Akhal-Teke Horse Breed

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The Akhal-Teke is a horse breed from Turkmenistan, where they are a national emblem. They are noted for their speed and for endurance on long marches.

These “golden-horses” are adapted to severe climatic conditions and are thought to be one of the oldest surviving horse breeds. There are currently about 3,500 Akhal-Tekes in the world, mostly in Turkmenistan and Russia, although they are also found throughout Europe, Australia and North America.

The Akhal-Teke breed became popular with the Russians, who established a breeding population at their state stud farms. Many Akhal-Tekes were bred at the Tersk Stud in the northern Caucasus Mountains, and later moved with the head breeder Vladimir Petrovich Shamborant to the Dagestan Studfarm.

The Akhal-Teke coat has a distinct metallic sheen.

Akhal-Teke showing natural coat sheenThe Akhal-Teke horse breed typically stands between 14.3 and 16.3 hands. This breed is famous for those individuals who have a golden buckskin or palomino color with an unusual distinct metallic sheen. However, a number of other colors are recognized, including bay, black, chestnut, palomino, cremello, perlino and grey.

The Akhal-Teke’s most notable and defining characteristic is the natural metallic bloom of its coat. This is especially seen in the palominos and buckskins, as well as the lighter bays, although some horses “shimmer” more than others. The color pattern is thought to have been used as camouflage in the desert.

The cream gene that produces buckskin and palomino is a dilution gene that also produces the occasional cremello and perlino. Akhal-Tekes are not thought to carry the dun gene or roan gene.

The Akhal-Teke has a fine head with a straight or slightly convex profile, and long ears. It also has almond-shaped eyes. The mane and tail are usually sparse. The long back is lightly muscled, and is coupled to a flat croup and long, upright neck. The Akhal-Teke possess sloping shoulders and thin skin. These horses have strong, tough, but fine limbs.

They have a rather slim body and ribcage (like an equine version of the greyhound), with a deep chest. The conformation is typical of horses bred for endurance over distance. The Akhal-Tekes are lively and alert, with a reputation for bonding to only one person.

The breed is tough and resilient, having adapted to the harshness of Turkmenistan lands, where horses must live without much food or water. This has also made the horses good for sport. The breed has great endurance, as shown in 1935 when a group of Turkmen riders rode the 2500 miles from Ashgabat to Moscow in 84 days, including a three-day crossing of 235 miles of desert without water. The Akhal-Teke is also known for its form and grace as a show jumper.

History of the Akhal-Teke Horse Breed

Buckskins and palominos are the dominant colors in the Akhal-TekeThe ancestors of the Akhal-Teke breed may date back to a horse breed living 3,000 years ago, known by a number of names, but most often as the Nisean horse.  However, the precise ancestry is difficult to trace, because prior to about 1600 AD, horse breeds in the modern sense did not exist; rather, horses were identified by local strain or type.

According to some, the Akhal-Teke were kept hidden by their tribesmen. The area where the breed first appeared, the Turkmenistan desert Kara Kum, is a rocky, flat desert surrounded by mountains. However, others claim that the horses are descendants of the mounts of Mongol raiders of the 13th and 14th century.

The breed is very similar to the now-extinct Turkoman Horse, once bred in neighboring Iran. Some historians believe that the two are different strains of the same breed. It is a disputed “chicken or egg” question whether the influential Arabian was either the ancestor of the breed or was developed out of this breed.

It is also probable that the so-called “hot blooded” breeds, the Arabian, Turkoman, Akhal-Teke and the Barb all developed from a single “oriental horse” predecessor.

Tribesmen of Turkmenistan first used the horses for raiding. They selectively bred the horses, keeping records of the pedigrees via an oral tradition. The horses were called “Argamaks” by the Russians, and were cherished by the nomads.

Pinto Akhal-TekeIn 1881, Turkmenistan became part of the Russian Empire. The tribes fought with the tsar, eventually losing. A Russian general, Kuropatkin, developed a fondness for horses he had seen while fighting the tribesmen, founded a breeding farm after the war and renamed the horses “Akhal-Tekes,” after the Teke Turkmen tribe that lived near the Akhal oasis. The Russians printed the first studbook in 1941, which included 287 stallions and 468 mares.

The Byerly Turk, one of the Thoroughbred founding studs, may have been an Akhal-Teke

The Akhal-Teke has had influence on many breeds, possibly including the Thoroughbred through the Byerly Turk (which may have been Akhal-Teke, an Arabian or a Turkoman Horse), one of the three foundation stallions of the breed.

Three other stallions, known as the “Lister Turk”, the “White Turk” and the “Yellow Turk” also contributed to the foundation of the Thoroughbred breed. The Trakehner has also been influenced by the Akhal-Teke, most notably by the stallion Turkmen-Atti, as have the Russian breeds Don, Budyonny, Karabair, and Karabakh.

The breed suffered greatly when the Soviet Union required horses to be slaughtered for meat, even though local Turkmen refused to eat it. At one point only 1,250 horses remained and export from the Soviet Union was banned. The government of Turkmenistan now uses the horses as diplomatic presents as well as auctioning a few to raise money for improved horse breeding programs. Male horses are not gelded in Central Asia.

Yet crossbreeding modern Akhal-Tekes with Thoroughbreds proved to be a mistake.

In the early 20th century, crossbreeding between the Thoroughbred and the Akhal-Teke took place, aiming to create a faster long-distance racehorse. However, the Anglo Akhal-Tekes were not as resilient as their Akhal-Teke ancestors, and many died due to the harsh conditions of Central Asia.

After the 2,600 mile endurance race from Ashkabad to Moscow in 1935, when the pure-breds finished in much better condition than the part-breds, the studbook management decided to consider all crossbred horses born after 1936 as not purebred. Horses with English Thoroughbred ancestors born prior to that date were allowed to remain inside the studbook.

Since 1973, all foals must be blood-typed to be accepted in the stud book in order to protect the purity. A stallion not producing the right type of horse can be removed. The stud book was closed in 1975.

Akhal-Tekes used as foundation stock for other new horse breeds

The Nez Perce Horse is a cross-breeding between the Akhal-Teke and the Appaloosa horse.
The Nez Perce Horse is a crossbreeding between the Akhal-Teke and the Appaloosa horse.

Because of the genetic prepotency of the ancient breed, the Akhal-Teke has been used for developing new breeds, most recently the Nez Perce Horse (Appaloosa x Akhal-Teke). The Akhal-Teke, due to its natural athleticism, makes a great sport horse, good at dressage, show jumping, eventing, racing, and endurance riding.

One such great sport horse was the Akhal-Teke stallion, Absent. He was eight years old when he won the Prix de Dressage at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, ridden by Sergei Filatov. He went again with Filatov to win the bronze individual medal in Tokyo in the 1964 Summer Olympics, and won the Soviet team gold medal under Ivan Kalita at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.