How Turkmenistan Saved Its Golden Horse

Why you should care

Because Akhal-Teke horses have come back from the brink of extinction to find their place as a national symbol.

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The breed of Alexander the Great’s beloved horse, Bucephalus — whose death grieved Alexander so much that he founded a city in the steed’s honor — is lost to history. But in Turkmenistan, there is no doubt: The horse must have been an Akhal-Teke.

These horses, famed as much for their golden-brown metallic sheen as for their speed and endurance, have been bred on what is now Turkmen soil for thousands of years, long before the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. They’re legendary as the steeds of Turkmenistan’s ancient nomadic tribes, unbeatable in the desert for their ability to go long distances in extreme heat. And less than 40 years ago, they were on the verge of extinction. Even today, fewer than 6,000 Akhal-Tekes remain, most of them in Russia and Turkmenistan.

Akhal-Teke enthusiasts like to cite the breed as an ancestor of the Arabian, though — like so much about ancient horse breeding — it’s unclear if the two simply have a common ancestor, an older Turkmen horse. But the breed’s age, says breeder Geldy Kyarizov, means that if the Akhal-Teke bloodline is lost, it can never be reconstructed. In fact, he says, loss of purebred Akhal-Tekes would also mean “other horses like the Arab and English purebred cannot be restructured, because the Akhal-Teke are their forefathers.”

In 1935, 15 Turkmens rode their Akhal-Tekes 2,500 miles, from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, to Moscow.

The horses have long been sacred in Turkmenistan, where eating horse meat is taboo and riders form deep bonds with their horses. Akhal-Tekes are willful, known to obey only their trainer or regular rider, and Turkmen legends tell of horses who shielded their riders in battle or who knelt to allow a wounded fighter to crawl on their back and carried them to safety. The horses were hand-fed, protected from cold desert nights and fitted with an alaja, a neck rope meant to keep evil away.

The Akhal-Teke’s downhill slide began in 1881: Czarist Russian military victories meant Turkmenistan’s territory was subsumed into the empire, and Turkmen horses were crossbred with Russian ones. After the Bolshevik Revolution, nomadic Turkmens were forced to abandon their traditional ways and reorganized by Soviet authorities. While some armed Turkmen horsemen fought back, they were eventually driven across the borders of Iran and Afghanistan.

Back home, private ownership of horses was made illegal, and Akhal-Tekes were turned over to state farms. Rather than turn their beloved steeds over to authorities, owners set their horses free in the desert, hoping the hardy breed would survive the harsh conditions. In 1935, 15 Turkmens hoping to prove the breed’s worth rode their Akhal-Tekes 2,500 miles, from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, to Moscow. It took 84 days, during which they made a three-day crossing of the Kara-Kum desert without water. The journey drew attention to the horses, both at home and abroad, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan began to breed Akhal-Tekes as well.

In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared that “a single tractor has more worth than 100 horses.”

Soviet authorities prized Akhal-Tekes for their beauty. In 1956, the state gifted Queen Elizabeth II with a golden-dun Akhal-Teke stallion, and Gen. Georgy Zhukov rode a white Akhal-Teke stallion — named Arab — through Red Square when the Allies defeated Nazi Germany. Fifteen years later, Arab’s son Absent won an Olympic gold medal in dressage, the Soviet Union’s first in the sport.

Still, Akhal-Tekes, bred for endurance, couldn’t best Arabian and English thoroughbred horses in short sprints. Without medals, their value began to drop, and they were crossbred with English horses for racing. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared that “a single tractor has more worth than 100 horses,” banned and punished private breeding and ordered that thousands of purebred Akhal-Tekes be turned into sausage to feed the populace.

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Mikhail Gorbachev.

Source Wojtek Laski/Getty

Seeing the population of Akhal-Tekes dwindling, a few advocates for the horses — including Kyarizov, who now lives in the Czech Republic — knew they had to do something. So they made a movie. About 20 minutes long, the 1986 documentary History of One Mileage depicts the horses on an endurance ride, as well as their fate in slaughterhouses. The film sparked outrage in the international horse community. Meanwhile, Kyarizov and other breeders were desperately trying to save the horses by secretly buying their freedom.

Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who’d taken power just the year before, would be the horse’s savior. His appointee to a high-level Turkmen post Saparmurat Niyazov was known for his severe punishment of anyone violating laws forbidding private horse ownership. Horse breeders appealed directly to Gorbachev, who reprimanded Niyazov. Amid the outcry caused by History of One Mileage, private breeding was made legal again and Turkmenistan stopped delivering Akhal-Tekes to meatpacking plants.

Kyarizov opened a private stud farm in 1992, just a year after Turkmenistan gained independence; in 1997 he was appointed head of the country’s state body for regulating horses. The following year, Ashgabat hosted the first international Akhal-Teke conference. Saparmurat Niyazov, who had become the president of Turkmenistan — he remained in power until his death in 2006 — declared April 30 Turkmen Horse Day. Niyazov’s horse, a purebred Akhal-Teke stallion named Yanardag, was made the country’s national emblem in 2003, and his image continues to grace Turkmen postage stamps and money.

Niyazov made the Akhal-Teke part of his state-building campaign. More than 1,000 horses paraded for the opening of the presidential palace in 2001. According to Kyarizov, Turkmenistan’s current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, hoped to replace Yanardag as the national emblem with his own horse, Berkarar, until he fell off Berkarar during a 2013 race. Watching video of the fall is illegal in Turkmenistan — as is changing the name of an Akhal-Teke horse or not giving one an official funeral. As for equestrian sport, most races are won by Berdymukhamedov himself … perhaps because it would be unwise for any other jockey to overtake him.

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