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Volume 48, Number 3May/June 1997

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The Western Outpost

Written by Rosalind Mazzawi

In 1993 President Saparmurad Niazov of Turkmenistan gave Akhal Téké horses to Prime Minister John Major of Great Britain and President Francois Mittérand of France. Neither of these statesmen rode, and so Maksat was sent to the Household Cavalry training depot at Melton Mowbray, in the English Midlands, and Gendjim vanished into competent but concealed care in France, and was treated more or less as a state secret. Various rumors swirled around his elegant golden head-including that of his non-existence—until it transpired that he was to be ridden by a member of the president's family, after preparation by a well-known trainer, Alexandre Gros.

I was privileged to visit horse and trainer near Paris, and even in the teeming rain that day I could admire Gendjim's eagerness to please his rider, and his natural tendency to show off. Gros said that Gendjim had arrived in France after a difficult journey, terrified of everyone and everything, and with cuts and bruises on his legs. A successful race horse in Turkmenistan, he had been taught only how to run. Now he is calm, collected and polite to visitors—at least in the presence of Gros—and shows a definite talent for jumping.

There are few other Akhal Tékés in France: Two were recently imported from Turkmenistan by two young businessmen, who now hope to make the breed better known in France and in Europe.

In England, however, there is a flourishing Akhal Téké Society based in Cornwall. At present there are 12 purebred and eight part-bred Akhal Tékés in the country, in addition to the famous Maksat. Of these, a stallion, Karpat, and three mares, Zarnitza, Kunzita, and Morganita, belong to Marina Orloff-Davidoff of Sussex. They were imported from Italy, but originate from Kazakhstan and from Daghestan, in the Caucasus.

Orloff-Davidoff intends to preserve and encourage the breed as much as possible, and does not wish to cross her Akhal Tékés with other types of horse. Zarnitza will compete in endurance rides, as she has already done successfully in Italy, and Karpat shows promise as a jumper.

It is in Germany, however, that the breed is best established in Europe. Early this year, there were about 180 Akhal-Tékés in that country. At the Equitana horse show in Essen I met Sabine Töpfer-Gebert, who owns two splendid stallions: Elgun, a true gold with black mane, tail, and legs, and Kara Burgut ("Black Eagle"), who is all black. Töpfer-Gebert's husband drives a four-in-hand drawn by three golden and one black Akhal Téké geldings.

It was Töpfer-Gebert who introduced me to Paul Koffler, who has a pack of hounds and eight Akhal Tékés that he has developed as hunt horses. They hunt wild boar and deer and also do drag hunting, which is more like a steeplechase or crosscountry course. Koffler favors the Akhal Tékés because they are handsome, courageous and sure-footed, and have incredible stamina. Their exotic origin also helps to recommend them!

In the US, Margot and Phil Case are the leading and—with the late Eberhard Sprandel—the country's foundation breeders of Akhal Téké horses. They run the US Akhal Téké registry, and keep 46 horses on their Virginia farm. Margot has been involved with horses since childhood, and when she married Phil, a paper-company executive, her enthusiasm was contagious. They have lived in various countries to which Phil's work took him, notably Italy, Switzerland, and South Africa. When they heard about Akhal Téké horses as a rare and exotic breed in danger of disappearance, they determined to do what they could to preserve them. They purchased three at the annual horse sales in Moscow in 1979 and had them shipped to the Netherlands for the necessary quarantine, under the guardianship of Robbie den Hartog, well known as the "middleman" for Arabian and other high-end horses traded among Russia, Europe and the United States. Unfortunately, one horse died in the Netherlands, and thus the remaining two were joined a year later by a gold Akhal Téké, Senetir, who is still the senior stallion at the farm. He sired Kashman and Sengar, both spectacular horses.

The Cases also own Arik, a dark bay who has an unusual ability to pass on his exact coloring to his offspring, and Melekush USA, a golden dun with double-folded eyelids. These are a breed characteristic that makes the horse look sleepy—an impression belied by the fire beneath the surface! He was imported in utero from Russia in 1983. An extraordinary mare, Oliva, born in 1974, joined the herd in 1981, and she bore a colt foal, Svengali, in June 1995.

Until 1990, the only other sizable Akhal Téké breeders in the country were the Sprandel brothers, Eberhard and Hans, who worked a large farm in Colorado. In the years following Eberhard's death in 1987, most of the horses were sold. From the Sprandel farm the Cases purchased a stallion, Marakan, and three mares, one of whom, Givan, was the grand-daughter of Absent, the winner of the gold medal for dressage at the 1960 Olympic Games.

But Hans Sprandel retained four stallions and two mares, and in 1994 he donated them to the Nez Percé tribe of Idaho for an interesting experiment. The Nez Percés are the original breeders of the Appaloosa horse, and his donation enabled the tribe to cross their Appaloosa mares with the Akhal Téké stallions. Appaloosas, selectively bred for their color for 250 years, descend from the Andalusian cavalry mounts brought to the New World by the Spaniards, and the feral American mustang, which has the same origin but which learned to live, often very sparsely, on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains. The Nez Percés captured and redomesticated the mustangs, mixed in the blood of the Andalusian horses, and developed the "leopard" and "blanket" types of Appaloosa, respectively white with black spots, and sorrel or bay with a white star pattern on rump and hindquarters. Most Appaloosas are round-rumped, with sparse manes and tails, vertically striped hooves, and mottled skin around eyes and noses; they are on the whole "curved" horses, whereas the Akhal Tékés are angular, like greyhounds, with tucked-up bellies and long necks. The cross between the two breeds has produced more than 40 horses to date, all either spotted Akhal-Tékés or angular, athletic Appaloosas.

The Nez Percé program, directed by Rudy Shebala, hopes to produce a new, hardy race of horses that are both sizable and docile, and can be employed on trail rides, one of the fastest-growing recreational activities in the western US. A fixed type will not become apparent until the fourth generation, in two decades' time, but it nonetheless seems that the two breeds are compatible. Shebala plans to call the new breed "the Nez Percé horse."

Thanks to this small but dedicated band of breeders, the number of Akhal Tékés grows each year, not only in Central Asia, but also in the West. As more people come to appreciate the qualities of the golden horses, the breed will no longer be in danger of disappearing.

Rosalind Mazzawi, who lived in the Middle East for two decades, worked as an equestrian journalist for the French magazine Plaisirs Equestres.

This article appeared on pages 18-19 of the May/June 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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