The Slovenia Times

In Ljutomer, generations of dedication to fast horses

The opening of the trotting competition season in Ljutomer. Photo: Katja Kodba/STA

The small region of Prlekija in Slovenia's northeast, tucked away along the right bank of the River Mura, is an often overlooked part of the country, even though most people are quite familiar with many of its delicious products: from excellent wines to the sweet prleška gibanica layer cake or the tünka cured meats.

But the people of Prlekija, especially around the town of Ljutomer, are as equally proud of their horses, the thoroughbred Ljutomer Trotters, developed over generations by hardworking farmers who needed fast horses to transport their wine to Venice and Vienna, among other places.

A visitor to the small museum at the Ljutomer racing track learns that to boost the speed of the their stock, farmers started to look across the Atlantic in mid-1800s and imported the first Standardbread, a stallion by the name of Brown, in 1859, laying the ground for what has since become the Ljutomer Trotter.

Keeping up with the Viennese

This year, the horse breeders in the region are celebrating 150 years since their first official harness race. The legend goes that farmers wanted to test their animals and after learning that a trotting association had been established in Vienna in 1874, they promptly decided to hold their very own first race that September. A year later, the breeders also established an association, making it the second oldest registered trotting organisation in Europe.

The first race was held on a road north of town and then repeated every year among the fields in the nearby village of Cven. It was not until the 1950s that the current track was built in Ljutomer. While modern harness races see horses drawing light-weight two-wheel carts called sulkies, the carriages used in the first competition were four-wheel vehicles used by farmers in everyday life. But the popularity of the races grew and in 1888 two-wheel carts were used for the first time, with a photo from the 1903 competition showing jockeys on wooden sulkies.

Harness race in Cven in 1903. Photo: Karol Grossman

In the first half a century of races, only men were competing, but this changed in 1925 with the first women's race that saw jockeys dressed in folk costumes driving two-horse chariots. Today, women compete alongside men, wearing the same apparel and protective gear.

Enthusiasm takes hold

The breeders were nothing if not dedicated, with the first trotter breeding book of the Austrian and Hungarian Empire from 1897 featuring 80 horses of as many as 64 breeders from the Ljutomer area. Moreover, over half a century after the first stallion was brought over from the US, the area was recognised as one of the key horse breeding areas of the monarchy in the Golden Book (1905) of equestrian sport.

This recognition was followed by the establishment of the First Austrian Cooperative for Breeding of Trotters in Ljutomer in 1907, and another similar cooperative was established two years later. The cooperatives have ceased to exist in the 1960s, but the drive among breeders has stood the test of time. Over the decades, many families have ventured out on their own and brought in stallions from the US in what is an unwaning competitive spirit.

Fast but far

At the moment is seems that breeders are beginning to see the efforts of generations of dedication pay off, but sadly far from the loyal fans in Ljutomer. In the recent years, many have started competing abroad, most notably in Trieste, while others have sent their horses to established trainers further abroad.

The latter was also the case for Frodo S, the most successful Ljutomer Trotter to date, who is currently competing in France, having made his way there through Swedish racetracks. Aptly named, the small but strong Frodo has ventured far from home to compete and win in races where prizes and the recognition are much higher than in Slovenia, giving hope to many breeders in Prlekija.

Frodo S, the most successful Ljutomer Trotter, competes in Stockholm, Solvalla in May 2022. Photo: Terhi Piispa-Helisten

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