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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) Horses

Yes, some words about horses are relevant for a Site on human family histories.

In the region of Latvia, like everywhere else, horses were always utilized in various ways. There were horses for riding, for drawing of vehicles, for transporting goods in long and short distances. The most important, maybe, were those used for the everyday work of farms.

Military horses
Market of horses
Horses and crimes
Horse passports



The statistics for the number of horses in the region of Latvia. /Latvija apskats/ and Valsts adresu kalendars 1940.

Number of horses
On 1000 inhabitants


In 1939 the number of horses was near its maximum, I think, because in 1941 the War began, later the mechanisation of local agriculture was going on, and the number of horses gradually decreased.


Military horses

The horses were widely used in any Army of the 19th century and even later. It should be stressed that their importance for military purposes was very great. Good riding horses were necessary for cavalry, drawing horses were needed for transportation of military goods and heavy armor during warfare. For example, in the time of the WW1 the Armies had regular canons that were dragged by 12 horses. No wonder that in a war time not only the humans were conscripted but horses were also, which caused additional difficulties for the peasants.

In the peace time the Army personnel of the Russia Empire did not frequently live in barracks, because there was a shortage in appropriate premises. The Army units were dislocated in turn from one place to another, and the local manors were responsible for supplies of them. I suppose that the greatest difficulty for manors was to find place and food for the horses of the Army unit than to accommodate the personnel, especially if it was a cavalry unit.

The importance of horses for the Army allows to conclude that the veterinarians in the Army were of great importance. Really, if an epidemic of a serious horse disease splashed during a warfare, then the war was lost. It is known /Viksna/ that about one third of Latvian graduates from the Veterinary Institute in Tartu [Dorpat] served in the Army. 6 of them participated in the Russia-Turkey war 1877-1878 and Jānis Neimanis was nominated then for the Chief-veterinarian of the Bulgarian Army. The best known Latvian veterinarian Kristaps Helmanis (1848-1892) was the veterinarian of the Leib-guard cavalry regiment in St. Petersburg, where he organized a small scientific laboratory. Later K.Helmanis created the second Pasteur laboratory in the world and started the immunization against rabies. He occasionally infected himself while experimenting with malicious glanders and died.


Market of horses

The horses were relatively expensive. Of course, their prices depended on their usage - excellent riding horses were very expensive, in the serfdom period much more expensive than skillful serfs. A bit of additional information about the trading of riding horses you may find in the paper of G.Straube on this Site.

At the end of the 19th century an ordinary horse for peasant needs cost about 50 -70 Roubles, I think. The riding horses were much more expensive.

The trade of horses was rather active in fairs that regularly took place in small towns. No doubt, it was possible to buy a horse there for money, but a rather strange habit became even more popular - the exchanging of horses. People mutually changed their horses, and as the result one of the owners got a worse horse than he had before. Theoretically the participants of the deal also negotiated the amount of financial compensation in the cases when the horses to be exchanged seemed not equal in quality, but in practice the deal was not profitable at all for one of the participants. More frequently the losers were farmers, because the professionals always could change a bad horse for a good one. There are tales and fiction works about the farmers who became addicted to frequent horse exchanging and as the result were completely ruined.

It seems that the horse trade and especially the horse exchanging in the fairs were in hands of Gypsies. Jewish and German merchants were also involved in the horse trade, but they were less visible in fairs.


Horses and crimes

Because horses were relatively expensive, they became objects of crime. Farm people feared of horse thieves and always guarded horses while herding, because if a horse was stolen, the farmer was ruined. The peasants did not rely very much on the Police in these matters and sometimes carried on independent punishment of the thieves caught on the spot.

According to the Criminal Code (1885), the horse thieves, if they became professionals, were imprisoned for up to 2 years and after that exiled to Siberia for ever. For nonprofessionals no special punishment was proposed, they were punished as ordinary thieves.

The criminals were more active in the regions near the border of provinces, because it was much easier, for example, to steal a horse in Kurzeme [Kurland] and to sell it in Kaunas [Kowno] province. And vice verse, one may suppose that the horses stolen in Kaunas province were sold in the fairs of Kurland’s towns. Easy to understand that the stealing would have been less active without the support of some merchants engaged in horse trade business.


Horse passports

The importance to restrict the theft of horses caused various measures of the officials. In the 1890s official punishment for horse thefts was increased, but evidently the crime was not taken under control. The WW1 did not make the situation better. Because of the significant losses of horses in the warfare, they became more valuable after the War, and the thieves became more active and better organized.

In 1921 in Latvia the system of total horse registration with issuing of horse passport was introduced. It might exist earlier in the prewar Russia, but in the first years of the 1920s all horses of any pagasts were registered and each owner got the passport for each one of his horses.

Initially the passports were leaflets with short information about the horse and - what is of greatest importance for our goals - about its owner. There was a place left on the leaflet to register the future alienation of the horse. The new owner of the horse got the horse together with its passport with an appropriate inscription.

By 1925 the leaflets were changed to booklets that looked similar to human passports. There was even a place for a photograph of the horse in these booklets, but, to tell the truth, I have never seen a horse passport with its photograph. A real horse passport is presented in a special Page.

When the new passport booklets were handed to horse owners, the old leaflets were taken back to the pagasts office. I possess some hundreds of these leaflets that then were gathered in Alsviķi pagasts, and I am still hoping to study them more carefully later and to publish the results here, but to this moment I may assert that these documents provide interesting information about the inhabitants of the pagasts, of course, about those who owned a horse.

The horse passports also existed after the WW2 until the collective farms (kolchozs) were introduced, and the free market of horses disappeared.



© Bruno Martuzāns. 2001-2002