The Akhal-Teke is known as the golden horse of the desert. This striking horse has been around for some 3,000 years and is one of the oldest modern domesticated breeds. The Akhal-Teke first appeared in Turkmenistan, Central Asia. The tribesmen of this rocky, desert region used the horses for raiding and they were bred specifically for their speed and agility.
In 1881, Turkmenistan became a part of the Russian Empire following conflict. A stud farm was founded but during the many wars that ravaged the region, the breed suffered greatly until at one time only 1,250 horses remained. The Akhal-Teke has influenced many other breeds through war and trade. The Byerly Turk, one of the three main foundation stallions of the modern thoroughbred was thought to have been an Akhal-Teke. In the early 20th century, much cross-breeding went on to try to create a faster, staying racehorse but the hybrid thoroughbred-cross result was not as tough as its pure bred ancestors and many did not survive the harsh Central Asian environment.
Now there is a population of only about 7,000 Akhal-Teke horses across the world, most of which are found in Russia. The UK has only about 40. This is strange considering the athletic qualities and stamina boasted by the breed, not to mention its glorious shimmering, metallic coat and intelligent, trainable nature. It’s likely that a ban of exports from the former Soviet Union was heavily influential in this scarcity and that the financial mismanagement of the breed could also be a factor. Old images showing ewe-necked, skinny, long-bodied animals with sickle hocks have not helped the Akhal-Teke’s image.
But now the breed is evolving once again and stud animals are being selected for desirable conformation, temperament and athleticism qualities which make them more suitable as riding and competition horses. There is no reason why the Akhal-Teke cannot be successful across all FEI disciplines, in fact if you look back to 1960, the Akhal-Teke stallion, Absent won Olympic gold for the USSR in the dressage event.
Akhal-Teke horses stand between 14.2hh and 16hh and many carry the “dilution gene” which gives them their distinctive golden buckskin, palomino or cremello colour, although bay, black, chestnut and grey are also seen. It was thought that the pale coloured, shimmering coat evolved to act as camouflage in the breed’s native desert environment.
The Akhal-Teke has a refined head, sometimes with a slightly convex profile and long ears. These horses are built for speed with a long back, flat croup, upright neck and sloping shoulder. The typically deep chest and girth area provide ample heart room, essential for a good supply of oxygenated blood to enable the horse to move at speed over long distances. Many people call them the “greyhound” of the horse world. Another reputed characteristic of the breed is that they form a strong bond with only one person.
I once owned a thoroughbred gelding whose summer coat was pale chestnut with a beautiful metallic sheen; I wonder if his distant relatives once roamed the desert lands in Turkmenistan.