AKHAL-TEKE

  • HEIGHT: 15–16 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Turkmenistan
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Metallic sheen to coat; soft, gliding gaits; extraordinary endurance
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Endurance and dressage

Most sources consider the Akhal-Teke (pronounced ah-kul TEHkey) to be a strain closely related to the Turkmenian, an ancient, influential breed that was developed in the desert east of the Caspian Sea. The Turkmenian steppe was one of the first areas in the world where horses were domesticated. It is hard to know exactly where the ancient Turkmenian, or Turkoman, breed ends and its descendant the Akhal-Teke begins. The people of Turkmenistan, where both breeds arose, refer to the present breed as the Turkmenian, but most horse historians believe the ancient breed to be extinct.

Nomads of the Kara-Kum Desert developed these horses. Because they lived largely by raiding other nomadic tribes, they needed horses that could run long distances in the desert. The Turkmenian and the ancient, smaller Caspian breed may have been the world’s first hot-blooded breeds of horses. In ancient times they were dispersed throughout the then known world by various nomadic tribes. Turkmene horses traveled from Turkmenistan east as far as China, south and west toward what is now Syria and Jordan, into Saudi Arabia, and from there into North Africa.

The color of the Akhal-Teke ranges from palomino to light bay and roan, always with a golden metallic gleam to the coat.

ORIGIN OF THE NAME

The meaning of this lyrical name is in dispute. According to some, akhal means “pure” and Teke is the name of the tribe that bred the horses from earliest recorded times. Other sources, including the breed association, report that akhal means “oasis” or is the name of a particular oasis.

In 1948, archaeologists discovered carefully bridled and adorned, meticulously preserved horses frozen in tombs in Pazyryk, Siberia, that date to 1000 BCE. The horses in the tombs exactly matched today’s Akhal-Tekes in height, bone structure, coat color, and other qualities.

A Military Horse par Excellence

By 1000 BCE the breed was already widely recognized by military horsemen as a racehorse, a warhorse, and a horse of tremendous endurance, particularly in the desert. Fairly recently, archaeologists and historians have proved that the Turkmenian breed predated the Arabian, and it is likely that it contributed a great deal to the pedigree of both the Arabian and the Barb.

The army of Alexander the Great rode Turkmenians. Some historians report that Alexander’s horse Bucephalus was probably of this breed, although he is usually identified as being a Thessalonian.

Alexander at one time claimed as a spoil of war 50,000 horses from Persia (present-day Iran), which is directly south of the Turkmenian’s region of origin. It is probable that many, if not most, of these horses were Turkmenian. Various armies then rode these horses to many locales and crossed them with native horses everywhere they went.

According to the official history of the Akhal-Teke, the influence of the Turkmene horses was one of the main reasons Rome was never able to conquer the Parthians, who ruled much of the Middle East from 247 BCE to 228 CE. Some of these crossbred horses were eventually used by the Roman cavalry, which took them even farther afield. Thus began the influence of this great breed on the light horse breeds of Europe.

The Turkmenian also strongly influenced the horses of the Middle East, contributing much to the Arabian and, in North Africa, to the Barb. From there the breed has gone on to affect the pedigrees of most of the light horse breeds in the world.

Systematic Breeding

The original breeders kept the bloodlines absolutely pure. The Turkmene people had an oral tradition for maintaining accurate pedigrees, which could go back as far as four generations. They based breedings on the results of races and the quality of previous foals, sometimes taking mares long distances to be bred to the best stallions. Inbreeding was prohibited, other than in rare and exceptional circumstances.

Turkmenian horses are traditionally described as being very lean, without excess muscle or fat. The tribesmen conditioned their horses by keeping them blanketed, both to warm them in the cold desert nights and to sweat out fat during the heat of the day. The horses were rigorously worked and carefully fed, making them extremely fit but with their ribs showing.

The feeding program was unusual. Natural forage occurred in the area only about three months of the year. At other times, the horses, particularly the racehorses, ate pellets of corn, alfalfa, barley, bread, and animal fat, usually mutton or chicken.

Many Turkmenian horses were imported into Britain about the time of the development of the English Thoroughbred, in the early to middle 1700s. Some of these horses were referred to as Turks; others were called Arabs only because they were purchased from Arab people; and still others were called Barbs. Some authorities believe that the Byerly Turk, one of the three foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed, was actually a Turkmenian, and that the Godolphin Arabian, another of the three foundation sires, was a Barb. More recently, strong evidence suggests that the Byerly Turk was in fact foaled in England but was of Turkmene descent. Whatever the precise breeds of the three sires, the blood of the Turkmenian was greatly influential in the foundation of the Thoroughbred.

Recent Threats to the Breed

This famous and ancient breed came to near extinction in the twentieth century. While Russia controlled Turkmenistan from 1885 to 1991, the ancient tradition of nomadic raids ended, and with it went the need for the purebred Akhal-Tekes. The Russians had long made use of these horses in their cavalry; however, after World War II there was no longer much need for army horses.

Although the breed is tremendously athletic, its small size and light frame made it unsuitable for the Russians to use competitively in most European and Olympic horse sports, which were dominated by large, heavy, warmblood breeds. The exception was dressage: in 1960, an Akhal-Teke stallion named Absent won the Olympic gold medal. By the time this horse’s career ended, he had won more Olympic medals than any other horse.

Nevertheless, the breed fell entirely out of favor with Russian breeders. Some nomadic tribesmen had already abandoned their purebred horses because they could no longer justify the expense of raising them. Many were sold to Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and India, while others went to the slaughterhouse. Still others were used to produce crossbred foals. By 1973, there were only eighteen purebred mares and three purebred stallions in Russia.

With its long, thin neck, the Akhal-Teke often appears longer than it is tall.

At virtually the last moment, however, the Russians pulled the breed back from extinction. With concerted effort, the number of purebred horses increased markedly between 1980 and 1989. Before the breakup of the old Soviet Union, breeders planned to increase the herd to seven hundred purebred mares. The breed is now found in Turkmenia, Kazakhstan, and the North Caucasus. It is very likely that some of the horses used in the recent war in Afghanistan were either pure or part Akhal-Teke.

The breed has slowly begun to spread internationally. Since 1979, Akhal-Tekes have been imported to the United States, and enough reside here now to warrant a tiny Akhal-Teke Association of America.

The Nez Percé Indians of Idaho, the first breeders of Appaloosas, have begun crossing Akhal-Teke stallions with registered Appaloosa mares to develop a new Nez Percé Horse, one that exhibits the qualities prized in the Nez Percé horses of the 1800s. They believed that over the years their original horse stock became Americanized through crosses with other breeds. Akhal-Tekes were selected because of their famed endurance and because they can thrive on slight rations, they rarely get sick, they have speed and can jump well, and they recover quickly from exercise. The first crosses produced a number of foals with the characteristic Akhal-Teke metallic sheen and Appaloosa coloring.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

According to the Akhal-Teke Association (founded in 1983):

  • There are approximately 3,000 purebred horses worldwide.
  • Between 12 and 25 new foals are registered each year in North America.
  • In North America, there are 250 purebreds and 150 horses with partial Akhal-Teke blood.
  • The Akhal-Teke Association in Russia reports there are 2,500 pure Akhal-Teke horses in the world and only 800 broodmares. Half of these horses are in Russia and Turkmenistan.

Breed Characteristics

The Akhal-Teke is famous for its very fine, silky coat, which often has an unusually beautiful metallic sheen. Within the individual hairs, the opaque core of the shaft is greatly reduced in size and sometimes absent. In its place is a transparent medulla of the shaft, which acts in a way similar to fiber optics, bending light through one side of the hair and refracting it out the other. The light often emerges with a golden cast. For this reason, many of the horses are gold or have a golden glow to their coats, whatever the color.

Gait

The breed is also known for its peculiar, soft gaits. Although not a “gaited breed” as we have defined it, these horses are said to glide over the ground. They are particularly famous for incredible feats of endurance, especially in desert conditions. In 1935, the Russian army tested several breeds of horses by riding them 1,800 miles, including about 225 miles of desert. The horses covered the desert portion of the trek in three days, during which they went without water or food. The Akhal-Tekes fared far better on this ride than any of the crossbred horses and markedly better than the part-Thoroughbreds.

Conformation

Akhal-Tekes range in height from about 14.2 hands to about 16. Typical weight is 900 to 1,000 pounds. The head is long, with a straight or slightly dished profile; large, expressive, often hooded eyes; and large, thin nostrils. The ears are long, mobile, high set, and very alert. The head attaches to the long, thin neck at a fairly abrupt angle, creating a profile historically described as similar to a cobra ready to strike. The withers are high. It is not uncommon for a horse to appear ewenecked. The mane and tail are typically sparse, and sometimes the forelock is absent.

Characteristically, the Akhal-Teke is longer than it is tall, with a long back that sometimes dips a little. The croup is short and sloped, with a low tail set. Though the chest is narrow, the heart girth is deep. Shoulders are very long and well sloped. The legs are long and straight, with short cannon bones; sometimes the forearm is twice the length of the cannon. The horses are said to have excellent and very dense bone. Most breeds of horses have hind pasterns slightly shorter than front pasterns, but the Akhal-Teke has unusually long and slanted hind pasterns. The feet are well formed and very hard.

Color

The most common colors are light bay, light chestnut, dun, and palomino, all generally found with a golden metallic cast to the color. In a partial list of the wide variety of other colors, the Akhal-Teke Association includes dominant black, which glitters with a blue or purple sheen; mahogany bay; liver chestnut; claybank or red dun; gray; golden with darker mane and tail; grulla, cream grulla; cremello; and perlino.

In race condition Akhal Tekes are very lean. With its sloping croup, long pasterns, pronounced withers, sparse mane and tail, and golden color, this horse exemplifies the breed standard.