Nearly three thousand years ago, when Man and Horse refined their alliance
and mounted nomads first roamed the steppes, the Scythian peoples of Central
Asia were known for possessing the finest, fastest horses in the world.
Archaeologists excavating Scythian tombs in the last decade have verified
that their horses, buried with Scythian nobles, are represented, essentially
unchanged, in their present-day descendants - the Akhal-Teke horses of
It's hard to refer to the Akhal-Teke other than in superlatives.
It's the world's best endurance horse. In dressage, an Akhal-Teke has won
more Olympic medals than any other horse. Many would claim it's the world's
most beautiful breed. Certainly, it's emerging as Central Asia's best-kept
And its ancestors were, from the time of the Scythians
onwards, the world's first big, strong, fast warhorses - the nuclear missile
of their day. They were held sacred by the Medes and the Persians, while
the Chinese Emperors called them "Celestial". It was to obtain these Celestial
Horses, first as spoils of war and later by trading, that the Chinese drove
routes through the deserts and mountains of Central Asia for their armies
and then their merchants - routes which were to become known as the Silk
In later centuries guardianship of the horses of Central
Asia passed to the Turkomans of Transcaspia, and they became a pivot of
Turkoman culture. For although the Turkomans of a few centuries ago made
a basic living as semi-nomadic farmers, it was the slave trade that made
them rich. They needed horses that could gallop all day from their villages
on the edge of the Kara Kum desert to the fringes of the settled world
- and gallop home again with a double burden, with produce for the slave
markets of Bukhara and Khiva. The best Turkoman horses of all were those
bred by the Teke Turkomans of the Akhal Oasis in what is now Turkmenistan,
and it was in this hard school of slave-raiding that the Akhal-Teke became
the world's most versatile and athletic horse.
So it was not their women but their horses which became
the recipient of the Turkoman's wealth. They wore bridles decorated with
melchior and serdoliq - that is, silver and cornelian. And they were looked
after with loving care, hand-fed with lucerne, barley and mutton-fat, and
rugged with felt against the vicious desert winters. "When you rise in
the morning, greet your horse and then your father," goes a Turkoman saying.
After the Russians subjugated Central Asia and outlawed
slave-trading, the Turkoman horse found another rôle as a cavalry horse.
Its prodigious capacities attracted the attention of several commentators.
The Russian General Artishevskii described how, on campaign, he "had to
travel 160 versts" - one hundred miles - "a day, on alternate horses; the
tribesmen accompanying me… were sent on reconnaissance sorties to either
side… besides rider, the horses carried huge saddlebags, clothing and various
stores, a weight of not less than nineteen stone." One V. Kolosovskii wrote
in 1910 of a Turkoman horse that "galloped without a break for 11 days,
covering 120 versts a day" - an average of over 70 miles a day. A British
Ambassador to Persia was quoted a saying that "no other horse in the world
can cover such a distance so fast as the Turkoman horse… a fit Turkoman,
in good training, can do 250 km in twenty-four hours."
In the early decades of the last century, Communism and
collectivisation saw the horse lose its main role in Turkoman life. It
gradually came to be used for only racing and herding. Breeding became
concentrated on State farms and restricted mostly to the Akhal-Teke, prized
as the best Turkoman strain. More than once the breed became seriously
endangered, and in 1935 the Turkomans staged an epic ride from Ashkhabad
to Moscow - 4,300 kilometres - to draw attention to their plight. The achievements
of the celebrated dressage horse Absent in three Olympic Games gave further
publicity to the breed. Nowadays Akhal-Teke horses are widely used for
racing, showjumping, eventing and - their most notable arena - endurance
riding throughout the CIS, where they have proved themselves to be outstanding
performance horses. While still mainly concentrated in Central Asia and
Russia, they are now bred throughout Europe and the USA, and are beginning
to make their mark there in the competitive arena. Although numbers are
still small, their future has never looked more secure.
© Gill Suttle 1999-2007