As I cross the Kopet Dagh range that separates Iran from Turkmenistan, my spirits begin to lighten. Behind me in Iran lies the land of the chador, while ahead promises the land of the horse.
As I enter Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, I am dazzled by the unequivocal and spectacular display of its equestrian culture, in which other local traditions of carpet and jewelry-making, poetry and music find their themes and raison d’etre.
The ethereal-looking, long-backed, swan-necked (some might say more critically: ewe-necked) Akhal Teke is faithfully reproduced in bronze all over the city. In front of the Chamber of Commerce he appears ridden by a traditionally dressed Turkmen man and woman, harnessed and jeweled with silver “Alagayysh” ornaments very similar to what women still wear today, but which used to serve as armor to the horses during battle. The horse appears gilt and winged in the semblance of Pegasus at the entrance of a national museum. He prances in anonymous glory around the top of a fountain. Famous racehorse and sire Polotni has his own statue that stands by the City Hippodrome like that of a national benefactor.
Giant monitors in the city’s center show the Akhal Teke at various stages of life—at pasture, as a main participant during traditional festivities, or demonstrating his athletic abilities at international events.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Akhal Teke has his own ministry and by then, of course, I can’t help supposing that an Akhal Teke sits behind the ministerial desk.
At the end of a well honored life the Akhal Teke, whether famous or not, may be buried in the horse cemetery in the desert outside the capital, his head and neck wrapped in a white sheet, a formal prayer recited over his body. If the horse is notorious a monument may mark his burial spot.
The Horse As National Hero
For all the somewhat kitsch magnificence of Ashgabat, sprung from Turkmenistan’s vast reserves of natural gas, the city seems better for it and exudes a kind of dreamlike charm. Its white marble and gold, its cupolas, neo-classical pediments and colonnades, colossal doorways, fountains and fancy memorial edifices set in lavishly irrigated gardens, all outrageously lit up at night, seem inspired by Jonathan Swift’s tale of the land of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels with one essential difference: The Turkmen’s great devotion to their horses bears no resemblance to the fearsomeness of the vile Yahoos.
According to local testimonies, horses dragged people from under the rubble during the 1948 earthquake that is said to have killed upwards of 170,000. Gratitude and admiration is regularly expressed through such stories of equine intelligence and friendship towards human beings.
In the Ruhnama, a political and cultural guide to the people of Turkmenistan written by the former life-long president Saparmurat Niyazov, the Akhal Teke represented at the center of the state emblem by the national champion Yanardag is “a model of endurance, beauty and purity.” He embodies the very spirit of Turkmenistan and is a symbol of cultural and political unity in a multi-tribal society that has only fairly recently regained its independence on Oct. 21, 1991.
A Breed On The Edge
The Akhal Teke’s dominant presence is all the more significant and precious to Turkmen people since they almost lost their beloved horses under Russian rule. In an effort to stifle all opposition, Russian policy separated Turkmen from their horses between 1881 and 1930. The Russians considered the horses as a main tool of rebellion.
But what the Turkmen remember most bitterly during the obliteration of their national identity is the shameful butchering of Akhal Teke horses to feed the Russian people in the 1960s and 70s.
Still today, it is not uncommon for a Turkmen to ask a foreigner if he or she eats horsemeat. A denial is received with an audible sigh of approval and followed by the rejoinder: “For us, to eat horse meat is no better than cannibalism.”
Having sacrilegiously been turned into steak, the Akhal Teke is now back as a principal player in a kind of coded cultural restitution dictated by the government.
The enforcement of enduring, self-declared untarnished Turkmen culture, among other things, obliges young women to wear long braids to university, whether real or fake, and long red velvet dresses. Male students wear traditional Turkmen caps on their heads. Despite the requirement of such “cultural” rules, the love and pride in the horse seems to endure unforced.
A Culture Of Horse Breeders
The modern Akhal Teke is, however, only the latest avatar of the ancient Turkmen horse that was bred across the whole country by many tribes. At the foot of the Kopet Dagh mountains, the Akhal oasis, a strip of land stretching approximately between Kizir Arva to the west and Ashgabat to the east, is considered today as the best horse breeding area in the country because is has more water and, consequently, more forage than land north of it taken over by the KaraKum desert.
Here, by the small Chuli river that runs full and fast in this end of March between its cradle of trees, and where the emerald green hills are dotted with sheep and goat herds guarded by their large Alabai sheep dogs, Teke tribes bred a horse reputed to be taller, braver, swifter than other Turkmen breeds and also characterized by a particular golden coat.
Katia Kolesorikova’s breeding farm, Aladje, is located 40 minutes outside of Ashgabat. With 14 horses, including foals, it’s typical of the larger private breeding establishments found in Turkmenistan, which generally have no more than 20 horses. Other private Turkmen owners nowadays can afford no more than one or two horses.
Judging by the relatively unkempt aspect of Aladje’s grounds and buildings, business is not thriving. One major limitation is that selling outside of the country isn’t permitted (although there are rumors that the law may soon change). Another hindrance comes from there being insufficient quantities of forage available.
This has long been a problem in Turkmenistan, and a horse’s diet was traditionally supplemented with sheep’s fat. Today, Kolesorikova mixes one or two eggs a day into each horse’s ration of oats.
Despite the financial difficulties, she doesn’t seek government subsidies. Such help might entail administrative complications and at least a partial loss of control over her property. Therefore, she and other breeders fend for themselves by taking people on paid rides and showing horses for a fee.
Most important is to own horses that demonstrate their pure Akhal Teke blood by standard and recognizable traits. Some of Kolesorikova’s horses show the typical cremello and perlino coats with blue eyes, while others have the characteristic golden metallic sheen. All have longish ears, long, thin, sinuous necks, long backs, steep pasterns, sparse mane and tail, straight or slightly convex profiles, and the low, sliding, smooth gallop.
But to an eye used to more pampered, slicker-looking horses, these slim-bodied Akhal Tekes look rather rustic and almost too sparse. They don’t seem to promise much in the way of international athletic prowess as suggested on the Ashgabat monitors.
A Treasure Trove Of Horses
My impromptu visit to the President’s Hippodrome just outside of Ashgabat alters that view. My driver, Sasha, decides on the spur of the moment to take me there. As we drive along, Sasha reveals that while he chauffeurs people around for a living, he is also on the national Olympic jumping team and trains every dawn before going to work.
Thanks to his intercession, the country’s ultimate horse sanctuary, which is closed by a forbidding gateway to most people, suddenly opens to us. On its 56 hectares of manicured grounds, the President’s complex comprises a turf racetrack, a show jumping course, state of the art veterinarian services and breeding technology, and impeccable, spacious stables occupied by the best Akhal Tekes in the country.
A whispered tour through the stable of the prize stallions reveals larger, sleeker animals that look as though they might indeed be up for any type of international event. Nonetheless, they retain that exotic, giraffe-like beauty that distinguishes them immediately from other breeds. From the graceful height of their necks they look at us with quivering, reflective attention. The stallions react to the stranger entering their stalls with gentle and welcoming eloquence. Here is a hot-blooded horse that shows utter confidence and friendliness towards human beings.
A National Pastime
Most Turkmens enjoy their horse racing at the City Hippodrome’s dirt track where, in an effort to give back the Turkmen horse to its people, President Niyazov established Turkmen Horse Day.
April 25 traditionally opens the racing season, which lasts until the end of May and resumes in September until the end of October after an interruption in June, July and August due to temperatures of up to 104 degrees. Colts and stallions are generally preferred for racing because they can race longer, whereas after two or three years of racing the fillies become brood mares.
In preparation for these races, jockeys begin training in the dark at 6 a.m. In rather brisk temperatures on this particular day, some of them blur past the stands like “bullets” as Turkmens like to describe the Akhal Teke’s speed. Like the President’s Hippodrome, the City Hippodrome is more than just a racetrack; it stables 500 privately and state-owned horses.
It also has a rather homemade-looking jumping course on which a few riders take their horses over modest obstacles under the supervision of their trainer, Alexander Meredov. He and Yusup Annaklychev, Secretary General of Turkmenistan’s Equestrian Federation, admit there are adjustments to make in the breeding of the Akhal Teke in the future. Though very fast as a racehorse, his legs are too fragile, and his chest needs broadening. In jumping, they admit, he cannot yet compete with crossbreds.
Such frank acknowledgments of weakness or failure in the Akhal Teke are rare in Turkmenistan but are a reflection on the respective roles of the two hippodromes and on the present and future of the Akhal Teke. The City Hippodrome represents the present, with still uncertain results in some areas of international competition. The President’s Hippodrome represents the future, vast with opportunity and glory.
A Matter Of National Identity
Most Turkmens are loath to admit to anything less than ideal in the Akhal Teke. They cite Absent, the dressage champion; Dancing Brave, winner of the Arc de Triomphe; or Arab, in show jumping, as examples of the purebred’s unalterable superior capacities. This is consistent with the official portrayal of the breed as most ancient, purest and consequently best of all horse breeds.
So important to national identity is the belief in the continuity of that purity and of its qualities at this point in Turkmenistan’s history that doubting it might be construed as a lack of patriotism.
And so would it be if a Turkmen doubted openly that the Akhal Teke that sprints on the city’s racetrack today is the very same type of horse that proved its exceptional endurance by traveling from Ashgabat to Moscow in 84 days. The 1932 trek was meant to show the capacities of a pure Akhal Teke as opposed to the crossbred one being bred to replace the Turkmen warhorse.
Even though crossbreeding regularly took place among Turkmen tribes, it had occurred within the different strains of the breed and focused on inherent qualities rather than on type.
Akhal Teke breeding today is based on 17 strains within a closed studbook and seems to follow those same principals. Each strain is known for a singular quality. For example: the rare Posman strain is known to have a beautiful head with protruding cheeks; the Peren strain is known for physical beauty; Kir Sakar and Gaplan, for speed, liveliness and resilience; Gelskikli, for stamina.
But contrary to tribal breeding, Russian breeding favored a long, lean racing type embodied by a horse called Boinou. This graceful but somewhat outlandish morphology has become, arbitrarily, the identifying mark of the true Akhal Teke or pure blood and also a means of marketing the breed. Exotic looks, antiquity and rarity are extolled to demand high prices: $30,000 for a fine but untrained individual and up.
In light of the relatively small demand for Akhal Tekes compared to other breeds, I wonder whether the breeders, who insist on the Akhal Teke’s unearthly beauty, may not have lost sight of some of the more palpable and practical qualities the horse had when tribally bred and which could make the breed easier to market.
One may wonder, in fact, if the Akhal Teke in Turkmenistan, on which such vital political and cultural symbolism and such nationalistic hopes repose, hasn’t become a sort of contradiction to itself— the more it becomes the focus of its nation’s ambitions, the more it diverges from its original identity.
On the one hand, the Akhal Teke is presented as unchanged from thousands of years back, a pure link between past and present Turkmenistan. Yet the horse has already been transformed to enable it to rival other breeds on various athletic fronts.
Admitting that the Akhal Teke registered in Turkmenistan’s studbook has been infused with varying percentages of English Thoroughbred would be a fatal blow to national pride.
But regardless of the technicalities of breeding and marketing, let us consider the idea of the Akhal Teke’s graceful form as a country’s rallying banner. It’s certainly one of the more attractive ideas to come from a domineering government.
The Akhal Teke is so beautiful and convincing that I can’t help wondering if it shouldn’t be, after all, allowed to take precedence over more pragmatic breeding considerations. For in such a context the purity of the breed does become suddenly indisputable.
Furthermore, there is still the chance that the Akhal Teke may live up to other more tangible expectations put upon him and thus prove this cultural bias right.
Stephanie Sears is an anthropologist and a freelance writer living in Verona, Italy. She traveled to Turkmenistan a year ago after visiting Iran to do field work for an article on leopards. She's written articles on the Syrian Arabian, the Spanaish Rejoneo, the Minorcan stallion, on carriage driving in Spain while living in Barcelona and on the Arabian horse market in the United States. Otherwise, she writes about wildlife, mostly leopards, and also publishes poetry. A sporadic rider, since she never stays in one place for long, the last time she rode was on a frisky Georgian horse that belonged to a ranger in Vashlovani park in Georgia where she was doing a story on leopards last fall.