Welcome to the WWII Forums! Log in or Sign up to interact with the community.

The Significance of the Finnish Horse

Discussion in 'Winter and Continuation Wars' started by JCFalkenbergIII, Feb 23, 2008.

  1. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

    Jan 23, 2008
    Likes Received:
    The Significance of the Finnish Horse in the Winter War and the Continuation War


    Finland's only native horse-breed is what we know today as the Finnish Horse . It has served the Finns throughout centuries and has played a large role in the development of the Finnish culture. Most are aware of the Finnish Horse's significance in terms of its service in the field of agriculture, before it was replaced by machinery. But the Finnish Horse is often referred to as the 'forgotten war hero'. That is why I have chosen the Finnish Horse in the wars as my essay topic, in this essay I will attempt to discover the true significance of the Finnish horse in the wars and to understand its role in them. I will study the pros and cons of using the Finnish horse in the war and whether or not the Finnish Horse was suitable for use in the war (as opposed to use of machinery and use of other horse breeds).

    The sources to be used for this topic are very scarce. It seems as though the Finnish Horse is undervalued by others than equestrians. Even the Finnish Defence Forces, on their internet site, neglect to mention the input of the horses in the winterwar. Therefor, in the makings of this essay I have had very limited sources, and have had to rely on previously done resource by people in the equestrian circles. Another method of doing research has been to read previously compiled interviews of people with first hand experiences of horses in the war. It has shown me the other half to all the statistics provided by books. The humane side.

    1. The Finnish Horse Before the Winter War

    The development of the breed

    The origin of the Finnish horse is somewhat uncertain, but the Finnish Horse is thought to be a cross between several early European breeds, both warm- and coldblooded horses. It is also thought by most that in the beginning two Finnish breeds existed, later emerging to form just one. It was in 1907 that the Finnish Horse became an official breed. This was when the studbook for this breed was opened. A studbook is a record of those stallions and mares which have been accepted by varying criteria to be used for breeding. The purpose of this was to produce an ideal type of working horse, which would be healthy and of good nature. Naturally the Finnish Horse had existed for quite a while before this, but it was in 1907 that the Finnish Horse had to match a certain criteria to be called this.

    The characteristics of the breed

    To an untrained eye, all horses seem very much alike in appearance and nature. But I find it crucial to explain the distinctions of the Finnish Horse in comparison to other breeds. The Finnish horse is quite heavy in build, a true working horse. It is a sturdy, powerfully built animal with a strong neck. The horse was bred to be of this build, in order for it to perform well in the field, pulling heavy loads. Its shoulders are strong and well suited for a harness and its legs are typically correct. The Finnish Horse is as powerful as it seems: an average horse is capable of pulling 80% of its own weight; the average Finnish Horse is capable of pulling 110% of its weight. The Finnish Horse has adapted to its natural habitat, this arctic climate. It has a very high resistance for cold and is long-lived. By nature the Finnish Horse is very calm, clever and kind.

    The significance of the breed for Finnish economy

    Finland was among the later countries to become industrialised, and relied very much on its agricultural income. Farmers relied on horse-power, rather than machinery until the 20th century. The fairly small horse, noted for its stamina did the heavy work in the fields and took care of all sorts of transportation inlude cars, roads and railways. Needless to say, the role of the Finnish Horse in its country's economy was very large.

    2. The Usage of Horses in the Winter- and Continuation War

    The Finnish horse is summoned to the front

    When the Winter War broke out in 1939, the Finnish army was in possession of 4, 700 Finnish horses to be used in the war. The horses were a crucial part of the army, and this amount of horses was nowhere near sufficient. The army had taken into account this problem 17 years before, in 1922.4 The army's solution was, in case of war, to take into possession the civilian horses. The country was divided into districts where horses would be taken into possession. In each district an officer would inspect all the horses which were suitable to be used in warfare. These horses were recorded, and their owners notified that in case of war they would have to bring their horses to be taken to the front.

    Horses which were suitable for use in war were between the ages of 5yrs and 18yrs. They had to 'endure reasonable amounts of strain in relatively unstable conditions and be of a nature that does not intervene with the horse's use and care'. Therefor mares expecting foals, and mares with foals under five months were not taken to war. Also stud-stallions and brood-mares were not taken. The importance of the horses for the country's agricultural section was also recognised by the government, and it was decided that there should be left at least one horse to ten hectares of field at home. It was also decided that a farm's only horse would not be requested for service.5 Altogether, the army received 71, 805 civilian horses in the Winter War and 62, 168 civilian horses in the Continuation War.6 The horses were not taken away completely without compensation, after the war the horses were returned, and amends were made for those whose horses did not survive.

    The horses which had been chosen by the officials were taken into possession when a state of war was declared. The horses were to be taken by their owners to a place of collection. They had to be properly shoed and had to have their personal equipment such as a rug, bridle, bucket (for water) and a brush (for grooming). It was also advised that for each horse its owner should provide 50kg of oats and 100kg of hay. Along with the horses the army took into possession a chariot or a sleigh with the capacity of holding boxes or sacks of at least 500kg in weight. Horses were also required to be equipped with proper harness. 7

    In order for the later returning of the horses and equipment, they were carefully marked. A serial- number for each horse was cut into its coat on the left quarter of the horse. (quarters are the upper hindlegs of the horse). Two numbers were cut into the coat. On the upper line was the code of the district the horse was from and on the lower line was the horse's personal code. This formation had to be 20cm in length and 15cm in height. The equipment such as carriages was also marked with a similar method.7

    The tasks of the horse during the war

    The Finnish Army was most definitely not noted for its cavalry, such was an old-fashioned method of warfare. The weight the Finnish Horse carried was as a means of transportation. The horse transported food and equipment for the troops and transported the troops themselves. This saved the soldiers' strength for the actual combat.

    The horses were clearly the leading form of transportation; the army had at its disposal in the Winter War 6, 379 motorised vehicles to its 60, 384 horses.4 In the Winter War a division had 3 motorised vehicles to 100 horses, in the continuation war the amount of vehicles rose to 22 per 100 horses.8It was very logical to use horses as transport, for still at this time, few roads had been built in Finland, and the horse did not rely on roads as did for instance trucks. Where the terrain was too hard for even sleighs to be used, the equipment could be packed onto the horse's back. If only there was place for a horse to set its foot, the equipment would reach its destination. The Finnish Horse was the key to the excellent mobility of the Finnish army, which was one of Finland's strongest sides in warfare.

    3.The Benefits and Disadvantages of Using the Finnish Horse in War

    The use of the horse as opposed to the usage of machinery

    The horse was in ways a much better option as means of transport in comparison to machinery. Not only was machinery such as trucks unavailable and expensive, but it was also a very inconvenient option. Usable roads were scarce in Finland at the time, and those country roads which existed then turned to unpassable pools of mud during the spring and autumn. The horse was able to pass through difficult terrain.

    Another great advantage of the horse was that it relied on 'nature's fuel'. The horses needs could be periodically compromised, and the persistent horse survived on limited food, when it was called for. Of course, on the other hand, the horse needed constant care, and was not to be abandoned for a while.

    The horse was also a quiet form of transportation. It could move quietly in order not to be detected by the enemy.

    But the horse was a living creature and had qualities machines could never acquire. A horse was extremely loyal to its driver, and was able to protect him in various ways. Horses learned to hide in the woods when an airplane flew by. Its senses were much more sensitive than humans. The horse could hear or smell the enemy in a way no human could. In the case of a driver being wounded, he would release his horse, and when the horse would return to the base alone, other soldiers would know of the missing driver. In some cases, horses learned to lay down and cover their driver when an enemy plane approached. 9

    The Finnish Horse learned many useful skills in the war, some of which are mentioned above, but it also reacted in a less desired way to the war. The horse is naturally an animal of prey, and though domesticated, it relies very strongly on its instincts. And, in case of danger its instincts are to run. Indeed it was completely against the horse's nature to be asked to remain calm with explosions happening nearby. But the horse is also an animal which lived in a herd with a very strict leader whom the other horses trust blindly. In some cases the person who cared for the horse earned its trust, became the leader and so kept the horse calm. In other cases the horse was very badly traumatised. Horses reacted very much like humans in crisis; some stayed calm and thought clearly, some panicked and inflicted harm upon themselves; some went into shock and ceased to react to external stimulants. Such was a disadvantage of using horses; machines never panic.

    The usage of the Finnish Horse as opposed to the usage of other breeds

    Though the natural instinct of horses to flee presented some problems in the war, it should be noted that the Finnish Horse is among the most calm and trusting horse breeds, it is a horse that does not panic easily. Its calm nature is not the only virtue of the Finnish Horse. It is also remarkably strong for its size, it is very persistent by nature, it survives the cold and other setbacks well. The Finnish Horse is very undemanding, and survives with little food and care in the time of crisis. The Finnish Horse is talented in many ways, besides being strong, sturdy and calm, it is also the fastest cold-blooded breed in the world. It saved many men with its remarkable speed. All in all, the Finnish Horse was an ideal single breed to be used in warfare.

    The suitability of the Finnish Horse for its task is easily proved by comparing it to how other horses coped in the same war. Warmblooded horses in Finland, which had been previously used for competing were also taken to war. These horses did not survive as well as the Finnish Horse did. Many of the warmbloods could not cope with the stress of the war. The weather was also too much for these expensive horses.10

    4.The Vulnerable Horse Also Subject to Casualties

    Care for the horse on the front

    The horse was, to a soldier, both a vital piece of equipment and a friend. To the government the horse was a source of income 'borrowed' from the agricultural section. All these were valid reasons to take good care of the horse, to keep it healthy and strong. The soldiers repaid the hard work the horse did for them by taking excellent care of it. A true horseman's principle was to first take care of his horse, then of himself. The horse was given its daily grooming, it was dug a ditch similar to that of the soldier, when oats and hay was scarce the soldiers would travel long distances to find edible food for the horse and sometimes the soldier would share his meal with the horse.11 Such efforts were made to keep the horse healthy.

    The nourishment of the horse

    In the Winter War the demand of food for horses was met throughout the country. Unfortunately, in the Winter War about 10% of the country's cultivated land was lost, causing shortage in food for the horses by the Continuation War. Also the transportation of food was difficult in the stages of proceeding and combat. The strenuous journeys and malnourrishment eventually lead to the death of hundreds of horses in the beginning of the Continuation War. When the war changed its nature and became a trench warfare, it was considerably more easy to care for the horse properly, and so most horses recovered.12

    Professional care needed for the horse

    One of the main demands in order for the horse to stay useful was that it was properly shoed. A shoed horse was much stronger and could pull and carry heavy burdens. Blacksmiths were trained during the war in order to keep the horses in service.

    The horse was as prone to injury as its drivers and riders. Of Finland's 258 veterinarians 194 were called to service in the army. Special hospitals for horses were set up all over the country. One hospital could treat about 400 horses at a time. Aiding the vetenerians were students of the vetenerian school and Finnish women known by the name 'lotat' who specialised in the care of horses.13

    The veterinarians were faced with several problems in the care of the injured horses. Many of the horses' wounds were very big and deep. The conditions in the hospitals were quite primitive and the vetenerians were not familiar in caring for the wounds which were often up to the bone. No penicillin was available, which made the risk of infection very big.14 Altogether, in both wars 21, 757 horses were lost and 105, 900 horses were injured or fell ill. Two thirds of these casualties were in the Continuation War.15

    Fortunately most infectious diseases were avoided rather well, and no actual epidemics among the horses broke out. A less fatal problem, but still quite the nuisance were skin diseases, lice and parasites.

    5.The War-horse Returns Home

    The returning of the horses

    According to the Finnish Defence Force's regulations, the horses were rented from their owners for the duration of the state of war, after which the horses were to be returned to their owners within one month. Most horses were returned from the front by trains, and so their owners could come to collect their property. The horses had to be returned by the hands of the official who had collected it. At the same time, the official paid the rent of the horse. 16 Due to the clear numbering of the horses, most were returned home with little trouble. Altogether, 53, 800 and 42, 639 horses returned home safely from the Winter- and Continuation war, respectively.17

    The returning of the horses was a joyous event which proved the affections between the horse and its owner. Many people in many books tell of various horses which still knew their way home after years in the war, of horses which were missing for months, until they showed up on their own at their home one day.

    Not all the owners were returned their horses in such pleasant circumstances. Many of the horses had suffered considerable trauma after the war. Erkki Holvikivi remembers: " When I was a boy, we had a horse called Vappu at our house. She was taken to use in the Continuation War, where she was in service for a full four years. She returned home physically unharmed, but she was unwell mentally. She was terrified of every single noise, and when she was taken to the fields to work she would try to run for cover in the bushes. Needless to say, she could no longer be used on the farm and had to be put down eventually." Vappu was not the only horse to have suffered in this way of the war. However, the army reimbursed horses which were killed during the war, but not those which were not capable of working any longer due to a unstable mental condition.

    Finland looks onward

    Time passed, and Finland's economy recovered from the depression it suffered after the war. New, powerful machines were introduced along with the rise in the forestry industry, until it was economically unreasonable to use horses in industry.18

    Technology advanced and machinery took over also in the army. Already in 1945, the horse was replaced in the defence forces by motorised vehicles. The number of horses in Finland was at its greatest in the years that followed the war. In 1950, nearly half a million horses lived in Finland. But as machines replaced the horses, their number decreased steeply, until there were only about 90, 000 horses in 1980. Therefor, one could no longer plan an army powered by the Finnish Horse.19

    The Finnish Horse an endangered breed by the 21st century

    Once the Finnish Horse could no longer be of use in the army or industry, the future of the breed did not seem very bright. The World Wildlife Foundation realised the risk the Finnish Horse was in of becoming abolished, and declared it an endangered breed. Today, 18 000 Finnish Horses are found. Measures have been taken to preserve our only native horse breed: a massive campaign in the late 90's sold broaches and miniature statues to collect funds for a large statue in honour of the war-horses. This statue is situated at Seinäjoki. It shows an actual size horse looking ahead, numbers cut into its coat show that it belongs to the Finnish Defence Force.

    Recently, us Finns have realised what a multi-purpose breed we have in our hands. Today the Finnish Horse is the fastest coldblooded trotter in the world, and is widely used in harness-racing. Not only this, the Finnish Horse excels in most equestrian fields at an intermediate level. The Finnish Horse learns quickly, is durable, and is therefor an ideal horse to be used by amateurs. It is also an excellent breed to be used in riding therapy. This is a form of therapy for those mentally- or physically handicapped, found to be very effective. The Finnish Horse is suitable for this due to its good movements, its round, wide back, and its gentle disposition.20


    The Finnish wars, as wars in general do, demanded numerous sacrifices from the Finnish people. Among these sacrifices was the Finnish Horse. A farmer made a huge sacrifice by renting his horse to the army, after all, the horse was a considerably important piece of equipment. But the horse itself displayed remarkable loyalty to its driver in the battlefield, sacrificing itself time after time for its driver's wishes. Accordingly, large amounts of time and effort was put into the care of the horse.

    In the Finnish Wars, as we have established, the horse was a piece of equipment of extreme importance. The horse could not, at the time have been replaced by any machine. Even more astonishing is that the Finnish Horse is not a war-horse by nature or breeding. The horse which did its duties so well in the war is but a working-horse, which had ploughed fields and delivered goods all its life. This magnificent skill to adapt should be good reason to be thankful to the horse.

    It can be concluded, that the Finnish Horse was not only one of the most important pieces of equipment in the wars, but also a loyal friend to the soldiers. The harsh Finnish climate had made the horse tough, and its friendly and calm nature made it an excellent servant. I am probably, being a rider myself, very biased, but I feel we are in debt of gratitude to this horse, which throughout centuries, and especially in the wars, where it was most needed, has tried so hard to please us. The Finnish Horse has well earned its statue.


Share This Page