Incorporating ancient Turkmen breeding practices in your modern Akhal-Teke breeding program to maintain purity and type.
by Jessica Eile Keith

Speech held at the International Scientific Conference “Turkmen horse and horse breeding in the art world”
April 25, 2009 Ashgabad, Turkmenistan

The creation of the magnificent Akhal-Teke is the result of an advanced system of selection, probably the first breeding program in the world aimed at breeding tall and fast horses with a brave temperament.

The selection of breeding animals in the ancient Turkmen horse was for stallions of purity, of speed, of bravery and of pride to their master. These breeding goals are similar as those of the modern English Thoroughbred and it is obvious that those breeding goals were adopted from the Turkmen traditions.

The training methods for the young colts including feeding barley and luzerne is still used today, in many racing stables in the USA you can see that the horses are fed a ratio of luzerne in small portions exactly like the ancient Turkmen horse have been since ancient times.
The 30-day preparation program for a stallion to participated in an alaman is also very similar to modern training of the Thoroughbred, one can assume that during the early imports of Turkmen stallions to the European breeding programs that created the English Thoroughbred, some Turkmen seis, trainers, came with the horses and educated Europeans about these training habits and in this way became an important part of the success of the English Thoroughbred.

Type and purity of the modern Akhal-Teke is at risk to be lost as the ancient tradition of testing and selecting for speed is no longer maintained by all breeders. New breeders should be offered education on the ancient Turkmen breeding, and training traditions that shaped the Akhal-Teke breed. One cannot enough emphasise that the Akhal-Teke is not only a horse breed but also a carrier of the oldest equestrian culture in the world.

The Akhal-Teke and speed in history
There is no doubt about the fact that the Akhal-Teke was the first horse breed to be selectively bred for beauty and speed. Written sources dates as early as 1 000 B.C. mention a fast and sleek horse existing in Central Asia. The sources that do mention the Akhal-Teke, without exception connect this breed with beauty, boldness, speed and stamina.

Ancient history (1000 B.C. – 476 A.D.)
The creation of the Akhal-Teke – the first race horse

Early sources such as the Avesta in particular the Yasta (599 – 330 B.C.) 17:55 – 56 speaks about the fast horses of the Turanians in their wars against the Persians. The Turanians believed by many to be the forefathers to the Turkmen would then before 500 B.C. have created the fast and sleek ancient Turkmen horse.
This also suggests that the horse that is today called Turkmen was indigenous to the area and bred more and more selectively until the present day Turkmen tribes became the heir to this purebred horse so sought after by the cavalries for its speed and endurance. (Sinor 1990)

The Pazyryk horses found in the frozen kurgans in the Altai mountains confirm the written description of a tall sleek horse.

Han dynasty ( 140 BC – 87 BC)
The Chinese emperors had heard about the strong and fast horse from the west. The Han dynasty emperor Wu-ti was fought the first war ever over horses in 104 B.C. in order to obtain such fast horses to his royal stables.

The Heavenly Horse
The Ta-yuan horses, the Fergana horses were given the name of the Heavenly horse (Tian Ma) and the following poem was dedicated to these steeds by Han Dynasty emperor Wu-ti, reigned at 141 B.C. – 87B.C. (Zhenshan & Eile Keith 2008):

Hymn To the Heavenly Horse

The Heavenly Horse has come to the earth from the west,
It covers tens of thousands of Li to subordinate itself to the virtuous Emperor,
Incarnate the divine prowess,
It holds the foreign enemy in submission,
Crossing the sands,
It convinces the barbarians of its power.

Medieval times (500 – 1500)
The creation of the Arabian horse – the second race horse

The Turkic regent of Chuttal, Abu Ya’qub al Huttali, known to writers already in 555 A.D. used Turkmen experts for his breeding program. Already at this time, the Turkmen were known as skilful breeders as they were recognized as the creators of the fastest horse in Central Asia, the Akhal-Teke.

Medieval Armenian sources also supports the fact that the Turkmen had the fastest and bravest horses, as the sources states that Turkmen horsemen were employed as mercenaries in armies and that the Turkmen horsemen used to always make sure to take all the handsome horses even when fleeing from battle after being routed by the enemy. (Sinor 1990)

There was no horses bred on the Arabian Peninsula until 500 A.D. (Ridgeway 1905)At this time, when the Arabian horse was created, the Akhal-Teke had already been in existence for more than a thousand years.

Early modern period (1500 – 1800)
The creation of the English Thoroughbred – the third race horse

It is a well-known fact that Barb, Turkmen and Arabian sires during the 17th century contributed to the temperament, beauty, speed and stamina of the English Thoroughbred.

The Turkmen stallions did not only contribute to speed and stamina, their bloodlines provided the English Thoroughbred with the middle distance speed over multiple heat 4-mile courses. The most prestigious middle distance race was the King’s Plate, founded in 1665 by King Charles II. ( Mackay-Smith 2000)

The grey Turkmen stallion Place’s White Turk was imported in 1657 by Oliver Cromwell. This beautiful stallion later stood at stud at Dinsdale, where he attracted top-class mares. The offspring from these mares made Place’s White Turk the most influential sire of the seventeenth century. For political reasons though, for many years his bloodline was not mentioned in the pedigree of his famous stallion line. Stallions such as D’Arcy Yellow Turk, My White Turk, Helmsley Turk and Byerley Turk were printed in the General Studbook without pedigrees. (Mackay-Smith 2000)

Despite the fact that Place’s White Turk was the sole genetical source to the middle distance speed in the English Thoroughbred. His grandson, Spanker who was sired by Darcy’s Yellow Turk who had the characteristical and unique golden buckskin color was the the best race horse at Newmarket in Charles II reign. Spankers’ name was later changed to Pelham’s Bay Arabian. (Mackay-Smith 2000)

In the book Thoroughbred Racing Stock, Lady Wentworth writes that D’Arcy Yellow Turk was by far the greatest male influence in Thoroughbred pedigrees. Lady Wentworth wrongly believed this stallion to be Arabian.

Bloodlines of the high quality Turkmen horse were also used for breeding of cavalry horses. During the Russian campaign against Khiva in 1873, a German officer reported the following:

….the Governor General is contemplating the establishment of a Government stud near Tashkent which is to be specially devoted to the breeding of cavalry horses suitable for the steppe service. For this purpose it is proposed to rear a cross breed between the Cossack, the Kirghiz and the Turkoman horse. In view of this scheme General Von Kauffman in 1873 brought a large number of Argamak stallions and mares from studs of the Khan of Khiva, which is the best breed of the far famed enduring and swift Turkoman horse.(Bassett 1880)

The Turkmen horse was not the fastest horse in Central Asia by coincidence, the Turkmens had the skill compared to the best modern horse breeder to select their breeding animals and they knew how to train these steeds to perform on top level;

“Under the care of his original master, and in the tents of his desert home, the Turkoman horse is an animal of great powers of endurance and fleetness, continued for many days in succession; but as reared by foreigners, he became heavy-footed, flabby, clumsy and unequal to inferior breeds in endurance of severe and protracted exertion. (Stumm 1968)

Eventhough the practice of gelding stallions must have been known to the Turkmen they did not geld their horses. The Turkmen horse was at this point the most highbred in Central Eurasia and the stallions of quality were used for maintaining and improving the breed. The stallions were tested in raids or alamans. The alaman at was selected and trained to overcome any other horse in speed and stamina;

“When it has been decided to carry out a raid into Persia, the Turcoman puts his horse through a regular course of training, of which the following is a description: For thirty days before the appointed time…..the animal is exercised daily, part of that exercise being to gallop at full speed for half an hour. Some hours after he is brought in he is fed, his food consisting of six pounds of hay, or clover-hay, and about three pounds of barley or one-half of the usual allowance of corn. During this period as little water as possible is given to the horse…..But the preparatory course of the training does not stop here, although the start for the foray…is then made. Each Turcoman takes with him an inferior horse called yaboo, which he himself rides until he reaches the place for action. It then serves to carry back the plunder. The charger….follows bare-backed and without bridle..and the advance is graduated so that the daily march shall not be excessive. During this later stage…the horse’s food is changed to four pounds of and a quarter of barley flour, two pounds of maize flour and two pounds of raw sheep’s- tail’ fat chopped very fine. These are well mixed and kneaded together in the form of a ball. While taking this no hay is given to him, and this food is much liked by the horse. After four days of this food he is considered to be in prime condition, and capable not only of attaining the greatest speed but also of sustaining the most protracted fatigue. Then the yaboo is discarded and left in the rear, while the Turcoman on his charger goes forward to carry out the design, which has occasioned the whole enterprise.” (Boulger 1879)

Gathering the eyewitness stories about the Turkmen and his horse, he differs from the other horsemen of Central Eurasia in his breeding and care for the horse:

The good horse was for the Turkmen highly prized, a unique creature that not everyone could own. These horses were used for alamans and military campaigns only. When it was not used it was kept close to its master’s home:

“Only the best stallions were used for breeding, an inferior animal could be sold, but the best stallions stayed with his owner…. The horse was never ill-treated, and any Turcoman who attempted to ill-use him would be visited by the scorn of all men.” (Boulger 1879)

At a visit to a Turkmen village during his stay with the Akhal-Teke commander Maktoum Kuli Khan, the English journalist Edmund O’Donovan made the following observation:
“ After dinner there was a review, the men being ordered to ride races in pairs….The horses were really beautiful animals, mostly of the pure Turcoman breed. They are somewhat narrow in the chest, and long in the legs. In general they have little mane…They are of tolerable speed, and of wonderful endurance. The horsemanship of the riders was superb.” (O’Donovan 1882)

Modern times (1900 – 2009)
In the beginning of the 20th century, the Akhal-Teke breed came under Russian management and selection. The tests for stallions as military and alaman mounts were replaced by tests of speed and endurance at racetracks combined with evaluations for measurements, conformation and type.

When the breeding of Akhal-Tekes got privatized and the breed spread beyond the borders of Central Asia and southern Russia the tradition of testing Akhal-Teke stallions for speed and endurance got lost and was replaced by a system of evaluation for type and conformation developed in Russia in the 1900’s.

It should be emphasized that today, the best Akhal-Tekes can only be found where the breed is still being tested on racetracks, in Turkmenistan and in southern Russia.

It has proven that the system of artificially evaluating breeding animals for type and conformation using an obsolete system has led to a decline of quality and value for the breed mostly in Western Europe and in the USA.

There is no replacement for physical test of breeding animals, this has been proven by the fastest race horse breed today, the English Thoroughbreds that are selected for their individual ability to race or by their ability to breed fast horses. One cannot assume that a stallion that has the type and look of an Akhal-Teke also has the abilities of the Akhal-Teke, the stamina, the speed, the braveness.
Only what is proven to be there can be preserved. Stamina, speed and braveness must be tested in each breeding animal. Thousands of years of selection for speed and braveness can be lost only in a few generations if the breeding animals are not tested and selected for their ancient traits.

The complicated makeup of the fast horse such as metabolic parameters and conformational characteristics combined with the temperament cannot be assessed in the traditional type, conformation, measurements and pedigree points, this system is artificial and the title World Champion today is not given to the fastest, toughest or bravest. It is given the horse that got the best points for type by one judge, many of these horses have never seen a racetrack and some have not even been under rider.

Referring to the short overview of the history of the speed in our breed I suggest to the creators of this breed, the Turkmen people, to take a lead in the international development of this breed by supporting activites such as;

Educating the general public about the Akhal-Teke as a racehorse.

Educating the general public about ancient Turkmen horsemanship, the importance of proper feeding and proper training of the Akhal-Teke as well as the tradition to treat the horse with respect and without harshness.

Encouraging modern breeders to maintain the Turkmen culture of breeding and selecting for racing ability.

Facilitating the racing of purebred Akhal-Tekes in Europe and in the USA together with promotion of the legacy of the first racehorse.

Encouraging stallion tests for speed, stamina and boldness.

I would like to end this speech with the following clip from an interview of Richard Galpin, president of the global bloodstock agency, Newmarket International, published in the magazine Thoroughbred Owner and Breeder September 2006;

“If we didn’t have the Turkoman and the Barb in the breed [English Thoroughbred ] we’d probably end up with a lot of dishonest brats. The greatness of the Thoroughbred comes from the Turkoman. He says about the breed developed in Central Asia. The Turkoman is unbelievably brave and just does not know the word no as an answer.”


”Out among the Turkomans” Rev. James Bassett (Leisure Hour 29, 1880)

England and Russia in Central Asia. Demetrius Charles Boulger (London 1879)

Speed and the Thoroughbred Alexander Mackay-Smith (The Derrydale Press 2000)

The Merv Oasis. Edmund O’Donovan (London 1882.)

Origin and Influence of the Thoroughbred Horse William Ridgeway (Cambridge
University Press 1905)

Aspects of Altaic Civilization III Edited by Denis Sinor (Bloomington Indiana University 1990)

The Russian Campaign against Khiva in 1873 Hugo Stumm, (rpt Osnabruck Biblio Verlag 1968 Vol VII, p. 11.)

The Introduction of the Heavenly Horse to China article by Wang Zhenshan and Jessica Eile-Keith http://www.karakumstud.com (2008)

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