The hippodrome in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan, is anything but prepossessing: a bare concrete grandstand stretched against the monochrome buff horizon, without even a roof to protect race-watchers from the searing sun of the Kara Kum Desert. The track itself is a dusty sand oval, watered down between races by a surplus Soviet tank truck. At the far end are plain concrete sheds, and between them, brown kibitkas, the tent dwellings of the Central Asian nomads, now used as quarters for trainers and jockeys. Stableboys sprawl napping on rusty bed-springs just outside the stable doors.
But when those doors are flung open before race time, and the Akhal Téké horses trot out toward the starting gate, the starkness of desert life is dispelled as if by a flowering tree. Beautiful beyond compare, valuable beyond measure, with their shining golden coats and matchless endurance, Akhal Téké horses are the defining icon of Turkmen culture. Perhaps the oldest pure-blooded horse extant, horses of the Akhal Téké type have been bred in the trans-Caspian region of Central Asia for several thousand years, though not always under the name Akhal Téké, and not always by the Turkmens.
Modern Turkmenistan, with its population of roughly four million and its economy based largely on cotton and natural gas, was once among the republics of the Soviet Union. In older texts, it is known as Turkmenia. For thousands of years before the 1879 Russian occupation, the territory was populated by nomadic tribes and pastoral clans, struggling interminably to graze their herds in the valley of the Amu Darya, Central Asia's longest river, and amid the foothills of the Kopet Mountains that now separate Turkmenistan from Afghanistan and Iran.
The Akhal Téké's development is bound up with the history of this tough, unforgiving land. Starting about 10,000 BC, the Central Asian climate began drying out. The stocky horses of the steppe grasslands adapted to the changing conditions, developing svelte frames, more modest food and water requirements, longer necks that enabled them to see predators farther away on the open plains, and coloration that offered camouflage in the glaring tan landscape. As the rains failed, the rivers that watered the steppe shriveled, the inland seas shrank, and the steppe became progressively more arid. Settled agrarian peoples were forced into nomadism, often as horse-mounted warriors. Descriptions and carvings dating to the third and second millennia BC testify that they rode a slim horse with a high head, golden in color and capable of great endurance.
In the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great reached Margiana-literally then the "margin" of the known world-near present-day Mary in southern Turkmenistan, he met fierce resistance from nomadic Sacae and Massagetae, tribes that already employed the stiff saddle and were skilled in cavalry tactics. Before him, in the fifth century BC, Herodotus had written of the Scythians, a nomadic power that in Herodotus's time dominated much of the region north of the Black Sea, "Their country," he said, "is the back of a horse."
The early Nomads, of necessity, developed their knowledge of horse-breeding. Russian archeologists have found Scythian war-horses almost perfectly preserved in frozen barrow tombs in the Altay Mountains; they show that as early as 500 BC the nomads were selecting for tall, "dry," fast horses, similar in all respects to the Akhal Téké. These war-horses of Central Asia became famous throughout the ancient world, and were known variously—depending on time and place—as Median, Bactrian, Sogdian, Hyrcanian, Chorasmian, or Parthian. A Chinese emperor of the second century BC sent a party to Central Asia to bring back what the Chinese called "the horses of heaven" or the "thousand-li" horses, so called because they could run a thousand li without tiring and, according to the Chinese account, sweated blood.
More than a millennium later, probably to fight Genghis Khan and the Mongols, the Islamic khanates of Khiva and Khwarizm, now in modern Uzbekistan, looked westward to hire mercenary Oguz cavalry, Turkic in language, culture and horsemanship. When Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road through modern Turkmenistan on his way to Cathay, he wrote on the first page of his famous Travels of his encounter with "Turcomans," who were, he said, "a primitive people speaking a barbarous language," but who deserved praise for both their carpets and their "good Turcoman horses."
In the 19th century, the nomadic Turkmens were one of the last ethnic groups to be incorporated into the Russian Empire. Before the Russian revolution of 1917, almost every Turkmen family owned one or two horses. Mostly desert warriors and their descendants who subsisted in a harsh environment, the Turkmens depended on their horses for transport and battle, and indeed, at times, for companionship as well. The common Turkmen tethered his horse to his tent, hand-fed it bread soaked in mutton-fat to keep its coat glossy, and rode it continually in pursuit of a living, whether in the cavalry for a khan, as a small independent trader, or as a bandit preying on the Silk Road caravans.
Summer and winter, the Turkmen covered his precious steed with a felt blanket, which in winter kept off howling winds and in summer protected against stinging flies. On top of that he put a stiff saddle, a pillow and a silk cover, and then draped his horse in necklaces studded with turquoise and carmine, stones which were believed to protect the rider against evil spirits-of which there were plenty to imagine in the vast Kara Kum Desert.
After the Russian conquest, Cossacks occupying the trans-Caspian region recognized the special qualities in the Turkmen horses. They found the best ones among the Téké tribe, the largest Turkmen group, which occupied the area of the Akhal oasis, near present-day Ashgabat. The Russians set up the first stud farm there in 1897, and at that time registered the Akhal Téké breed.
Although the Soviet era brought an end to civil strife among khans and tribal warlords, it brought misfortune to the Turkmen horses. In the years following the 1918 collectivization of livestock, one million Turkmen voted with their feet to retain ownership of their sheep and horses: They crossed the borders into Iran and Afghanistan. At the same time that the state-run stud farm was elevating Akhal Téké breeding to a scientific practice, individual Turkmen were loosing their own horses in the desert rather than submit to collectivization.
In the summer of 1935, a group of Turkmens took the bold step of riding Akhal Tékés from Ashgabat all the way to Moscow to demonstrate to Stalin the capabilities of their horses. They covered some 3000 kilometers (1860 miles), dramatically illustrating both the endurance of the breed and their own pride in it. At the end of World War II, Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov rode a white Akhal Téké stallion in the Moscow victory parade. In 1960, the most famous horse in Soviet equestrian competition at the Rome Olympics was Absent, an Akhal Téké who there won his first of many Olympic gold medals in dressage.
Although Soviet leaders presented Akhal Tékés as diplomatic gifts, and Akhal Tékés sold for tens of thousands of dollars to international buyers at the Moscow horse auctions, the total population of Akhal Tékés declined steadily. In the 1950's, a decade when the Soviets made heroes of tractor drivers and sent many draft animals to the sausage factory, the breed was in real danger of extinction. In the time of Alexander the Great, the Parthians had sent 20,000 horses each year as tribute to Persia; Parthian herds must therefore have numbered at least 50,000, perhaps as many as 100,000. But by the twilight of the Soviet era, there were fewer than 1000 pedigreed Akhal Téké horses in Turkmenistan.
Since Turkmenistan's independence in 1991, increasing the herd has been a formal goal of government policy, says Bazarbay Meredov, deputy chief of the Atlaree, the Turkmen State Horse Company. At current count, he notes, there are 3100 Akhal Tékés, with 110 registered stallions and 300 one-year-olds. There are 15 new private stud farms, and each has between 20 and 80 Akhal Tékés. And, he adds, many more Turkmens are once again keeping a horse or two privately.
Meredov also cites export restrictions designed to help ensure the breed's future. "As of now, only stallions two to 10 years old may leave the country," he says. "All foreigners interested in buying an Akhal Téké in Turkmenistan should send a representative to us and do business through the Atlaree."
Those who make the journey will find, whether viewed in the Ashgabat hippodrome or at a breeder's stable, a horse radically different from the stout, shaggy ponies that are the common mental picture of Central Asian horses—an image that dates back to the mounts the Mongols rode as they conquered their way westward as far as Palestine.
In fact, nothing could be further from the lean, long-legged, lustrous Akhal Tékés, many of which stand 15 or 16 hands high. With its dry musculature, sparse mane and veins bulging under its thin, fine, shimmering coat, the Akhal Téké looks like nothing so much as the early generations of English Thoroughbred. This, too, is no coincidence. Two of the three Thoroughbred foundation studs were Turkmen horses: the Byerly Turk and the Darley Arabian. The latter was purchased in Aleppo, Syria in 1717, but it was bred by Turkmen nomads on the Iranian plateau. Some of the brood mares in the royal stables of Charles II, whence the English Thoroughbred came, were also Turkmen dams.
But it is from the rider's point of view that the singularity of the Akhal Téké becomes most vivid. Its long neck and high legs make you feel that your saddle is somehow on the second floor. The Akhal Téké's "loose" shoulder gives it a characteristically smooth trot that combines a high step with a long stride.
And when the Akhal Téké tucks its head into its neck and goes into high gear, it can gallop full-tilt for hours like a four-legged locomotive, all while giving the impression that it is aware of its unique place in desert creation.
Jonathan Maslow is an author, journalist and filmmaker. His book on Turkmenistan, Sacred Horses, was published by Random House in 1994.
Photographer Tor Eigeland, a longtime contributer to Aramco World, lives in France with his wife and daughter.
Freelance photographer John Sikora lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and is at work on a series of postcards on the county.