Russian troika is a truly unique phenomenon – there are no analogues of this kind of parallel harnessing in the world. Actually, the harnessing of the Russian troika is based on a two-horse team, harnessed in the "flying off way" (i.e. in such a way that heads of the horses are forced askew, away from each other). To make a troika out of the two-horse team is easy – usually it is enough to put one more horse (an outrunner) next to the shaft horse (usually from the right side) harnessing it in the same "flying off" way. The shaft (central) horse should move by a fast and precise trot while the outrunners (side horses) should gallop along. The secret mechanism of the troika lies in the fact that, harnessed this way, the two side galloping horses "carry" the central horse along and bear some of its weight, thus all three horses get tired much slower, and can continuously run at a very high speed (up to 45-50 km/h.).
Medium sized Vyatka animals, a bit unsightly but very hardy were always considered ideal for composing a troika, though wealthy people sometimes preferred stately and tall Oryol trotters. The best troika was the one where all horses matched each other in color and the shaft horse was noticeably larger than the outrunners.
Troika is an ancient Russian way of horse harnessing, each of its elements is extremely rational with no unnecessary details, perfected by hundreds years of practice.
According to printed sources, troika first came into use in 18th century. First it was used only for long-distance trips that were necessary to cover in short time. Until 18th century Russian harnessing had involved only one horse or several horses harnessed in a single file.
In the beginning of 18th century the two-horse team was first harnessed in the "flying off way" which was shortly followed by three-horse teams. In the 20-s of 18th century express mail delivery cabs used from one to three horses, though in the beginning using three horses in parallel harnessing was considered quite extravagant. According to the rules, in those days transportation of passengers in post carts could involve three horses only if there were at least three travelers. One or two passengers had to use only one or two horses correspondingly. But starting from the second half of 18th century troika won a wide popularity due to its unquestionable qualities: high speed, endurance, great carrying capacity and good cross-country passing ability. In the last third of 18th – beginning of 19th century troika was officially legalized for carrying mail dispatches and passengers along wide roads. It could be harnessed to open or covered sledges, carts, sometimes even to a tarantass, but was never used in proper carriages. Troika reached the peak of its popularity in the first half of 19th century.
Strict state regulations allowed the use of bells only for "post" or "courier" troikas that transported state dispatches. During times of the Russian tsars troika was equally widely used by "important" noblemen, postmen, firemen and almost anyone who needed long distance and speedy transportation. Troikas were often used for wedding parties and other holiday celebrations – at these occasions coachmen drove in a daredevil manner and sometimes even let the shaft horse break into gallop.
The important distinctive feature of the troika harnessing – the national pride of Russia – is its plentiful ornamentation. Horse collars were always colorfully decorated: the wooden parts of the collar were decorated with paintings or carvings, sometimes with pressed imprinted leather, but especially picturesque was an arrangement of metal plaques and patches, fixed on leather padding. This metal set, made of cast metal plaques and patches of different forms fixed on the leather padding, was widely used in troikas for giving saddles, breast bands, bridles, and other parts of the harness smart and stylish look. The metal details were made of alloys of copper with nickel or zinc, silvered copper, sometimes even of pure silver. Besides the metal set, the harness was generously decorated with tassels fixed on bridles and breast bands that hung down in the front and on both sides of the horse – now one cannot imagine a Russian troika without this kind of decoration.
But the matter of especial pride was the shaft horse’s bow, richly ornamented by skilful painting and carving. The carved patterns usually consisted of diamond shapes, circles, triangles, and the bow was often painted gold so that it would "burn" in the sun and could be seen from the distance. Later on the gold background they started to put a delicate graphic pattern in black and red depicting rhythmical twines of stalks, flowers and intricately shaped leaves. In the 60-s of 19th century gilded bows were replaced by picturesquely painted ones also noticeable from the distance: bright red rose bouquets and grape vines, collected in large color contrasting garlands were accentuated by green grasses and strategically placed patches of white. Besides the aesthetic purpose to please the eye, such ornaments also fulfilled a more practical task – troika could be seen from a very long distance. By the end of 19th century tastes had changed for the worse: bows became thinner so there was less space for carvings and painted decorations. Multicolored bouquets of gold, silver or red flowers, combined with grass stalks and grape vines briefly came into fashion again. Smallish details painted in garish colors merged into one unpleasant messy spot that hurt the eye; therefore soon they started to paint bows in one color. Such one-color bows were sometimes decorated with bright ribbons.
In the 40-s of 19th century competitions of troikas began to take place at the Moscow hippodrome. In 1911 troika was for the first time presented in Europe at the World's Trade Fair in London. The shaft horse, the famous trotter named Ratnik Turetsky (Turkish Warrior), winner of the Emperor’s prize, came from Hrenovsky horse-breeding centre in Oryol province, the outrunners were first class Streletz horses. Foreigners who dared to take a ride on the troika, unanimously claimed that there it was the fastest and the most valiant way of transportation. The Russian troika that personified the daring Russian soul and the widespread Russian distances became the symbol of Russia. During Soviet times they used only Oryol trotters for composing a troika, thus troika looked so smart what sometimes was given as a gift to important foreign officials.
The first railways that appeared in Russia in the middle of 19th century and their further intensive construction replaced troika as the main means of long-distance transportation. Troika moved further down into the country where for a long time it was widely used during weddings and festivals. But by the beginning of 20th century the two centuries epoch of the famous Russian troika practically came to an end.
Now troikas are used in Russia for entertaining visitors at exhibitions and fairs, they also take part in various competitions, though there remain only few people who are still able to handle such complex type of harnessing.