“There is no other horse that leaves such an unforgettable impression as the noble Akhal-Teke – lithe, light and springy, glistening with gold in the rays of the sun, with its smooth gliding trot and a ground-lining gallop.” These words, written by breeder Alexander Klimuk, say it all.
A long history
The steppe grasslands of Central Asia in what is now Turkmenistan helped develop the Turkmen horse, the progenitor to the modern Akhal-Teke. Mummified battle horses found in the Atlai region of Asia date back as far as 6th century BC, and are described as being strikingly similar to the Akhal-Teke. They belonged first to the Massaget people and then to the Parthians. Known by many names, they were often referred to as Argamaks, or Heavenly Horses, and are believed to be the earliest purpose-bred saddle horses. They impressed many travelers in the ancient world by their unusual beauty.
The Argamaks were sought after by many cultures, stolen as spoils of war and used politically as gifts. When the Persian Emperor Cyrus was unable to get the Argamaks by force, he married the daughter of Tsar Mussels Astyagesa to gain access to them. In 103 BC, China’s Emperor Wu declared war specifically to acquire these divine horses.
Rise and fall
The Argamak horses bred by the Turkmen tribes had similar type, conformation, character and athlethicism. However, the Teke Tribes in the Akhal Oasis (now within Turkmenistan) controlled their horse breeding to develop “the tallest, fastest and most elegant horses”. It’s believed that the modern day Akhal-Teke descended from these horses.
The Teke tribes were involved in frequent raids along the Silk Road, and their fast and fearless horses were important in maintaining their lifestyle for over 1,000 years. Other tribes put less emphasis on the control of breeding and “pureness”, and let the horses have free range. This developed hardier animals, but they could not compare with the beauty and speed of those of the Tekes.
When the Russian Empire conquered Turkmenistan in the late 19th century, it forbade the Silk Road raids. This eroded the economic basis for keeping horses. The Turkmen lifestyle changed, and there was no reason to continue horse breeding programs. Although many breeders were able to escape to Iran, Afghanistan and India, many of the horses were later crossbred to create a faster animal for track racing. In the 1930s, many remaining Turkmen horses became part of Soviet experimentation to create a better saddle horse for the cavalry. WWI had also decimated the breed. In the 1950s, the policies of Khruschev relegated horses to meat status.
Luckily, some Russian officials in Turkmenistan knew what a priceless treasure these horses were. A few devoted breeders were able to establish breeding programs to save them. They initiated a studbook for purebred Akhal-Tekes in the 1900s. In the mid-1920s, research describing Turkmen tribal history helped establish a Russian stud farm for breeding Akhal-Tekes. All registered Akhal-Tekes today descend from their efforts.
The studbook was initiated in the 1930s by the All- Russian Scientific Research Institute of Horse Breeding (VNIIK). In the late 1950s, a great expansion of Akhal- Teke breeding and stud farms was established throughout the Soviet Union.
Akhal-Teke stallions have been bred to be a “one person” horse. The mares were used only for breeding and the stallions were not gelded, but used intact as riding partners. I see differences between individual Akhal- Teke horses: one might be very reserved until he gets to know you, while another will have a personality more like a lap dog. They are quite interactive with people and will leave a herd to find their “person”.
My Akhal-Tekes have a huge desire to please, but get bored with repetition. Training needs to be constantly fresh and interesting. I have one mare that will decide she doesn’t want to do something – and you may as well agree with her if you can’t find a way to get her interested in trying.
Here’s how VNIIK describes this unique horse:
Head: light, dry with wide lean lower jaw, straight profile or with convex forehead, prolonged facial part; big eyes with special slanting shape (slant-eyed) and overhanging superciliary arches; thin, mobile, high set up ears; thin lips and nostrils; long, wide poll. The head is set on the neck at (an) acute angle.
Neck: high set, long, straight or S-arched, round in cross-section, flexible.
• The withers: high, long, well-muscled.
• The shoulder: long, slant set, with well-developed muscles
• The upper arm: with normal slope, well-muscled
• The chest: deep, wider behind shoulders, oval form, with long false ribs
• The back and loins: even, relatively wide, may be with some insignifi cant lengthiness
• The croup: with normal slope, sometimes a bit sloping, wide, long, and with strong muscles lowering well down to gaskin
• The tail: low and deep set, often practically hairless at the dock
Legs: lean, long with well-developed joints and firm well-shown tendons, small strongly built hooves. The legs stand parallel to each other, feathers are absent or very insignifi cantly present.
Coat: thin, silky, light mane and tail, forelock and feathers are absent or insignifi cantly present.
Movements: spacey, flexible, elastic, with good impulse, comfortable for rider at all gaits; strong, flexible jump at flat trajectory and good style.
Colors: large variety of colors from black to cream, often with typical metallic shine – golden and silver.
Although Akhal-Tekes are hot bloods, they were bold warhorses. Others have said their Akhal-Tekes are flighty, but I find them to be highly sensitive without being reactive. They will approach something that scares them instead of spooking or being afraid. They have a very intense curiosity.
What can they be used for?
1. Racing: Akhal-Tekes are racehorses in Russia, racing from 1,000 to 6,000 meters. The English Thoroughbred is faster at shorter distances, but the Akhal-Teke is faster when distances are increased.
2. Endurance: Akhal-Tekes are known for their stamina and speed over long distances. In 1935, Akhal-Tekes traveled 4,300 km in 84 days from Ashkabad to Moscow; this trek was undertaken in an attempt to convince the Russian cavalry that the breed should be preserved. Other famous journeys include the 1988 repeat of the Ashkabad to Moscow trip in just 60 days (Geldy Kyarizov’s personal quest to “give the horse back to the Turkmen”); and a ride of 500 km over five days with an average speed of eight km/hr (to draw attention to Soviet policies of horse slaughter for human consumption).
3. Dressage: Absent was seven times the national dressage champion of Russia. He participated in three Olympic games and won gold with 82.4% (1960) and bronze (1964) individual medals as well as a team bronze (1964) and silver (1968).
4. Jumping: Akhal-Tekes excel in this discipline, with several significant accomplishments:
• Poligon: Set new Puissance records over five successive years, achieving a maximum height of 2m, 25cm.
• Perepel: Cleared 8m, 78cm (the official record acknowledged by FEI stands at 8.26m).
• Arslan: Holds the Uzbekistan record in show-jumping – 192cm for two years in a row (1999 and 2000). He was rated number one of the best show jumping horses of Asia.
5. Eventing: Given the small numbers of this breed, a very high percentage are performing well in eventing. With their capacity for speed, dressage and jumping, along with their boldness, eventing may be a perfect discipline for them.
Penteli reportedly won every jumping event he was entered in with his rider. He was champion of the USSR 12 times in three-day eventing, and European champion on more than one occasion. His rider Mr. Lisizin died when Penteli was 15 years old; after that, no one could ride Penteli to a win.
The Akhal-Teke has good hard feet, but is not an easy keeper and requires excellent feed. If the Teke isn’t kept on good pasture, he requires supplementation and the best quality hay. These horses were bred for speed, not hardiness, and were raised on rich legume meadow grasses in a dry continental climate with winters of little snow. They have been known to go with little water, including during the Ashkabad-Moscow trek when they successfully covered 360km in three days through the desert.
Dr. Tatiana Riabova (maakcenter.org) and Alexander Klimuk (stavropolteke. com). Kerri-Jo Stewart is an equine photographer and a lover of Akhal- Tekes. She has a Bachelors degree in Health and Fitness from the University of British Columbia and a Masters in Equine Physiology and Nutrition from the University of Guelph. She currently lives in Maple Ridge, British Columbia with with her husband and two small children. Learn more at Argamak.ca