Already in the times of antiquity and throughout the medieval ages the steppes north and south of the lower river Don and the steppes between the Volga River and the Azov Sea were battlefields of many wars among various nations. These wars often spread through the plains between Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea to Europe and Middle East. This way came the Mongolians, the Kalmyks and others. These invasions came to an end in the 16th century due to the presence of Kazaks (or Cossacks) in the region, who bred many horses. Prior to that, they lived as nomads on the Don steppes and often making long trips south past Kavkaz as far as Persia.
From there they brought stallions of various breeds, mainly Persian-Karabash blood and Arabians. These conditions didn’t change much, even when Peter The Great settled these nomads to serve as protectors of the southern and eastern boarders of the Russian empire. The Kazak’s horses had Kalmyk, Kirgiz, Ural and Persian-Karabash blood and later were used in crossbreeding with the “shooter” stallions, oriental and Turkmenish/Achal-Tekin (Achal –Teke) stallions. The biggest influence on the formation of the old Don horse had stallions of the Persian-Karabash blood, whose “golden chestnut” color is the most common among the Don horses.
The intent of the Kazaks was to breed tough war-horse, whose quality mainly excelled in the ability to endure all climate conditions and the hardship of wars. The climate of the Don steppes with hot summers, dusty winds and lack of water, changing in the winter to cruel subzero temperatures and blizzards, was the ideal region for this kind of breeding. The horses lived in the spring and summer with surplus of food; when the steppes dry out they had to eat shrub and branches from the trees, or in the winter dig out dry grass from underneath the snow, the food was simply scarce. The horses were kept outside the whole year and only on the coldest days in the winter spent some time in the stables. Only a horse, that could withstand such misery and proved himself in endurance, earned the characteristics of Don horse, which are; extreme toughness, not demanding in care or feeding and could withstand the harshness of long cavalry marches. These biological abilities made the Don horse to be a first class war-horse and before World War I supplied 50% of the Russian cavalry.
In racing Don horse was not showing much in comparison with the English Thoroughbred. Crossbreeding of the Don horse, who had mostly the Mongolian and Arabian blood, with the Thoroughbred was happening already in the first part of the 19th century. Kazak ataman Platov, who fought against Napoleon, came to England where he purchased 5 first class thoroughbred stallions to be used to correct Don’s exterior and to improve his speed. Later in the year 1900 the thoroughbred was again introduced in breeding of the Don horse, but only in the more advanced western part of the region. The old type of the Don horse continued to be bred in the eastern part.
Both World Wars devastated the breeding of Don horses. Many horses were sold or just simply scattered all over the country. On the order of marshal Budionny, the scattered horses were returned into the Don region again.
Most valued bloodlines were stallions Dnievik, gold chestnut, born 1912 and his son Drogoii, also gold chestnut born 1928 who inherited after his sire the Persian-Karabash type. The offspring from Bujan (Buyan), golden chestnut, born 1916 in the Vojedin (Voyedin) stud farm, was very popular as well. The line of Bujan has more English shapes of a strong, wide and well-formed halfblood. Further more popular were the lines of Saturna, Piona, Bordo, Chelna (Tchelna) and Zakavnica. The line of Rezvogo and Patrona represents the massive type, also belonging to the riding type are Sahib, Milord and Dalman.
In the steppes of the southern part of Russia, the Don horse is simply irreplaceable. The breeding regions were mainly around Rostov, “Stalingrad” (today Volgograd) and Stavropol.