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Kyzyl Akhal-Tekes

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Kyzyl Akhal-Tekes







Xan and Lara






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 Turkmenistan.

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 secret.

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 Road.

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


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