Articles on Central Asia: Akhal-Teke horses of Turkmenistan

This unique breed is not less than three thousand years old. The Akhal-Teke is a direct descendant of the horses of the Massagetae, the Bactrians and the Alans which were famous in antiquity. In ancient Persia these horses were known as Nisaean and several centuries later - as Parthian, but they were always spoken of as the best in the world. In the second century B.C. the Roman historian Oppian wrote of them: "These horses, worthy of the most powerful rulers, are strikingly beautiful in appearance, they move lightly under the rider and lightly accept the bit; the head with its Roman nose is carried high and their golden manes flow majestically in the wind." After studying most of the relevant historical, archeological and literary data, modern specialists  came to the conclusion that the Akhal-Teke breed is a strain of the ancient racehorse that has developed independently. For many centuries no other breed could compare with it in respect of size, strength, speed and distinctive beauty.

The antiquity of the breed is beyond dispute, but no specialist, either now or in the past has been able to explain the appearance of such a horse on the territory of modern Central Asia. Its unusual appearance is unlike that of any of the ancient types of equines. Consequently the theory that this remarkable breed originated outside the area merits consideration and in the light of recent archeological findings in the Altai a number of specialists support this view.

There is clear evidence in modern literature on the subject that these horses were instrumental in the creation of such world famous breeds as the Arabian and the English Thoroughbred and in the improvement of breeds of horses in Russia, Europe and the Near and Middle East. In the words of Professor Witt, the Akhal-Teke horse "possesses the last drop of that valuable blood from which all the breeds of well-bred horses have been developed."

In the Middle Ages the horses of the Central Asian civilisations of antiquity passed into the hands of the Turkmens who kept pure the blood of these priceless animals as their qualities surpassed those of all other breeds. After the annexation of Turkmenia to the Russian Empire in l88l the Turkmen horse became known as the Akhal-Teke combining the name of the Teke Turkmen tribe and the Akhal oasis in the foothills of the Kopet-Dag mountains. At that time the horses there were kept singly, as part of the household, surrounded by love and affection and fed light but highly nutritious food such as alfalfa, barley and pellets containing mutton fat. Because the owner depended on his horse for his wellbeing and his very life, no expense was spared in its care and maintenance. As an old Turkmen saying goes: "The owner who rears a good horse turns into a lean dog." But the horse repaid his owner with an exceptional devotion. Mistrustful of strangers, he gave his heart to his one and only friend.

The Akhal-Teke is indeed endowed with legendary qualities. As a participant in the battle of Geok-Tepe testified: "An Akhal-Teke stallion wearing two heavy blankets and wounded by a sabre blow carried away three Teke tribesmen across the quicksand from pursuing Cossacks."

These horses, renowned for their exceptional speed, strength and beauty, had long since been known as argamaks in Russia where they were highly valued. To possess an argamak was the dream of every prince and the argamak was the most sought-after improver at stud. They were instrumental in the development of the Don and the Orlov riding horse. In the first half of the eighteenth century argamaks constituted a third of the stock at state studs. After the annexation of Turkmenia to Russia many connoisseurs and horse lovers had the opportunity of familiarising themselves with the breed and became its passionate admirers. Valuing the unique qualities of the Teke horse and concerned to preserve the breed which at that time was in decline for historical and economic reasons, the governor of the region, General Kuropatkin, organised at his own expense, the Transcaspian state stables and invited Russian specialists to work there. This marked the beginning of the breeding of Thoroughbred stock in the Transcaspian region and revived interest in the Akhal-Teke throughout the world. Horses from the Transcaspian stables which were shown at exhibitions in Kiev, Pyatigorsk and Paris caused a sensation,and vast sums of money were offered for Teke mares.

Turkmen horses had long since been bred in Russia, but in the twentieth century they started breeding Akhal-Tekes in the Northern Caucasus, Stavropol and Kalmykia and today they have penetrated as far afield as the Leningrad and Kaliningrad provinces. Russia occupies second place in the world in respect of the number of Thoroughbred Akhal-Tekes on its territory - and indeed, "Russians have always loved these horses excessively".

Turkmenistan has a separate agency, Turkmen Atlary, responsible for the breeding, training and maintenance of Akhal-Teke horses. However, the agency's work has been the focus of criticism from the President of the country, who holds the agency responsible for decreasing numbers of horses and inadequate facilities for their breeding, training and management. At present Akhal-Teke horses in Turkmenistan are not registered with any other studbook. The main reason for this are allegations of a heavy infusion of Thoroughbred blood into the breed to create faster horses for racing in Turkmenistan. There are estimates that as many as 30% of the horses in the Ashgabat hippodrome were not purebred.

When the first horse minister of newly-independent Turkmenistan, Geldy Kyarizov, a lifelong advocate for the Akhal-Teke and former chair of the International Association of Akhal-Teke Breeders, began utilizing DNA to establish an Akhal-Teke studbook, he uncovered the pattern of adding in Thoroughbred blood. His decision to go public with this information was viewed as a threat to the profits of the horse-breeding establishment and he fell out of favor with the Turkmenistan government, and in particular, then-President Saparmurat Niyazov.He was charged with abuse of office and negligence in 2002, convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He was ultimately pardoned in October 2007, when Niyazov died and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, took control of the country. By 2012, Kyarizov's health, which had been poor since his arrest and subsequent imprisonment, had deteriorated to the point he needed to go abroad for medical care, but was initially prevented from leaving the country. By 2015, he was allowed to travel to Moscow for medical care, but family members, including his 14-year-old daughter, were forced to remain behind to "guarantee" his return. Ultimately, in September, 2015, the entire family was allowed to leave.

Turkmen Atlary, in its capacity as the administrative arm of the International Akhal-Teke Horse Association, hosts a meeting of the association once or twice a year upon invitation in Ashgabat. Most of the bigger breeding farms and national Akhal Teke associations as well as Akhal Teke owners and representatives of the horse industry from around the world attend. There is a horse racing organization called "Galkinysh" .  In Ashgabat, the Ahalteke equestrian complex, one of the largest in Central Asia, is a horse-breeding center. The former Akhal-Teke horse Holiday, celebrated on the last Sunday in April, has been renamed 'Turkmen Horse Day'.

Akhal-Teke horses are bred all over the world. In addition to their motherland there are breeders in Russia and Central Asia, in Germany and other European countries and USA, Uruguay and Australia

 

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