Approximately 10,000 years ago, as desertification took hold of Central Asia, the stocky horses indigenous to its steppe grasslands began to evolve into the lean and graceful but hardy horses that inhabit Turkmenistan today. As food and water became more scarce the heavy frame of the horse gave way to a lighter one.
Longer necks, a higher head carriage, larger eyes and longer ears evolved to better the horse’s ability to see, smell, and hear predators over the increasingly open plains. The golden coloring predominant among the akhalteke provided the necessary camouflage against the desert landscape. Through natural selection a breed was created which would become the pride of Turkmenistan.
In appearance the akhalteke horse is similar to its descendent, the Persian Arab, though in size it is more comparable to another of its descendants, the English thoroughbred. The akhalteke has a small thin head, long ears and large eyes. It has a short silky mane or no mane at all, and a short tail. The Turkmen practice of covering their horses with two to three layers of felt blankets to protect against cold in the winter and flies in the summer encouraged a remarkably fine textured coat.
Akhaltekes are known for their golden coloring but they can also be white, black, dappled, dun, bay, gray or chestnut colored. Fed a low bulk, high protein diet consisting of alfalfa and barely mixed with mutton fat, the akhalteke maintains its traditionally lean proportions of long sinewy legs, a narrow chest, a long back and flat ribs. The average height of an akhalteke is 15 to 15.1 hands. Its small hooves are unusually hard and are therefore rarely shod. The great speed, elasticity and grace of the akhalteke makes it at once a coveted racer, show jumper and dressage mount. Though spirited in temperament, akhaltekes are by all accounts gentle and loyal to their owners, yet aloof with strangers.
Akhalteke horse got its name from Akhal oasis and Turkmen teke tribe which has bred it from time immemorial. Turkmen tribesmen valued their horses above all else. As a nomadic group situated in a crossroads of cultures they were often required to face enemy conflict and came to rely heavily on the strength, speed and endurance of their horses. The akhalteke’s ability to cover great distances of harsh terrain under extreme climatic conditions, and to travel at night, made them indispensable to the Turkmen warriors. Aside from their valiant exertions as warriors’ mounts, akhaltekes were also invaluable in assisting Turkmen nomads with their daily work.
Prior to the Russian occupation of 1917, nearly every Turkmen family owned at least one or two horses. With Bolshevism however, came an end to private ownership and the horses were placed in state-owned stud farms. Rather than surrender their beloved horses to such a fate many tribesmen fled with them to Persia and Afghanistan. When it was then decreed that the horses in the stud farms were to be slaughtered for food, breeders released them into the desert, their natural habitat, thereby preventing what may have resulted in the annihilation of the akhalteke breed within the borders of Turkmenistan. In 1935, fifteen akhaltekes were ridden 3000 kilometers, from Ashgabat to Moscow, in eighty-four days, to demonstrate to Joseph Stalin their formidable strength in the hopes that he would grant his permission for their continued breeding. The campaign was a success.
Upon achieving independence in 1991, the government of Turkmenistan defined horse breeding as a nationalistic concern and an art form. The akhalteke has been declared a national treasure and its image graces the state seal of Turkmenistan. Today private ownership of akhaltekes in Turkmenistan is steadily increasing and there are now akhalteke farms in Germany and the United States.
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