The pure bred Akhal-Teke horse and it's influence on other pure bred breeds
By: Alexander Klimuk, Zootechnician and stud manager of Stavropol Stud Farm.
Presented at: The First International Akhal-Teke Conference in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan 1998
The Akhal-Teke breed stands at the very beginning of cultural horse breeding in the world. It has such an unrepeatable and strange history, as unrepeatable and strange as is the extraordinary beauty of the Turkmen Argamak.
Obviously even the wild ancestors of the Central Asian horses considerably differed from other kinds, among which are the Przewalski’s Horse or the Tarpan.
The dry, continental climate of South Turkmenistan, having winters with little snow, vast meadows with rich grass in the foothills of the Kopet Dag mountains and the permanent threat of predators led to the development of a relatively tall, fast horse, less adopted to withstand famine and thus less frugal.
The domestication of these horses in the foothills and the plains of Turkmenistan probably took place quite early. But it cannot be ruled out, that Indo-Iranian tribes, which settled in Turkmenistan brought with them domesticated horses of a northern origin. But under the Turkmen conditions the local wild forms of horses, because of the higher values for the people, could then withstand the imported horses, either as a result of a repeated domestication of local forms, or as a result of absorbing in the cross-breeding of imported and local horses. The echo of these long past occurrences might be the old legends about the origin of the Central Asian Horses, written down in Chinese and Arabian Chronicles. According to one of them, by the Arabian geographer Ibn Khordabakh, the best Central Asian horses came from the wild stallion ‘taller than others, who produced offspring of tall and beautiful stature’, ‘they are tamed’ and they literally flew between heaven and earth, listen to the bridle, with easy gaits.
When the offspring of the Central Asian noble horses turned up in the countries of the old eastern civilisation, in Egypt, the Near East and India, according to descriptions and illustrations that have been passed down to us, they were dry and well built, with a highly carried neck, a light head, mostly with golden colours. It is clear that it must have taken centuries until man managed to breed such extraordinary horses. The majority of antique sources confirm that their homeland – the homeland of the best horses of the antique world – was situated in Central Asia. According to Herodot first the Massaget people had the best horses in the world, and then the Parthians.
The Parthian horses were often also called the Nissian horses, after the Capital of the Parthian Empire, Nissa, whose destroyed remains are situated only a few kilometres from the present capital of the Akhal-Teke breeding, the Ashgabad stud farm, named Saparmurad Nyazov.
The ancient origin of the Akhal-Teke horses was first discovered and proved in Russia only a little more than one hundred years ago in the work of Prof. V. Fisov, ‘Turkestan and The Turkestan Horse Breeds’, published in the ‘Journal of Horse Breeding’ in 1895 in St. Peterburg.
Since then this issue has been developed further by the works of Brauner, Kovalevsky, Afanasyev, Vit, Lipping, Salikhov, Belonogov, Kovalevska and others. The horse breeders in the Soviet Union have known for a long time that the Akhal-Teke Horse is the world’s oldest breed.
Unfortunately their work is not known outside of the GUS. And it is often strange to first read a listing of all known facts about the famous Central Asian Horses of the Antique in foreign hippological works and then the conclusion that the Turkmen Horse descents from the Mongolian Pony or, in the best case, the Arabians.
That is why we would like to have a closer look at the relationship between the Akhal-Teke and other pure breds and also at the reasons why the Akhal-Teke could preserve its pureness.
Throughout thousands of years, Central Asia was a theatre of war between different tribes and peoples. Waves of warriors came to this land from the east and the west, the north and the south. In the first place the big towns, centres of trade and craft, were in danger to be conquered and plundered. At the same time the conflict with armed nomadic or semi-nomadic populations was more tiresome and did not pay with rich booty. The sandy, waterless deserts of Turkmenistan, closed on one side by the Caspian Sea, were always hard to cross. And that is one of the reasons, why, during all the political collisions, the Turkmen tribes managed to protect the most valuable quantity of an ancient typical breed of Central Asia in its purest form as well as the old horse keeping traditions. It is necessary to state that the breeding of horses under the conditions of Turkmenistan, especially in the desert area, is very expensive. ‘ While a foal grows into a horse its owner becomes a thin dog’, is a Turkmen proverb.
In the desert, on grass, not only the Akhal-Teke grows but, used to the rough conditions, also the Kazakhian Horse. Therefore it did not make sense to work with let’s say more unpretentious, but smaller and less fast horse. Because no other horse could be compared with the Akhal-Teke horse regarding its beauty, power, speed and endurance. Any cross would only have led to lower the quality of the horses and was economically worthless.
This is what the Turkmen tradition to protect the breed’s pureness is founded on. The horses which were bred by all Turkmen tribes were of the same type, conformation, character and working ability. Actually in the old times this was one breed. But all travellers, who visited Turkmenistan, always stated that the purest and best horses belonged to the Teke tribe. The keeping of the horses close to the house (in the yards), the individual selection, a strict attitude towards the pureness of the pedigree, allowed the Akhal-Teke horse to be preserved as a pure bred Turkmen breed.
In other tribes the keeping of horses on the meadows, less emphasis on the pureness of the pedigree led to the formation of less tall, less fast and less typical horses, but was also not so demanding in respect of fodder and care.
In Turkmenistan’s horse breeding the Akhal-Teke was always used for improving and Turkmen horses of other tribes also had a lot of excellent horses. The great sire Boinou belonged once to a Turkmen of the Saryk tribe, the mother of the famous Mele Kush belonged to a Turkmen of the Karadashly tribe, the famous Yomud serdar Dshunaid Khan rode the famous sire Mele Khadji Nur, father and grandfather of the line founders of the Akhal-Teke sire lines Toporbai and El.
As a result of war and trade the ancestors of the modern Akhal-Teke were used for improving in the world’s horse breeding already during the Antiques. The Persian Shah Kambis, who fought with the help of the Massaget cavalry against Egypt, left part of it as occupation troops in the conquered country. Some forms of the Egypt horses of this time strikingly resemble the modern Akhal-Teke. Is the Donglosk breed, bred in the Sudan and Ethiopia, not the successor of these Massaget horses which were brought to Egypt and Nubia? At any rate, the illustrations and descriptions of the Dongolsk horse we have, strikingly remind of the Akhal-Teke horse and do not have anything in common with the Arabian horse.
The Chinese emperors also knew something about these horses. Greedy to obtain some of the ‘heavenly’ or ‘divine’ Central Asian argamak, ‘the sons of heaven’ equipped an impressive armed expedition. Not less greedy than the Chinese were the northern neighbours, a clear document of which is given by the remainders of the golden war horses of the Scythian army, found at the excavations in the permafrost of the Pazyryk hill graves.
While there were reports about the Central Asian horses in all antique sources, they do not mention the existence of horse breeding in Arabia. Herodot tells, that the Arabs following the army of the Persian king Xerxes were not mounted on horses but on camels. The Assyrian king Taglatfallasar, who fought the Arabs in 733 after Christ captured only camels and horned cattle, and again no evidence of horses is given. Also Sardanapal V., boasting to have taken all treasures from the Arabs, does not mention horses. And in earlier times, 26 after Christ, the Roman poet Strabos, who accompanied the army commander Eli Gall on his military expedition through Arabia, does not tell us anything about the Arabian horses, although he speaks in detail of horses of other countries.
Horses then already were known to the Arabs, they are mentioned in poems of Arab writers and in some historical reports. But obviously they were met like rarities and they were often brought from other countries. Year 350 the emperor Konstantin I sent 200 Kappadokin horses as a gift to the Yemen.
The same situation was preserved until the times of the development of Islam. First horses played no important role in the army of prophet Mohamed. There were only two horses in his whole army in the war against the Koreishits near Mekka. But soon the prophet’s followers saw the horses’ superiority as war animals, especially when Islam spread beyond the borders of the Arab peninsula. Horses which were captured during the war allowed the Arabs to lay the foundations of their own breeding of outstanding horses. Horses captured in Central Asia played an important role in this. It is interesting that oral delivery on the horses of Mohamed the Prophet later collected by the Arab hippologists Al-Damari and Abu-Bekr-Ibn-Bedram, tell us about some horses which bore rather Turkmen than Arab characteristics. Among them the buckskin mare Sabkhakh and the palomino stallion El-Vadr, had colours which can not be found in the Arabian breed, but are common for the Akhal-Teke.
Even though the Arabs took a lot of precious Central Asian horses, the main quantity of the area’s breed stayed with the Turkmen, which voluntarily took over Islam.
After the invasion of the Mongolian warriors into Turkmenistan some of the Turkmen tribes went to the west and settled in Asia Minor and the Near East. The Turkmen horses they took with them played a big role in the horse breeding of these countries. In the regions were they spread it became common to cross the Turkmen horses with the then already existing Arab horse. In the opinion of one of the biggest experts on the Arabian breed (K. Rasvan, E. Schile and others) this way the Munique strain developed, differing from the classical Arab in his taller size, in longer more angular lines of their confirmation and in higher speed. Many of these horses then came to Europe and founded the modern Arab horse breeding. We may take the silver grey stallion Gomoush-Born as an example, who was used as a sire at the Vail stud and who left there good offspring. Already the contemporaries doubted that this tall (160 cm at the withers), with a trifle convex nose, with highly set neck, was a pure Arab. In our opinion this was without doubt a Turkmen horse and obviously not the only one. In any case there is prove of the breeding of Turkmen horses in Syria until the beginning of the 20th century.
Also in our days the outstanding Russian expert O.A. Balakshin recognised some Akhal-Teke characteristics in the conformation of the Syrian Arabs.
It can not be ruled out, though, that some Arabian horses also came to Turkmenistan. For example pilgrims who came from Mekka might have brought them. Theoretically the Turkmen rated the Arabian horses high. Arabian terminology was adopted in the Turkmen’s hippological lexicon, bedev from the Arab bedevi, asyl form the Arab asil and others, but a practical use of the Arab horse in the Turkmen horse breeding was hardly possible.
Because in their size and speed the Arabian horse was always behind the Akhal-Teke. In the Zakaspiiski (Transkaspian) stud farm there were Arabian sires, but they were not used for breeding in Turkmenistan. The facts of an import of a large quantity of Arabian mares by Timur and Nadir Shah which are mentioned by some authors can not bear closer examination.
It is utmost difficult to separate the eastern horses, which were used in Europe in the first place in order to produce the English Thoroughbred, by breed. According to British sources it was mainly horses of three breeds, Arabian, Turkish and Barb. Many foreign authors earlier and now thought and think that the Arab made the biggest contribution. Automatically the Turkish horses are also counted/regarded as Arabs, but usually they don’t mention the Turkmen horses. By the way there is no other breed than the Akhal-Teke with which the English Thoroughbred has got such close conformation similarities. All European travellers, who were in Turkmenistan in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century always wondered and were struck with this resemblance.
Surprising resemblance with the Akhal-Teke can also be observed among most of the existing portraits of eastern horses which participated in the formation of the English Thoroughbred, also in two of the three progenitors of the breed, Darley Arabian (1704) and Byerely Turk (1689). Of course we now can not find out to which breed they exactly belonged, but their resemblance with the Turkmen horse remains a fact.
Of the same two sires which via their side branches left important traces in breeding of the English Thoroughbred one was buckskin (Dan Arabian) and one palomino (Darcy’s Yellow Turk). According to the craniological and osteological research done by Prof. M. N. Belongov and nowadays a striking similarity between the modern Akhal-Teke and the English Thoroughbred was found. You inevitably get hit by the same idea comparing the old English and Turkmen training and eventing systems of race horses. This is work under blankets, races with many rounds, early braking of young horses and some other elements. The Arabs had nothing similar and it might have come to England with the Turkmen trainers who accompanied the horses.
Here it is also necessary to specify the relationship between the Turkish and Turkmen horse breeds. Being the successors of Turkmen tribes the Turks had real Turkmen horses from the very beginning. Already Marco Polo wrote about this. The Danish traveller Karsten Nibur, who was in Arabia and Turkey at the end of the 18th century, wrote: ‘The Turks do not highly respect the Arabian horses, they prefer to have tall, impressive horses under the saddle, which look utmost impressive with their splendid adornment.’ According to reports by European travellers until the beginning of the 20th century the best horses in the stables of the Sultan of Istanbul were Akhal-Teke Argamaks brought from Turkmenistan.
This way, being the oldest pure bred in the world the Turkmen Akhal-Teke horse took part in the formation of two other pure breds, the Arabs and the English Thoroughbred.
The pure bred status imposes a special responsibility on the breeders, who rear this breed. Perfect breeding records, strict control of pedigrees and regular publishing of stud books are the necessary minimum of breeding measures.
Our ancestors managed to protect the beautiful Akhal-Teke horse for us, we can be proud of the results which could be reached in a close co-operation by the Turkmen, Russian and Kazakh breeders. Let us continue this worthy tradition.
Translation: Andrea Rauter