The Horse, the Myth, the Legend
Discussion about some myths surrounding the Akhal-Teke breed at it’s internationalization.
By Jessica Eile Keith
The Akhal-Teke breed has a long history developing close to great civilizations with strong horse traditions such as Ugaritic, Persian and Greek. There are many facts we still do not know about this legendary breed’s origins but with further research there are many interesting findings to be made.
The modern history of the breed includes the influence of the Russian Empire on Turkmensistan and Persia as well as the effects the Soviet Union had on the life style of the Turkmen and their horses. Currently a free Turkmenistan reviving it’s close relationship to their sleek, beautiful horses of the sands and pushing for a second wave of internationalization of the breed.
The rather fast expanding internationalization of the breed after the fall of the Soviet Union has spread this breed to almost all corners of the world. Together with the horses travels the myths and the legends of this ancient breed.
The mother studbook of the breed was founded during the Russian Empire’s rule of Turkmenistan. In the 1990’s cramped in dilapidated buildings in Ryazan, Russia with little to no resources but a committed and hard working team that register and protect the purity of the breed but was neither prepared nor funded to meet the needs from the international community with facts and information or promotion and breed development.
This lack of international management has caused some myths that are, only but myths and also damaging to the breed to adhere to the breed.
This discussion will bring up some of these myths and look at some facts and fictions surrounding them. Eventually such discussions can lead to a better understanding of the breed and serve as a foundation for a better promotial work especially when informing scholars, scientists, hippologists and professionals approaching the Akhal-Teke breed.
When breeders embraces such myths it will also cloud the fact that the value in the Akhal-Teke breed is the excellence of every horse produced today.
Below some myths will mentioned and hopefully this paper can serve as a basis for discussions and expert comments to create a current, coherent and credible documentation of the breed.
The problem here is that we are not really comparing the same thing here. The Arabian horse is the name of several strains or sub breeds that existed on the Arabian peninsula since about 600 AD (Grenholm 1983) while the Akhal-Teke is a strain of the Turkmen horse that has existed in Central Asia and Persia since at least 1000 BC (Grenholm 1983). The two strongest strains of the Turkmen horse are the Akhal-Teke and the Iomud. Today though only the Akhal-Teke can be considered a pure breed in a modern meaning as it has been selected for similar phenotype out of its native context, has a codified breed standard and each animal has been registered beginning in the late 19th century. In other words the Akhal-Teke is a Turkmen horse, the only remaining pure breed of the Turkmen horse and the oldest Oriental horse breed.
Turkmen, Turkoman are of course the same horse but with different transcriptions, in Iran the Turkmen horse is referred to as Turkoman and this has been used by those who approached the breed via Persia. The Iranian Turkmen horse has three strains Yamud, Akhal and Gouklan (Maloufi 1997). Those strains and the Iranian Turkmen horse is to be considered native breeds that has not been modernized by registration, having a codified breed standard or taken out of its native context., except for a failed attempt of the Royal Horse Society 1970 – 1978 where two editions of 400 observed horses were produced (Maloufi 1997). It is known that the native Iranian Turkmen horse has been crossed with Arabian and Thoroughbred stallions some recorded from the 60s and onwards. It is today impossilble to know the origins of each Iranian Turkmen horse.
There have been claims made that the Akhal-Teke is a breed founded in the 20th century due to the fact that it by then had been modernized and been named by then. In comparison to other ancient, natural breeds, the Akhal-Teke has had many names, a few examples argamak, bedev, bidavi (Hunsicker 1999) The names are different by locals and nearby cultures and maybe the people that lived with these animals some thousands years ago would not recognize the name the breed has today and that is probably true for many other breeds of horses. At the time when many western horsemen travelled in Turkmenistan they would rank the Akhal-Teke the best of the strains followed by the Salor, Ersari, Iomut, Goklan and Sarik (Sinor 1990).
Another ancient but occidental breed as an example, the Gotlands Russ a native breed that has existed on the Baltic island, Gotland since the Iron Age, around 1000 BC years according to archaeological findings (Erixon 2012). It was referred to as bagge or skogsbagge early on by the natives and probably other names during its long history, when the breed was modernized the official name became Gotlandsruss and no one would claim that the breed, having a new name different from the locals name thereby would be a new breed. The modernization of the Russ happened at the same time as the Akhal-Tekes and the first studbook was published in 1943.
Is a native unrecorded breed such as the Iranian Turkmen horse purer than the Akhal-Teke that has recorded use of English Thoroughbred stallions in the studbooks?
McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology defines purebreds as “descended from imported or locally developed groups of animals which have been selected and interbred for a long enough period to be reasonable uniform for certain trademark characteristics…”. That would be the genetical purity.
There are other aspect of purity though, studbook purity and genetical purity.
Studbook purity is the artificial and political creation of a breed and the horses included are considered pure. The Akhal-Tekes included in the studbook are purebreds even those that are crossed with Thoroughbreds. Today the Thoroughbreds are many generations away from the Akhal-Tekes and it is pointless to mathematically calculate percentage of Throughbred in individual Akhal-Tekes as the Throughbred “blood” does not inherit that way.
By most western observers mentions of excellent stamina and speed and short recovery times. (Wrangel 1913)Performance has not been emphasised in the development of the breed with a few excpetions of stud farms in southern Russia and Turkmenistan where most Akhal-Tekes are tested on the race track and beauty and performance has been used in selection of breeding stallions.
This has not been the Turkmen way of creating this breed where emphasis was on good breeding, inferior horses could be sold, but an owner would seldom part with a good stallion. (Sinor 1990).
Even the earlier names of the breed bedev could mean the nomad mount and the other name argamak can mean good jumper from an old Turkic infinitive verb.
Reverend James Bassett of the American mission in Teheran in the 19th centrury mentioned that while the breed is in care of its original master the Turkmen horse has great powers of endurance and fleetness working for many days in a row. Reared by foreingers though the horse becomes heavy-footed, flabby, clumsy and unequal to inferior breeds in endurance. (Bassett 1880)
As mentioned by Langlois it is surprising that eventhough the Akhal-Teke breed performance is modest, stallions of poor performance are not culled from breeding.(Langlois 1986).
The need for intense and systematic selection for performance in the breed to preserve and improve the most important trait and the hallmark of the breed, speed and stamina has been neglected for selection for breed preservation based on pedigrees, purity from TB blood, type breeding and selection for golden color popular in the rare, exotic breed market opposed to breeding for performance these goals are potentially damaging for the breed.
We love the mythology and exotism of the Akhal-Teke breed, but people that label themselves breeders must focus more on the performance ability of the breeding horses and work on systematically performance test animals before they are being bred. This is especially important for stallions.
It is encouraging to see here in Turkmenistan the focus is on performance as it always have been.
Character and Conformation
The Akhal-Tekes are often described in international literature as difficult to work with as they are one-man-horses and that their conformation has flaws that make them less attractive as sport horses. Those descriptions, especially in the late 20th century literature are rarely based on real experience in the west of training and evaluating top class Akhal-Tekes but merely based on hearsay (Edwards 1999).
Many professional trainers in disciplines such as show jumping, endurance, dressage and horse polo normally find Akhal-Tekes to be easy to train, willing to learn with a strong work ethics. They find the horses smooth and comfortable to ride. However, few find that the horses have the ability to compete on international top level. This makes sense though, as mentioned earlier, the Akhal-Tekes have never been systematically selected for top performances in the Olympic disciplines. Their competition though, the European sport horse have been intensly selected since the 1970’s for sports.
The conformational flaws mentioned by many western equestrian writers do exist in the breed but it does not mean that they should define the breed. The serious breeder and judge will punish flaws such as small stature, long and week back and loin, low set neck, to little bone and so forth as well as exclude defects such as parrot mouth, club foot and cryptorchidism.
It is difficult though for new buyers of these horses that are often advertised as exotic and rare desert horses where sometimes flaws are described as typical for the breed and non-performance traits such as rare line, unique colors are emphasised. This is an eductional challenge that will better be met with the new approach from Turkmenistan to educate the public better on the breed and it’s true merits.
“Hästen som Hobby” Gunvor Grenholm (Forum 1983)
“Facts About the Turkmen Horse in Iran” Farshad Maloufi (Published on the Akhal-Teke Network , 1997)
“The Historic Significance of the Akhal-Teke Horse in Turkmen Identity” David R. Hunsicker, Jr. (Presented at the 11th Annual Nicholas Poppe Symposium, University of Washington, 1999)
“Aspects of Altaic Civilization III” Denis Sinor (Bloomington Indian University, 1990)
“Sveriges Russavelsförening” Liselott Erixon (www.gotlandsruss.se/Historia.html, 2012)
“McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Science and Technology” Mc Graw-Hill (McGraw-Hill, 2009)
“Handbok för Hästvänner” C-G Wrangel (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1913)
“Out Among the Turkomans” Rev. James Bassett (Leisure Hour, 1880)
“L’élevage du cheval en Union Soviétique“ Bertrand Langlois (Bulletin technique du Departement du Génétique animale no 40, 1986)
“Bonniers Stora Hästlexikon” Elwyn Hartley Edwards (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1999)