Your Horse Magazine

With thanks to YOUR HORSE magazine for permission to post the following article

As  eye-catching horses go, you can’t get much more striking than an Akhal-Teké. Originating from the Central Asian steppes and deserts that now form Turkmenistan, the breed dates back at least 3,000 years. They have been prized throughout history, first by the nomadic tribes who bred them for stamina and speed, then by the rulers from ancient Greece, Rome and China who fell under their spell. Chinese emperors called them ‘celestial’ and sent armies to try and acquire them – a quest that led to the establishment of the Silk Road.

Gill Suttle, a breeder of Akhal-Tekés (www.kyzyltekes.co.uk), fell in love with the breed in  

1996 when she undertook a fantastic journey across Turkmenistan, riding an ex-racehorse stallion called Atamekan, or Kaan. She says: “They are such extraordinary animals and Kaan was simply amazing.”

Hoofbeats through history

The many strains that fed into the breed have thrived in Central Asia for millennia, but it was only in the 19th century that the name Akhal-Teké was adopted, after a branch of the Teké tribe and the Akhal oasis in the heart of Turkmenistan. 

In the 20th century, the geo-political changes presented the breed with perhaps its toughest challenge. “It was illegal to own a horse in the communist period, so they were kept on collectivised state farms,” says Gill.

“But after the Second World War Stalin’s obsession with mechanisation meant almost all were slaughtered. Those who valued the breed set some free into the Kara Kum desert to take their chances, and there  are still feral Akhal-Tekés living there. In the late 1950s people began to realise what had been lost and horses were recaptured to rebuild the studs.”

Today, Akhal-Tekés are a national symbol of Turkmenistan, with President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov establishing a three-day annual holiday in their honour, featuring racing and the ‘Most Beautiful Horse of the Year’ contest. Despite this, life in Turkmenistan is tough, and the fear of what his future might hold prompted Gill to bring Kaan to the UK at the end of their ride. She says: “I realised if I left him behind he’d die of  starvation, so I brought him to the UK, which took three years because it’s such a difficult place to get a horse out of. He enjoyed a competitive career alongside his stud duties and raised £14,000 through a marathon charity ride from Dorset to Edinburgh. I was heartbroken when he died.”

A beauty shaped by the desert

The breed is most famous for the metallic coats seen in buckskin, palomino, cremello and perlino. Rosalyn Serex, of stud Solaris Sport Horses (www.solaris-sport-horses.co.uk), has a perlino Akhal-Teké stallion, Kambarbay, pictured here. She says: “The metallic quality is spectacular in the flesh. In bright sunlight colours reflect off Kam’s coat.” 

Other breed characteristics include distinctive almond-shaped eyes, a long, slim body, fine, strong legs and sparse manes and tails. The Akhal-Teké is ideally suited to the desert, and is capable of surviving on very limited rations. In 1935 a group of Akhal- Tekés took just 83 days to travel the 2,600 miles from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, to Moscow, Russia, including a three-day 235-mile desert crossing without water.

At first glance, the breed’s conformation doesn’t look ideal, but their shape brings its own benefits, as Gill explains. “They have long sloping shoulders and a terrific forward movement, so they move over the ground very efficiently. They are also very light, with a phenomenal strength to weight ratio. They move like a cheetah or greyhound, coiling and uncoiling to gallop very easily.”

Outside their homeland, Akhal-Tekés are probably best known as endurance horses, but they’re incredibly versatile, performing well in many spheres. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, the Soviet Union was represented by Akhal-Teké stallion Absent, who with rider Sergej Filatov won individual dressage gold. He became the most-decorated Olympic dressage horse ever, winning individual and team bronze in 1964 and team silver in 1968.

The breed’s strength and athleticism means they’re ideal sport horses, and Rosalyn hopes Kam’s competition career will help show off these attributes. “The stud book is closed, but part-breds can be registered and we hope that, like the Thoroughbred, they’ll be used to bring in their strengths with cross-breeding,” she says.

Gill adds: “Akhal-Tekés give back more than any other horse, are anxious to please and do well, and I just love them for that.” 

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