The famous Akhal Teke horses from Turkmenistan are the forefathers of the Arabian horses which in turn are the forefathers of thoroughbreds. Often given as gifts to foreign leaders, these horses are pictured on Turkmenistan’s banknotes and are the state emblem. There is even a national holiday honoring them.

Known for the natural metallic sheen of its golden coat and its grace as a show jumper, the Akhal Teke evokes Turkmenistan's cherished nomadic heritage. Just how respected the Akhal-Teke is in Turkmenistan can be judged by its frequent mention in traditional songs and proverbs the fact it appears in the state coat of arms. The eating of horsemeat of any kind in Turkmenistan has long been taboo. The horse thought to symbolise the country’s national spirit. When a horse dies it receives a formal funeral, and mistreating them is considered a sin. [Source: Radio Free Europe, Eurasia.net]

The world today is home to more than 250 breeds of horses. The Akhal Teke breed stands apart as the patriarch of horse-breeding. It took more than three millenia to produce this breed. The exact date of the Ahalteke breed's first appearance is not known, but earliest mentions go back to the 4th to 3rd century B.C. Breeding secrets have been passed down over many generations among tribesmen who considered the horse their best friend and closest ally. [Source: turkmens.com/Horses]

According to the International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds: “The Akhal-Teke is a horse from Turkmen, in the southern region of the modern country of Turkmenistan. These horses have been renowned as cavalry mounts and racehorses for some 3,000 years. The Akhal-Teke has superb natural gaits, and is the outstanding sporting horse from this area. The Akhal-Teke is native to an arid, barren environment. During its history, it has established a reputation of great stamina and courage. A key to the Akhal-Teke’s stamina is its diet which is low in bulk but high in protein, and frequently includes butter and eggs mixed with barley. Today the Akhal-Teke is used in show jumping and dressage in addition to daily use under saddle. [Source: Bonnie L. Hendricks,International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, turkmens.com/Horses==]

Akhal-Teke were originally bred by Turkmen tribes. In the Soviet Union period they were bred in what is now Turkmenistan and southern Russia and the southern republics of former U.S.S.R. Today there is a total world wide population of only about 7000 horses. The largest population is found in Russia with about 700 in Turkmenistan, 1000 across Europe but only 40 or so in the UK. [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, August 6, 2013 +]

Sources: Akhal-Teke Association of America, akhal-teke.org; Akhal-teke Society of Great Britain, Bodare Cottage, Daymell Lane, Trbetherick, Cornwall PL27 6SA, ☎ 44-1208-86-2964.

Treasured Akhal–Teke Horses

Akhal Teke horses have been bred for more than 3,000 years, making them one of the oldest horse breeds known. Alexander the Great’s beloved horse Bucephalus was an Akhal-teke. Oliver Cromwell owned an Akhal Teke named Darcy White Turk, thought to be one forefathers of all thoroughbreds. The name Akhal comes from a region in present-day. Turkmenistan, and Tekke, them main Turkmen tribe. [Source: JJ Fergusson, The Independent, August 1, 1997 ]

Describing the ones used by of the Parthians, enemies of the ancient Romans, the Roman historian Appian wrote "their golden manes whirl with glory in the air." In 1935, fifteen Akhal-Teke horses traveled the 3,600-kilometer distance from Ashkhabad to Moscow on a forced march in 85 days, and traveled across the Kara-Kum desert, approximately 299 miles, without water.

Akhal Teke horses have done well in equestrian sorts. Sergei Ivanov won a gold medal in the 1960s Summer Olympics in Rome on an Akhal Teke named Absent. But they are notoriously difficult to train. One trainer and breeder told the Independent, “They only answer to one master. They don’t much like strangers—even the smell of strangers can make them shy.”

In the 1990s there were only about 2,000 Akhal Teke in the world. Of these 1,200 were in Turkmenistan. For years the sale of the horses abroad was either strictly controlled or forbidden outright so that the bloodline would remain pure. Akhal Teke horses were sold on the open market for the first time in 1997. About 60 horses were auctioned off in Ashgabat. They were sold between $10,000 and $100,000 and buyers from Ireland, France, England and the United States participated. At the auction only stallions were sold. The numbers were carefully limited. The best horses, the “golden stock,” were not sold.

Among those presented with Akhal Tekes as presents from Turkmenistan have been Russian President Boris Yeltsin, British Prime Minister John Major, Saudi Atabia’s King Fahd and French President Jacques Chirac. Major was given his for a 50th birthday present. It became a possession of the sate and was trained but the British army for ceremonial duties.

Famous Akhal Tekes: 1) Absent: Winner of the Prix de Dressage at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In 1968 Absent was named the “World’s Best Sporting Horse.” Dancing Brave Winner of the 1986 Arc de Triomphe Race. 2) Dancing Brave holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a horse; US$50 million. 3) Melekush: In 1956 Nikita Krushchev presented Melekush to Queen Elizabeth II of England. He was described by the Royal Equerry as Britain’s “best horse.” 4) Buccephalus: The famed favorite horse of Alexander the Great. [Source: Bonnie L. Hendricks,International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, turkmens.com/Horses ==]

Early History of Akhal–Teke Horses

According to the International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds: “The Akhal Teke is an ancient breed descended from one of the four horse types that crossed the Bering Strait from the Americas in prehistoric times. Approximately 10,000 years ago, as desertification took hold of Central Asia, the stocky horses indigenous to its steppe grasslands began to evolve into the lean and graceful but hardy horses that inhabit Turkmenistan today. As food and water became more scarce the heavy frame of the horse gave way to a lighter one. Longer necks, a higher head carriage, larger eyes and longer ears evolved to better the horse’s ability to see, smell, and hear predators over the increasingly open plains. The golden coloring predominant among the Akhal Teke provided the necessary camouflage against the desert landscape. Through natural selection a breed was created which would become the pride of Turkmenistan. [Source: Bonnie L. Hendricks,International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, turkmens.com/Horses ==]

Charles Recknagel of Radio Free Europe wrote: “Turkmen have venerated the Akhal-Teke for millennia thanks to its beauty, speed, and stamina, and view it as a unique expression of their origins as steppe horsemen. The breed is believed to have arisen when the Central Asian climate began drying out some 12,000 years ago and the originally squat, stocky horses of the region adapted to the new conditions by developing slim frames, longer legs for running swiftly across the arid plains, and a high tolerance for scarcity of food and water. Once domesticated, the breed was further developed by nomads selecting for tall, fast horses. The Akhal-Teke was one of many similar breeds which collectively became famous as the "war horses" of Central Asia. They were eagerly sought after by neighbors, including the Chinese Empire as mounts for its cavalry. [Source: Charles Recknagel, Radio Free Europe, December 20, 2015 ~

“In appearance the Akhal Teke horse is similar to its descendent, the Persian Arab, though in size it is more comparable to another of its descendants, the English thoroughbred. The Akhal Teke has a small thin head, long ears and large eyes. It has a short silky mane or no mane at all, and a short tail. The Turkmen practice of covering their horses with two to three layers of felt blankets to protect against cold in the winter and flies in the summer encouraged a remarkably fine textured coat. Akhal Tekes are known for their golden coloring but they can also be white, black, dappled, dun, bay, gray or chestnut colored. Fed a low bulk, high protein diet consisting of alfalfa and barely mixed with mutton fat, the Akhal Teke maintains its traditionally lean proportions of long sinewy legs, a narrow chest, a long back and flat ribs. The average height of an Akhal Teke is 15 to 15.1 hands. Its small hooves are unusually hard and are therefore rarely shod. The great speed, elasticity and grace of the Akhal Teke makes it at once a coveted racer, show jumper and dressage mount. Though spirited in temperament, Akhal Tekes are by all accounts gentle and loyal to their owners, yet aloof with strangers. ==

“Turkmen tribesmen valued their horses above all else. As a nomadic group situated in a crossroads of cultures they were often required to face enemy conflict and came to rely heavily on the strength, speed and endurance of their horses. The Akhal Teke’s ability to cover great distances of harsh terrain under extreme climatic conditions, and to travel at night, made them indispensable to the Turkmen warriors. Aside from their valiant exertions as warriors’ mounts, Akhal Tekes were also invaluable in assisting Turkmen nomads with their daily work. Prior to the Russian occupation of 1917, nearly every Turkmen family owned at least one or two horses.

Akhal–Teke Horses in the Russian and Soviet Periods

In 1881, Turkmenistan became part of the Russian Empire. Russian General Kuropatkin had admired the horses he had seen whilst fighting the Turkomen tribesmen, and founded a breeding farm after the war, renaming the horses “Akhal-Tekes,” after the Teke Turkmen tribe that lived near the Akhal oasis. The Russians printed the first studbook in 1943. Sadly the breed suffered greatly during times of war and at one point only 1250 horses remained. [Source: Horsetalk.co.nz, August 6, 2013]

According to the International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds: “With Bolshevism however, came an end to private ownership and the horses were placed in state-owned stud farms. Rather than surrender their beloved horses to such a fate many tribesmen fled with them to Persia and Afghanistan. When it was then decreed that the horses in the stud farms were to be slaughtered for food, breeders released them into the desert, their natural habitat, thereby preventing what may have resulted in the annihilation of the Akhal Teke breed within the borders of Turkmenistan. In 1935, fifteen Akhal Tekes were ridden 3600 kilometers, from Ashgabat to Moscow, in eighty-four days, to demonstrate to Joseph Stalin their formidable strength in the hopes that he would grant his permission for their continued breeding. The campaign was a success. [Source: Bonnie L. Hendricks,International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, turkmens.com/Horses ==]

Akhal–Teke Horses in the Post-Soviet Period

“Upon achieving independence in 1991, the government of Turkmenistan defined horse breeding as a nationalistic concern and an art form. The Akhal Teke has been declared a national treasure and its image graces the state seal of Turkmenistan. Today private ownership of Akhal Tekes in Turkmenistan is steadily increasing and there are now Akhal Teke farms in Germany and the United States.” ==

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska wrote in Eurasianet.org: “Though the breed was driven to the verge of extinction amid Soviet-era collectivisation and a communist ban on private horse ownership, the horses are now enjoying a resurgence. Former president Saparmurat Niyazov – as the head of what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic – permitted the resumption of private breeding in the 1980s, and there are thought to be some 6,000 Akhal-Tekes in the world today. [Source: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Eurasianet.org, November 22, 2015 +++]

“As the country gained its independence in 1991, the horse was raised to the status of a national symbol and was incorporated into the state coat of arms. In 2013, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said: “Our country is moving forward with the speed of an Akhal-Teke stallion and I call on you all to move forward and only forward.” +++

Breeding History of Akhal–Teke Horses

According to Horsetalk.co.nz: “The striking Akhal-Teke breed has overcome many setbacks during its 3000-year history, but its influence on other horse breeds cannot be denied. Now, the ancient breed is returning to the spotlight, with its athleticism, stamina, speed, agility, and exceptional movement winning admirers. [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, August 6, 2013 +]

“The Akhal Teke is considered to be one of the oldest of modern domesticated equine breeds in existence. The breed as it is known today first appeared in Turkmenistan, Central Asia, in Kara Kum, a rocky, flat desert surrounded by mountains which played a significant role in preserving the Akhal Teke’s purity. Tribesmen of Turkmenistan first used the horses for raiding and they were selectively bred for speed and agility. Pedigree records were maintained orally by Turkomen tribesmen. Historical records show that the Akhal-Teke has had influence on many breeds through trade and war, with stallions often gifted to Heads of State and other influential figures in foreign lands. It is thought that the Byerly Turk, one of the three major foundation stallions of the thoroughbred breed, may have been an Akhal-Teke or Turkoman Horse.

Three other stallions, known as the “Lister Turk”, the “White Turk” and the “Yellow Turk” named after his distinctive golden possibly palomino (dilute) coat carried forth the dilution gene which is responsible for producing the buckskin and palomino coat colours found in some of today’s Thoroughbreds. The Trakehner has also been influenced by the Akhal-Teke, most notably by the stallion Turkmen-Atti, as have the Russian breeds Don, Budyonny, Karabair, and Karabakh. +

“In the early 20th century, crossbreeding between the Thoroughbred and the Akhal-Teke took place, aiming to create a faster long-distance racehorse. However, the Anglo Akhal-Tekes were not as resilient as their Akhal-Teke ancestors, and many died due to the harsh conditions of Central Asia. After the 2600 mile endurance race from Ashkabad to Moscow in 1935, when the purebreds finished in much better condition than the part-breds, the studbook management decided to consider all crossbred horses born after 1936 as part bred. Horses with English Thoroughbred ancestors born before that date were allowed to remain inside the studbook and the stud book was closed in 1975.” +

Akhal–Teke Breed Characteristics

According to the International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds: “The Akhal-Teke's conformation can be favorably compared to the Persian Arab, another breed of ancient origin. Its head is similar to the Arab's, being long and light with expressive eyes. It has relatively long ears and a long neck. It has a short silky mane, or none at all, and a short tail. This breed has a narrow chest, long back, and flat ribs. The legs are long and slender, clearly revealing the tendons. It averages 15-15.1 hands in height. It is often dun in color, although it can be bay and gray, with a pale golden coat preferred. The Akhal-Teke is among the most elegant of the world's horses. [Source: Bonnie L. Hendricks,International Encyclopedia of Horse Breeds, University of Oklahoma Press, 1995, turkmens.com/Horses ==]

According to the Akhal-Teke Association of America: “The Akhal-Teke is an elegant, exotic animal exuding grace, power and athleticism. The comparison in appearance to a cheetah or fine greyhound is not inaccurate. While degrees of “type” are allowed and even encouraged, all examples of the breed should carry the distinct characteristics that differentiate the Akhal-Teke from other horses. In judging or grading these animals, basic soundness is of primary importance, followed by the presence of “type”. [Source: Akhal-Teke Association of America, akhal-teke.org /-/]

Akhal–Teke Breed Standard

According to the Akhal-Teke Association of America: “Head & Neck: Head shall be long and narrow, with most of the length being from the eyes to the muzzle. Ears are long, slim and set forward. Overall, the head is dry, with large nostrils and thin lips. Eyes often are “hooded” and “oriental” in appearance. The Akhal-Teke has a refined throatlatch, flexible poll and long, slim neck, set high out of the shoulder. Faults: Severe overshot or undershot jaw, common or coarse head, thick throatlatch, thick neck, low neck set. [Source: Akhal-Teke Association of America, akhal-teke.org /-/]

“General Conformation: The Akhal-Teke is meant to be a medium-sized horse, ranging in size from 14.3h to 16h. Extremes in either direction are not desirable. In general, the Akhal-Teke gives the impression of length, without showing weakness or frailty. The back is long, but strong, with a level top-line. Withers are prominent and attached to a well set-in shoulder. Shoulders should be nicely sloped and extremely free-moving. The hip angle is wide and gives the appearance of strength. Tail set is low. When viewed from the front, the chest is narrow, although the heart girth is deep. The skin of the Akhal-Teke is very thin, with their coat and hair being quite fine. Often the breed shows a sparse mane & tail, little or no forelock and the absence of feathering on the fetlocks. Any color is acceptable, as is any combination of white markings. The characteristic “metallic gleam” is a desirable feature. Overall, the Akhal-Teke should give the impression of lithe athleticism without excessive musculature. Faults: Extreme heaviness or reediness. Excessively long back, especially when coupled with weak loin connection. Extreme downhill conformation. mono or cryptorchidism. Thick, coarse or overly muscular appearance. /-/

“Legs/Feet: The Akhal-Teke is a true desert horse, and as such, should possess extreme stamina and hardiness. The presence of adequately dense bone is one such indicator of these traits. Akhal-Tekes have short cannon bones and low-set hocks, while the forearm and gaskins are long and smoothly muscled. Legs are dry, with tendons well defined. Joints are large. Knees should be flat. Pasterns should be long and display an identical angle to the hoof and shoulder. Hooves are small, round and extremely hard. Faults: Any and all limb formations that could contribute to future unsoundness, including but not limited to: bench knees, calf knees, off-set cannon bones, sickle hocks, wide at the hocks, lack of bone, small joints, pigeon-toed or toed-in stance. Horses shall be penalized according to severity of the fault. /-/

“Temperament: Thousands of years of selective breeding have left their mark not only on their physical appearance and efficiency, but also on their behavior. These horses are not only sensible but also very sensitive. /-/

Why Are There So Few Akhal–Teke Horses

According to Horsetalk.co.nz: Today there is a total world wide population of only about 7000 horses. The largest population is found in Russia with about 700 in their native homeland of Turkmenistan, 1000 across Europe but only 40 or so in the UK. So why are the numbers so low, given the athletic qualities that this spectacular breed has to offer? [Source:Horsetalk.co.nz, August 6, 2013 +]

“One has to ponder the reasons why this rare and beautiful animal, often in spectacular shades of gold with a glimmering metallic sheen to their coat, has not benefited from the same popularity as the thoroughbred in developing and creating today’s modern riding horse. The ban of exports from the Soviet Union played a role to a certain extent, the lack of finance and management of the breed has also had detrimental effects. And some would argue that their less than desirable conformation often portrayed in images of ewe necked, sickle hocked, overly long tubular bodied animals often in a state of malnutrition most certainly has done the breed no favours, either. +

“But the breed is evolving and whilst the Akhal Teke has been primarily bred for racing in Moscow and Turkmenistan, several breeders are now selectively breeding for desirable conformation, temperament, jumping ability, athleticism and movement which will enhance their ability to perform better and compete with success in the FEI disciplines of equestrian sport. The Akhal Teke is very much a breed that can be used with success in both part bred and purebred breeding programs, to refine and infuse stamina, heart, toughness, speed and agility and for the pleasure rider or owner, will be a loyal and gentle companion.” +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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