From another world

By Cornelia Dreyer Rendelsmann

First published in German on September 2013 in StGeorg

Translated into English by Jessica Eile Keith

Turkmenistan is rich in oil and gas governed by a horse loving president with a penchant for the native breed of Akhal-Tekes. The president celebrates his four-legged friends with the Day of the Horse.

The President likes it big. For his birthday he invited Jennifer Lopez to sing Happy Birthday, something she was internationally reviled for. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, President of Turkmenistan is an avid rider and a big fan of horses but is not flinching from seizing cameras, laptops and cell phones from invited journalists when things do not turn out as expected. About 1000 equine experts from all over the world, including Germany, was invited to celebrate the native breed in the capital of Ashgabat, where horses and their images are omnipresent. Immortalized in oil paintings in the airport, at the hotels, galloping at big screens placed all over town. Newspapers and state television channels are filled with news about the Akhal-Tekes. Statues of horses adorning fountains and squares. It is not possible to ignore the influence of the horse to this country, whose history is closely connected to the development of the Akhal-Teke breed, probably the only breed of horses that have been bred in purity for more than 5000 years.

The oriental horse has been with the nomadic tribes since early times. The unique traits of this breed were probably its hardiness, long legs, size and speed. These traits unique for this breed at the times made it a sought after trade item The horses where sold for top prices often together with a rider as mercenaries both to the east and to the west.

Enduring history
The Akhal-Teke was wide spread during the antiquity, the most famous example is Becephalos, the steed of Alexander the Great. If threatened the nomadic tribes fled with their horses into the mountains or hard to find oases in the desert . In that way the genepool was created and maintained. This way of life existed more or less the same until Turkmenistan was taken over by the Russian Empire in the 20th century and Akhal-Tekes were exported and many of the remaining horses were sent slaughter. Farmers at kolchoses tried to save what was left of the breed and in 1935 they made a spectacular ride over 4200 kilometers in 82 days from Ashgabat to Moscow to get attention to the dangerous situation for the breed. They did get the attention. Since the famous ride this unique horse breed has been protected from extinction.

In 1991 Turkmenistan became independent from the Soviet Union. Today the Akhal-Teke is pictured in the coat of arms of Turkmenistan and a symbol of identification for the Turkmen people. Celebrated at a national holiday the last weekend of April every year. In socialist tradition thousands of young men and women wearing in national dress line the streets where the President travels celebrating the Day of the Horse. Dance groups, music bands and singers provide entertainment during the day.

The Akhal-Tekes, not quite as fast as the English Thoroughbred, are cheered wildly at the finish line at the race track, that also offers races for Arabian horses and English Thoroughbreds. The metallic sheen and golden colors of this breed makes it stand out and through history the Akhal-Teke has been called the Golden Horses.
The horses that participate in the breed shows are adorned in traditional tack with silver neck bands. Traditional camel hair talismans called aladjas are given to each newborn foal and attached to the long, high set neck. All leather is covered in silver and precious gems. English and Western saddles as well as simple leather covered wooden saddles are used, many with a bird head pommel.

Two handlers wearing traditional riding gear present the sinewy horses. Their movements are big and yet flowing. A high head carriage is preferred. The horses express a hot temperament when they walk in front of the judges and the audience by pawing the ground and sometimes rearing up, this though is a sought after trait in these horses.
The conference of this year is focused on the breeding program of this consolidated breed of about 6000 horses world wide, 3000 of them in Turkmenistan.
It is important to control inbreeding to conserve and improve the genepool.
The international debate is much about wether the selection criteria should be for type or performance. And if the later is preferred for which discipline? Endurance is currently the sport where the breed has been most successful. Turkmenistan however is focusing on the versatility of the breed and would like to see success in all equestrian disciplines.

What is in the future?
The number of horses can be maintained in the country with its location and climate, moderate temperatures in spring and fall. There are also many plans including the construction of stud farms and also the worlds largest horse museum. The horse as a symbol of identfication for an entire nation is merely a dream for European associations and promoters. In Turkmenistan it is a reality. It is yet to be seen though how the country will engage in the international equestrian world. It calls for a continuous openness to the East and the West a balance between national love of the horse, tradition and pride, international equestrian sports, breeding and trade. Five thousand year of maintinaing breed purity has been a successful balancing act. It will be interesting to follow the devlopment of the Turkmen horse during the 21st century.

Finally there is the contemporary-modern history. The Byerly Turk (1679-1714), regarded as one of the three foundation sires of the English Thoroughbred and has thus significantly influenced our sport horse breeding, just like the stallion Turkmen Atti that in 1791 came to the national stud farm Neustadt/Dosse and sired 16 stallions for the national Trakhener stud.

In 1968 western horse sport journalists elected Absent the sport horse of the century. The son of Akhal-Teke stallion Arab who himself participated in the 1935 ride from Ashgabat and Moscow, held the high jump record of 2.15 metres. Absent participated at three Olympics in dressage. In 1960 he won indivdual gold under Sergei Filatov, 1964 he took bronze twice also under Sergei Filatov and in 1968 he won team silver under Ivan Kalita. At this time the stallion Bechtau was born. He was imported in 1972 to Germany by Equitana founder Wolf Kroeber. Bechtau was successful in several endurance competitions. He also produced offspring that earned 18 793 Euros a sum that keep him competetive with other German sport horse producers.
Turkmenistan wants to continue this success which operates in the premium segment of the market in all areas of international standards.

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