History and Origin of the Breed
The exotically beautiful, extravagantly graceful and versatile Akhal-Teke horse was, until recently not well-known outside of the former Soviet Union. This most unusual breed of riding horse, highly regarded for its speed, stamina, comfortable gaits, intelligence and trainability, is currently enjoying a well-deserved surge of popularity outside of its traditional homeland of Turkmenistan and neighboring Russia.
Arguably the oldest surviving cultured equine breed, the Akhal-Teke acquired its extraordinary physical powers and sensitive personality from the highly specialized conditions which characterized its partnership with Central Asian nomads. Akhal-Teke blood has influenced the development of several modern horse breeds, yet its own unique features have remained largely undiluted for centuries. A comprehensive account of the origins of the Akhal-Teke breed has yet to be written in English.
Much of what is currently available in English is not reliable. Contrary to what has been written about the breed, the Akhal-Teke is not native to Russia; the Akhal-Teke origins predate the founding of the Russian state by three thousand years. Nor, as has been asserted, is the Akhal-Teke a warmblood. Like the Arabian and the English Thoroughbred -- two breeds to which the older Akhal-Teke made significant contributions -- the breed belongs to the hotblood category.
The Akhal-Teke is the only remaining pure strain of ancient Turkmene horse, a breed whose common ancestors bear a succession of different names over time: Massaget, Parthian, Nisean, Persian, Turkmene and finally, Akhal-Teke. Excavations in southern Turkmenistan have uncovered skeletal remains of tall, fine-boned horses dating back to 2400 BC. The breed name, however, dates back only to the end of the nineteenth century. It consists of two words: "Akhal," the long oasis nestled in the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains (once a part of the kingdom of ancient Persia, now present-day Turkmenistan) and "Teke," after the Turkmen tribe, the dominant nomadic people who inhabited the oasis and for centuries raised the Turkmene horse.
Geography significantly contributed to the unusual characteristics of the breed. The volatile waves of human and equine movement throughout much of Central Asian history (wars, raids, trading), often bypassed the isolated Akhal oasis. The Caspian Sea to the west, mountains on the south and desert to the north created a protective barrier to the Teke tribe and contributed to the relative genetic stability to their prized horses. The region's harsh desert conditions -- the sandy Kara Kum desert occupies 90% of Turkmenistan -- favored survival of a horse that could tolerate extreme heat, dry cold and drought.
Additionally, fresh grass, essential to the high bulk diet required by horses, was available only a few months of the year; the domesticated Turkmene horse learned to survive on meager rations, mostly a low-bulk diet of high protein grains mixed with mutton fat. The cult of the horse, a common feature among many Asian cultures, was an essential part of the bellicose Turkmen culture. A good horse could make the difference between life and death for its rider. More than that, the Akhal-Teke was a source of great personal pride to its owner and an esteemed part of the human family to which it belonged: blanketed in cold weather, often fed by hand and decorated with neck and chest ornaments. To this day Akhal-Tekes often bond closely with their human partners; they are usually sensitive to the way they are treated. Responsive to gentle training, they can be stubborn and resentful if treated rudely.
Russian familiarity with the Akhal-Teke began at least 500 years ago when the Turkmene horse was brought to Russia. These horses came to be called "argamaks," a Turkic word that denoted a tall, refined and valuable horse of Asian type. The modern history of the breed began in the 1880s, with the Russian annexation of Turkmenistan (part of what was then called Transcaspia) and the founding, under Russian auspices, of the first official Akhal-Teke stud, Zakaspiisky, near Ashkhabad (the capital of Turkmenistan). The best breeding stock were collected at this stud, including the famous stallion Boinou, progenitor of the dominant Akhal-Teke lines that are in use today.
The Russian military's interest in the Akhal-Teke horse partially compensated for the disruption of the horse-dependent traditional Turkmen way of life, but only briefly. A prolonged experiment undertaken by Russians to improve the breed and increase its size through crossbreeding to the English Thoroughbred ended in failure, as was convincingly demonstrated by the famous 1935 Ashkhabad-Moscow endurance rid (see below). Sharing the fate of many horse breeds in the former Soviet Union, the stresses of war, civil war, famine, poor food distribution and indifference severely depleted the numbers and genetic diversity of the Akhal-Teke. The transformation from a horse-dependent to a machine-driven economy left no role for the Akhal-Teke; during much of the Soviet period, with its focus on collectivization of resources, personal ownership of a horse was prohibited. Soviet Akhal-Teke stud farms were not exempt from the gross mismanagement which characterized so much of the government-managed agricultural sector. During the Khrushchev era, for example, valuable breeding stock was indiscriminately sent to slaughter.
The future of the Akhal-Teke horse is linked to the breed's conspicuous successes in endurance riding, dressage, and eventing. The transition to a free market economy in the past decade has given rise to many private initiatives in breeding Akhal-Tekes, both in Turkmenistan, Russia, Western Europe and America. That is mixed blessing, since the very specific conditions that have molded the Akhal-Teke breed cannot easily be duplicated outside of its traditional homeland. Furthermore, it is not yet clear what effects private ownership and unregulated sale of breeding stock may have on the Akhal-Teke gene pool.
The Akhal-Teke has a powerful and articulate defender in Tatyana Nikolaevna Ryabova, the world's leading expert in the breed (see below). Her dedication and vigilance to the well-being of the Akhal-Teke and to breed standards in a model of uncompromising integrity.
The Akhal-Teke's appearance is unique; no other breed of horse shares its distinctive features, which are embodied in words like dry, thin, straight, high-set and lean. The head is long and chiseled, often with a broad brow. The eyes are large and expressive and sometimes almond-shaped. The ears are narrow, high-set and readily swivel on their axis, alert to sound and movement. The long neck is set high and straight relative to the shoulders, the withers are quite prominent. The chest is narrow, the body is long and lean, the muscling well defined, but smoothly hugging the bone. The legs are slender, with strongly sculpted tendons and long and flexible pasterns. The skin is thin, the hair is silky and the mane and tail are spars. Several colors are possible, but the most common include, bay, black, dun, chestnut, gray and palomino. A distinctive feature is a pronounced metallic sheen, a glossy golden polish overlaying the basic coat color. Within the breed, three types can be distinguished. Type 1, the most typical type and closely fitting the descriptions above, is well represented by the following lines: Gelishikili, Peren and Kaplan. Type 2, somewhat smaller and well regarded for its speed, is represented by the Karlavach and El lines. Type 3, a more massive body type and noted for its stamina, is best represented by the Arab and Dor-Bairam lines. At the present time, the breed is represented by 17 separate lines, 12 of which trace back to Boinou (1885-1908).The 1981 studbook (Vol. VI) records the following average measurements in centimeters for an Akhal-Teke breeding stallion is 157.6 (height at withers), 160.1 (body length/barrel, measured on the diagonal), 176.4 (chest circumference), 18.8 (cannon bone circumference) and for a mare are 157-159-175-18.7. Twelve years later, in 1993, statistics for stallions, based on an evaluation of 190 horses from 13 countries (including 88 from Turkmenistan, 51 from Russia and 21 from Kazakhstan), showed an increase in all measurements except body length: 159.2-160.0-177.5-19.18. Figures broken down by country indicate that horses in Western Europe are larger than the average, while those from America, often bred for endurance riding, tend to be smaller.
Outstanding Achievements of the Breed
Akhal-Teke blood has influenced several breeds. The Byerly Turk, one of the three founding stallions of the English Thoroughbred, is thought to be an Akhal-Teke. In support of the Akhal-Teke's influence on the Arabian breed, specialists cite especially the Syrian Arab. In the beginning of the nineteenth century the famous stallion Turkmen-Atti was used to infuse new blood into the Trakehner warmblood. Akhal-Teke blood also figured prominently in the formation of the Don and Budyonny breed. Akhal-Tekes are perhaps best known for their extraordinary aptitude for endurance riding. In 1935, their suitability for the cavalry was tested in a famous endurance ride from Ashkhabad, to Moscow, a distance of 4330 kilometers (2,600 miles). Twenty-eight riders, riding Akhal-Tekes, the related Yomud breed and Anglo-Teke crosses, covered a broad range of terrain, including a severe, three-day, 360 kilometer (215 miles) test under the scorching sun of the Kara Kum desert. From the desert, which though stressful, was familiar terrain, they then rode through mosquito infested swamps, over rugged, stony footing, through heavy rain and huge forests. Eighty-four days later they arrived in Moscow. The purebred Akhal-Tekes, notably Arab and Alsakar, arrived in significantly better condition than the Anglo-Teke crosses, impressive evidence for the superiority of the purebred Akhal-Teke for hardiness and endurance. Arab subsequently proved his exceptional talent in eventing and jumping, as well as prepotency as a breeding stallion. His son Absent, at the tender (for dressage horses) age of eight, won the gold medal in individual dressage under Sergei Filatov at the 1960 Rome Olympics with an astounding score of 82.4%. Absent went on to a bronze individual medal (again with Filatov) in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and in 1968, under Ivan Kalita, was a member of the gold-medal Soviet team in Mexico.
Akhal-Tekes have often been given as state gifts. In 1956, for example, Nikita Khrushchev presented Queen Elizabeth the bright golden-dun stallion Melekush. So the story goes, grooms tried to clean off what they thought was an unnatural polish, but Melekush glowed even more awash. More recently, the president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurad Niyazov, has made gifts of an Akhal-Teke to heads of Russia, England and France.
Senetir, the first Akhal-Teke stallion to stand stud in America, was purchased at auction in Russia in 1978 and imported to Virginia by Phil and Margot Chase, Akhal-Teke enthusiasts who have long promoted the breed in this country. Senetir's passing in 1999 was noted by an obituary in the prestigious horse sport journal, The Chronicle of the Horse.
Traditionally, Akhal-Teke horses were tethered in small herds or individually, near the homes of their owners. The controlled conditions in which the breed was kept -- as opposed to the large free-ranging herds common to many other horse cultures -- promoted selective breeding; records of breeding history were maintaining orally long before written stud registries. Written records have been kept since 1885, the year that Boinou was born; as in the case of this famous stallion, it was not uncommon at the time for oral breeding records to go at least four generations. The first stud book for Central Asian breeds, which included 287 stallions and 468 mares of the Akhal-Teke breed, was published in 1941. In 1975, with the publication of the fifth stud book, the breed was recognized as pure bred and the book was closed. Since 1973, breed records have been maintained by the distinguished scholar, Tatyana N. Ryabova, of the All-Russian Institute of Horsebreeding (VNIIK). For 1994, 220 stallions and 1156 mares were registered. That number grew by 1997 to 290 stallions and 1164 mares. The best horses currently being bred in Russia come from the Stavropol Farm, Russia, 356321 Stavropolsky Area, Aleksandrov Region, Navokavkazsky Prospect. In Turkmenistan the Akhal-Yurt Farm, Turkmenistan, 744000 Ashkhabad, Makhtumkuli Prospect, 90-5, enjoys an excellent reputation. Up to date information in English on breeding farms throughout the world is available on the Akhal-Teke Network, a Swedish based website at http://www.akhalteke.org/. Worldwide several organizations now support the breed; principal among them is MAAK, the International Association of Akhal-Teke Horse Breeding, founded in 1995. Saparmurad Niyazov, president of the now independent state of Turkmenistan, is president of MAAK; the Vice President is T. N. Ryabova of VNIIK. The stated goal of the organization is to improve communication among lovers of the Akhal-Teke horse, to preserve and improve the breed. Since 1998, the Russian organization, AATK (Association for Akhal-Teke Horse Breeding), has conducted a competition for Akhal-Tekes in Moscow, testing for dressage, endurance and eventing, and exterior evaluation. Beginning in 2000, jumping will be included in the competition. The AATK website can be accessed at www.akhal-teke.ru. The stud book for the Akhal-Teke breed is managed on behalf of MAAK by VNIIK. Registry in the studbook requires blood typing to confirm pedigree. The MAAK Center for Breeding and Selection is responsible for granting breed documentation and advising on breeding. VNIIK negotiates export passports for Akhal-Tekes purchased on the territory of the former Soviet Union.The Akhal-Teke Association of America (ATAA) was founded in 1983. It keeps two registries, one for pure-blood and one for crossbreeds. Akhal-Teke Registry of America 21314 129th Avenue, SESnohomish, WA 98296-7843
This entry has been prepared by Edwina J. Cruise, Professor of Russian, Mount Holyoke College, and includes information provided by Yulia Kuznetsova, research associate at The Museum of the Horse (Moscow) and Secretary of the AATK. The opinions are those of Ms. Cruise; she is responsible for any error of fact.