russia, Finland, and other east Baltic countries and was originally used in single carriages. The driver coordinates the ornate elements of his or her troika—the painted duga, bells, chains, rosettes and stars, leather tassels, and brushes—that decorate the various harness parts. The troika bells, strung from the duga and along straps, harnesses, tassels, and brushes were introduced to help organize growing troika traffic. There were no traffic laws at the time, and the racing sleighs began to incorporate sound signals, alerting other drivers and nearby stations of their approach. Although horns and whistles were first considered for that purpose, bells (especially Valdai bells) won popularity because of their melodic “singing.” The many bells, each with specific tones, with the steady beat of hooves running create a harmonious sound unique to the troika, merging beauty with practicality.
Driving or pulling a troika requires years of training for both the coachman and the horses. Shaft horses begin training at three and a half years, and trace horses start at two and a half years. To achieve the expected artistic perfection and coordination of movement, the horses are trained up to ten years! The driver must manipulate the horses through the four sets of reins, ever careful that he balances the loads of each horse and steers carefully while speeding along at a respectable 45 to 50 kilometers per hour. Troika drivers train from a young age and need to be physically fit—at times enduring up to 50 kilograms of weight while maneuvering the horses. Each horse has a specific set of straps and reigns—the shaft horse is harnessed in a horse collar and the duga and directed with two reins, while the outer horses, or trace horses, wear a breast collar harness and have one rein each. The trace horses gallop smoothly with outward bent heads, though each must gallop with a right or left lead (which hoof initially lifts for a movement) that corresponds to their position in the troika. The shaft horse moves at a trot or a canter, and stands erect and confident. This harmony of movement and direction between each horse and the driver provides the speed and stability necessary to maneuver through the Russian terrain, a characteristic of the troika that evokes comparison to the grace of a three-headed bird in flight. To achieve this effect, specific horse breeds are chosen—most notably, the Orlov trotter, with a long stride, speedy trot, stamina, beauty and elegance. In addition, each horse must meet specific requirements: the duga horse is stronger and five to ten centimeters taller, with a well formed neck, proud carriage, and decent ground cover at a walk and trot. A well-balanced character and disposition is of decisive importance, given that it serves as lead horse and the “locomotive” of the troika. The careful choice of horses and driver, specific alignment, and years of special training gives the troika unmatched speed, endurance, cargo capacity, maneuverability, and stability—each characteristic of the values and nature of Russians.
With the development of trains, the use of troikas diminished in postal service, but became popular in festivals and weddings due to its beauty and grace. Troika driving also became a popular sport in the 19th century, with the first competition held in the Moscow hippodrome during the 1840's. Races have two forms—one determined by pure speed, and the other (held at winter festivals) judged by driving style, beauty of the horses and harnesses, dress, and figure driving on a ten-point scale. A horse's score is determined by its matching colors, type, and correct size. The most important features of the festival races are perfection of dressage and harmony of movement. Races are held on icy courses lined with wooden fences, with the stands and embankments lined with cheering people. The necessity of solid training and difficulty in controlling the sleigh make the dangerous races intoxicating and exhilarating. The troika demonstrates the broad, audacious, and elegant soul of the Russian people.
The image of the troika is often used in folkloric scenes in film, art, and literature, with one of the most beloved references by Nikolai Gogol in Dead Souls:
- Alisha Pedzinski, January 2010