Turkmenistan’s Equestrian Heritage

by Jessica Eile Keith

prepared for the Turkmen Horse and Horse Breeding in the Art World. The III International Scientific Conference. April 22, 2011, Ashgabad, Turkmenistan. Abstract published in catologue of Abstracts of reports issued by Turkmen Atlary p 106.

Turkmens have a strong tradition of selecting, training and using horses for their livelihood as well as for traditional family events this have made the Turkmens some of the most skilled horsemen.

Today the Turkmens are mostly engaged in horse racing and so called djigitovka.

Horse racing is an ancient equestrian sport, originating from Central Asia, where a group of horses and riders compete in being the fastest on different distances of 1 000 meters, 1 600 meters and 2 000 meters. Today horse racing is one of the biggest equestrian sports in the world, with 50 000 races per year in the US and 21 000 races per year in Japan [“The Race Horse”, April 1, 2011, http://www.theraceanalyst.com.]

The training of the modern race horse is based on the methods developed by amongst others Turkmen tribe, it is considered one of the most challenging equestrian art, the horse must be trained to push his heart, lungs, muscles and ligaments to the maximum without breaking down. The art of training and feeding the Turkmen race horse has been developed over thousands of years and has been spread over the world via Turkmen trainers, sais, that came to England with Turkmen horses during the 18th century.

Turkmenistan maintains its equestrian traditions today by building and restoring race tracks and equestrian centers all over the country where only Akhal-Tekes, the national breed, is allowed to race. The training and performance of djigitovka in Turkmenistan is today on the highest equestrian level. The djigitovka display the special relationship between horse and man that has existed in Turkmenistan and Central Asia for thousands of years.

The Turkmen equestrian tradition is an important part of the world equestrian heritage and in particular the djigitovka and the selection and breeding of horses suitable for the sport are of interest for further studies and development.

The Turkmen djigitovka can be considered the most spectacular riding act of modern equestrianism. The bond and trust between horse and rider cannot be stronger than that between a man that stands on or climbs under a horse at freedom in full speed ahead. The tricks are normally performed when the horse runs on a straight line in full speed and one or more riders stand on the horse, climbs under the horse or gets off and on the horse at full speed. This ancient equestrian tradition has been modified to an Olympic discipline called vaulting [ “About Vaulting”, April1, 2011, http://www.fei.org/disciplines/vaulting/about-vaulting] as well as for circus performance, in vaulting and circus the horse though is normally cantering on a smaller circle.

The djigitovka originates from one of the oldest equestrian acrobatics practiced by the nomadic Iron Age culture, the Scythians (700-200 B.C.). The Scythians lived in Central Asia and arranged equestrian games including standing on the horses’ back while it galloped, changing riders at full speed, lassoing and hunting rabbits with a lance at full gallop. A pillow strapped onto the horse and appeared to have used leather loops for stirrups. [Sandra L Olsen (ed) Horses Through Times (Carnegie Institute:ISBN I-57098-060-8) 106] Similar equipment is still used in Turkmenistan today.

Eventhough the International Equestrian Federation claims that vaulting originated in Greece, the Greeks of the Iron Age could not compete with the Scythians in equestrian acrobatics. The horses of the Greek where inferior the Scythian horses and at the time of the first Olympiad in 776 B.C. the Greeks used mules for harness racing. Another example of the Scythians advanced horsemanship was that they trained their horses to kneel for mounting, something the Greeks never managed to teach their horses to do.

During the Middle Ages in the 10th century the equestrian game of jousting or lance charge became popular in Europe. Jousting is when two mounted knights fight each other with lances and is believed to originate from Central Asian practices of equestrian skills. The horse used for warfare during the Medieval times was not as heavy as many believe. The average weight of the rider including saddle and armor was about 100 kilos and the horses used to carry these riders was about 160 cm over the withers and weighed about 500 kilos, this is the average size of a Turkmen stallion. Images from the Baeyux Tapestry that tell the story about the Norman conquest of England also supports the idea that the horse used during the Middle Ages was a light riding horse as they charge in full speed which a cold blooded wagon horse would not have been able to do. One can also note that many of the horses depicted in the tapestry are of golden color, among them the one who carries the rider that killed King Harold. [Charles Chenevix Trench Ridkonstens Historia – A History of Horsemanship (LTs Forlag: 1970) 73 - 75]

King Richard the Lionheart (1157 – 1199) had two favorite horses during the Third Crusade, it was a Cypriotic and a Turkmen horse. Turkmen and Barb horses were also imported and used for jousting as they were faster and bigger than the Arabian horse at that time.

The Turkmen horse was continuously imported into Europe and became one of the foundation breed for the English Thoroughbred. When the Ottoman Turks banned the export of Arabian horses in 1516 from Aleppo, an increasing number of Turkmen stallions where imported into England and no Arabian horse is registered into the General Studbook during the 17th century.[ Alexander Mackay-Smith Speed and the Thoroughbred (The Derrydale Press:2000) 122] The Turkmen horse racing culture had produced the perfect horse for the so called middle distance races where the horses were required to win a 4-mile race. Place’s White Turk imported in 1657 was the sole genetical source for middle distance speed in England and his grandson Spanker out of a Barb mare was the best race horse at Newmarket in Charles II reign. Mackay-Smith 126

The Turkmen hippological culture, that produced such tall, fast and strong horses, suitable for the battle field as well as the race track differed a lot from their counterpart in Asia, the Mongol horse. While the rugged Mongolian ponies where raised on vast pastures kept in large herds, the sleek Turkmen horses was raised in close proximity to great civilizations and in a climate that forced the Turkmen to be more concerned about the feeding of the horses as well as selective breeding. In the 18th and 19th century western travelers met with the Turkmen horses and their breeders and there are several references in literature to the hippological traditions of the Turkmen from that time. The training of the specially selected and fed and alaman or raid horse give an insight into Turkmen horsemanship. This detailed description of the traditions of carefully preparing and training horses for a speed and stamina that is far more than we ask the modern race horse for, it takes a highly developed equestrian skill to select, feed and train horses for such hard work without breaking them down:

“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 the allowance of corn. During this period as little water as possible is given to the horse…But the preparatory course for training does not stop here, although the start for the scene of the proposed foray...is then made. Each Turcoman takes with him an inferior horse called yaboo, which he himself rides until he reaches the place of action. It then serves to carry 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 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 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 of speed but also of sustaining the most protracted fatigue. Then the yaboo is discarded and left behind in the rear, while the Turcoman on his charger goes forward to carry out the design which has occasioned the whole enterprise.” “ [Demetrius Charles Boulger England and Russia in Central Asia, (London: W.H. Allen & Co.:1879) 242-243]

The Turkmen horse has without doubt influenced western horse breeds as much as the Central Asian equestrian skills have served as the inspiration source for many equestrian activities in the west. This is an important historical fact that can be further researched and published to the global equestrian community as well as the breeders and other stakeholders in the Akhal-Teke breed. It is important to keep in mind when working with the breeding goals including selection criteria that the Akhal-Teke breed is very versatile and has proven itself over the centuries as a hard working, top performing horse, suitable for the most demanding equestrian activities. The tests of breeding animals should include the historical as well as future use of the heavenly horse to maintain its beauty and attraction power to equestrians. The studies into the development and use of the Akhal-Teke that is the last remaining pure, light riding horse of Central Asia also encourages further studies and research into the special relationship between the Turkmen equestrian and his horse. This relationship has been crucial for the survival of the breed into modern days.

The fact that the Turkmens had a strong tradition of selective breeding of the best to the best is confirmed by the French nobleman and military officer Couliboeuf de Blocqueville who was a prisoner with the Teke Turkmen for fourteen months in 1860, he noted the habit of roaching the mane of the Teke as he called the horses, he also mentioned that the Yorga horse was allowed to grow a full mane. The nobleman also pointed out that the Turkmen differed from the rest of the Central Eurasian people by taking such a particular care of the horse and being selective in their breeding. The horse among the Turkmen was a highly prized animal used in raids and military campaigns. Emphasis was on good breeding inferior horses could be sold never a good stallion. The horses were never ill treated by the Turkmen. [Denis Sinor (ed) Aspects of Altaic Civilization III (Bloomington, IN:Indiana University, 1990) 139]

The Akhal-Teke breed under systematic and correct selection, feeding and training is capable of very high athletic achievements in modern sports and equestrian activities. It is important to take into consideration the selection methods, feeding and training of the Akhal-Tekes practiced by the Turkmen since ancient times when a new breeding program is developed. The further research into the history of the breed and the hippological culture of the Turkmen will serve not only as guidelines for modern breeders and trainers but also shine new light on the rich equestrian heritage of Turkmenistan and the athletic abilities of the breed. The Turkmen hippological culture including the strong tradition of djigitovka and equestrian games will add a cultural dimension and identity to the breed that is very important for future development and the overall image of the breed.


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