Historic breed set to show on world stage
From Mare Elston
Tucked away in a remote comer of Central Asia lies the former Soviet republic and newly independent nation of Turkmenistan. This little known, mythical land is the home of the Akhal Teke - a unique breed of horse considered by many experts to be one of the oldest breeds in the world.
The lineage of this mighty breed can be traced back through thousands of years. Named after the Akhal Oasis in central Turkmenistan which is inhabited by the Teke Turkmen tribe, these horses have loyally served their masters throughout history.
Fact and fable blur together as people recount the proud past of one of the world's purest breeds. Alexander the Great was said to have offered half his fortune for one of the animals, but was turned down by the Turkmens, who said they never sold their friends.
Even in ancient times, there are records indicating that the ancestors of the Turkmen tribes believed that the horse was an incarnation of God. Ancient myths supported by modem archaeological evidence depict the horse as being the guardian of heaven, and elaborate temple rites often involved the horse sacrifice.
More recently, while Turkmenistan was under years of foreign domination, the prized Akhal Teke was very nearly decimated. During the Communist era, horses were slaughtered mercilessly for meat. Although private ownership of horses was forbidden, there are many stories of horse-loving Turkmens who risked everything to sabotage the slaughterhouses in order to rescue the doomed horses.
Today, once again, the Akhal Teke enjoys a special place in Turkmen culture and modern folklore. So much so that President Saparmurat Niyazov designed the new national emblem around the profile of Karader, a prizewinning, revered Akhale Teke stallion.
But what is it exactly that makes this fabled breed so unique?
Yusup Annaklichev, Secretary General of the Turkmen Equestrian Federation is in Dubai at the invitation of the UAE Equestrian and Racing Federation to observe the 1998 World Endurance Championship, and he proudly comments on the advantages of the Akhal Teke.
"This is a horse that always has been, and still is, born and bred in the desert. Even today the foals grow up with Turkmen children. It is said they often share the mothers' milk! The horses grow up in very harsh and arid conditions, yet they thrive even with poor food and little water.
"Despite these hardships the horses grow large and strong, and they have unparalleled stamina which has created legends throughout history," explains Annaklichev.
The Akhal Teke's incredible stamina was demonstrated in 1988 during a 4,300 kilometer ride that took place between Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and Moscow. A total of 30 horses traveled the distance over 60 days, and all of them completed the journey safely and soundly.
"Endurance racing is a natural activity for the Akhal Teke. The Turkmens have a saying: Those who have a horse have wings. Long distance travel is what these horses exist for," said Annaklichev.
Although Turkmenistan is a newly developing state with many economic hardships, the government is committed to the restoration and protection of the Akhal Teke breed. The main national stud farm receives full government support, and over 40 subsidiary stud farms also receive government support and encouragement.
Just after independence, the export of the breed was prohibited, while the government and breeders worked to inventory existing horses and formally record remaining bloodlines.
Now a brisk trade in these horses has developed, and international Akhal Teke clubs and breeding farms exist in countries as far away as Germany and America. Just last year the first Akhal Teke mare and stallion were sold to a prominent UAE breeder.
"The care and preservation of the Akhal Teke breed is definitely where our future lies," states Annaklichev.
The Turkmenistan Equestrian Federation has ambitious plans for the future. As of April 1997, they were accepted into the FEI, and as such will now be able to compete internationally as well as reciprocate.
"This has opened all the equestrian doors for us as a nation," said Annaklichev. "Endurance and show jumping are our priority, both of which are ideal for the Akhal Teke."
He continued; "We already have a team of six endurance riders, and many more young people eager to participate. Due to financial restrictions, for now we are only competing locally, however we have plans to develop some regional rides with our neighbors, and then the next step will be international."
"This visit to the UAE has been an invaluable experience. I've been able to see first hand all that is involved in the staging of such an international competition. As a nation we fully embrace endurance racing; it runs in our blood," said Annaklichev.
When asked about the future for the fledgling Turkmenistan endurance team, Annaklichev looks pleased and smiles. "Now that we are in the FEI, we will receive all necessary licensing and accreditation. Once that is achieved, we look forward to participating in the -'World Equestrian Games in 2002, and we hope to send our endurance team to Portugal for next years' European Endurance Championship.
"This will be the perfect opportunity to showcase the Akhal Teke at its best."
"I am sure that the future will prove that our faithful and beautiful Akhal Teke horses are as much a part a part of our future as they were of the Turkmen past."
Reprinted from “Al Adiyat, The Horse Racing Authority of the United Arab Emirates”. December 8, 1998