Breed History and Standards


The exotically beautiful, extravagantly graceful and versatile Akhal-Teke horse was, until recently not well-known outside of the former Soviet Union. This most unusual breed of riding horse, highly regarded for its speed, stamina, comfortable gaits, intelligence and trainability, is currently enjoying a well-deserved surge of popularity outside of its traditional homeland of Turkmenistan and neighboring Russia. Arguably the oldest surviving cultured equine breed, the Akhal-Teke acquired its extraordinary physical powers and sensitive personality from the highly specialized conditions which characterized its partnership with Central Asian nomads. Akhal-Teke blood has influenced the development of several modern horse breeds, yet its own unique features have remained largely undiluted for centuries.

A comprehensive account of the origins of the Akhal-Teke breed has yet to be written in English. Much of what is currently available in English is not reliable. Contrary to what has been written about the breed, the Akhal-Teke is not native to Russia; the Akhal-Teke origins predate the founding of the Russian state by three thousand years. Nor, as has been asserted, is the Akhal-Teke a warmblood. Like the Arabian and the English Thoroughbred -- two breeds to which the older Akhal-Teke made significant contributions -- the breed belongs to the hotblood category.

The Akhal-Teke is the only remaining pure strain of ancient Turkmene horse, a breed whose common ancestors bear a succession of different names over time: Massaget, Parthian, Nisean, Persian, Turkmene and finally, Akhal-Teke. Excavations in southern Turkmenistan have uncovered skeletal remains of tall, fine-boned horses dating back to 2400 BC. The breed name, however, dates back only to the end of the nineteenth century. It consists of two words: "Akhal," the long oasis nestled in the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains (once a part of the kingdom of ancient Persia, now present-day Turkmenistan) and "Teke," after the Turkmen tribe, the dominant nomadic people who inhabited the oasis and for centuries raised the Turkmene horse.

Geography significantly contributed to the unusual characteristics of the breed. The volatile waves of human and equine movement throughout much of Central Asian history (wars, raids, trading), often bypassed the isolated Akhal oasis. The Caspian Sea to the west, mountains on the south and desert to the north created a protective barrier to the Teke tribe and contributed to the relative genetic stability to their prized horses. The region's harsh desert conditions -- the sandy Kara Kum desert occupies 90% of Turkmenistan -- favored survival of a horse that could tolerate extreme heat, dry cold and drought. Additionally, fresh grass, essential to the high bulk diet required by horses, was available only a few months of the year; the domesticated Turkmene horse learned to survive on meager rations, mostly a low-bulk diet of high protein grains mixed with mutton fat.

The cult of the horse, a common feature among many Asian cultures, was an essential part of the bellicose Turkmen culture. A good horse could make the difference between life and death for its rider. More than that, the Akhal-Teke was a source of great personal pride to its owner and an esteemed part of the human family to which it belonged: blanketed in cold weather, often fed by hand and decorated with neck and chest ornaments. To this day Akhal-Tekes often bond closely with their human partners; they are usually sensitive to the way they are treated. Responsive to gentle training, they can be stubborn and resentful if treated rudely.

Russian familiarity with the Akhal-Teke began at least 500 years ago when the Turkmene horse was brought to Russia. These horses came to be called "argamaks," a Turkic word that denoted a tall, refined and valuable horse of Asian type. The modern history of the breed began in the 1880s, with the Russian annexation of Turkmenistan (part of what was then called Transcaspia) and the founding, under Russian auspices, of the first official Akhal-Teke stud, Zakaspiisky, near Ashkhabad (the capital of Turkmenistan). The best breeding stock were collected at this stud, including the famous stallion Boinou, progenitor of the dominant Akhal-Teke lines that are in use today. The Russian military's interest in the Akhal-Teke horse partially compensated for the disruption of the horse-dependent traditional Turkmen way of life, but only briefly. A prolonged experiment undertaken by Russians to improve the breed and increase its size through crossbreeding to the English Thoroughbred ended in failure, as was convincingly demonstrated by the famous 1935 Ashkhabad-Moscow endurance ride.

Sharing the fate of many horse breeds in the former Soviet Union, the stresses of war, civil war, famine, poor food distribution and indifference severely depleted the numbers and genetic diversity of the Akhal-Teke. The transformation from a horse-dependent to a machine-driven economy left no role for the Akhal-Teke; during much of the Soviet period, with its focus on collectivization of resources, personal ownership of a horse was prohibited. Soviet Akhal-Teke stud farm were not exempt from the gross mismanagement which characterized so much of the government-managed agricultural sector. During the Khrushchev era, for example, valuable breeding stock was indiscriminately sent to slaughter.

The future of the Akhal-Teke horse is linked to the breed's conspicuous successes in endurance riding, dressage, and eventing. The transition to a free market economy in the past decade has given rise to many private initiatives in breeding Akhal-Tekes, in Turkmenistan, Russia, Western Europe and America. The Akhal-Teke first made it's way to the US in 1979 and is now estimated to have a US population of around 300 purebreds, total world population at around 3500.

Breed Standard

The Akhal-Teke is a true desert-bred horse with a light, elegant build and a distinctive conformation, including a long, tapering face with long ears and wide nostrils, with large, hooded, slanting oriental eyes. The neck is long and thin, set high on the prominent wither, leading to an excellent sloping shoulder. The body is long, lean and narrow, with long legs and dry, dense bone structure. Their hooves are small and extremely strong, with little or no feathering, and a sparse mane and tail, often with no forelock. The skin is very thin with a fine, silky hair coat, and a hair shaft that reflects light, producing a metallic golden sheen to the coat. This characteristic is genetically distinct to this breed alone and appears in different shades in their coat colors of black, bay, chestnut, dun, palomino, gray, and the striking cremello and perlino. Their action is magnificent- free flowing, gliding and elastic; their temperament alert, bold and remarkably intelligent, responding best to sensitive training. The Akhal-Teke is a remarkably sound and healthy horse, with a robust constitution. Their metabolism, engineered to subsist on meager amounts of food, has continued for centuries, making them easy keepers with low maintenance needs. Their hooves are strong and tough, rarely requiring shoeing; they rarely founder or colic with proper care. Fertility rates are good, mares foal easily without supervision, and often will breed and foal well into their twenties.

Western hemisphere horse literature often labels the Akhal-Teke as temperamentally difficult, obstinate, and prone to moods, while in their native homeland they are described as incredibly loyal, one-owner horses. These are really two sides of the same coin and believed to be attributed to their original nomadic lifestyle, when they were treated as a prized member of the family rather than merely an animal possession. Their original breeders, the Teke tribesmen, needed a partner, not a docile serf. They wanted their horses to be fierce, fearless and self-confident, independent and full of Joie-de-vivre. Akhal-Tekes are highly intelligent, learn very quickly, and maintain their training easily. They do not tolerate repetitious, boring drilling, but excel in a varied routine and stimulating surroundings. They are forward, free moving, motivated horses, when bonded to their owner they feel a great sense of responsibility and loyalty towards them.

The Akhal-Teke is also a sport horse of great distinction, his role having changed in modern times. Used for centuries for distance racing in their homeland, they have proved to be more than competitive in the FEI disciplines and other equine sports. ABSENT, an Akhal-Teke stallion, won the Gold medal in Individual Dressage at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, and by the end of his career had won 5 medals in 3 Games under three different riders. In the U.S., an Akhal-Teke stallion was long-listed for the 1996 Atlanta Games in three-day eventing. Today, Akhal-Tekes are utilized in a myriad of sports, including dressage, show jumping, combined training, and, increasingly, endurance riding, where their legendary stamina truly shines. In 1935, the purity of the breed was threatened as Thoroughbred blood was introduced in an attempt to improve racing speed. Fortunately, the purebreds proved their merit in an incredible 2700-mile trek from Ashkahabad to Moscow, covered in 84 days. At one point, they crossed 225 miles of desert in only 3 days with virtually no water. Their feat convinced the authorities that all out crossing should be stopped and the breed preserved in its pure form. Veterinary checks on today's endurance rides show their remarkable cardiac recovery scores resulting from an incredibly efficient cardiovascular system and their "radiator"-type build.

Akhal Teke horses are among the most comfortable riding horses ever, even compared to gaited horses (Paso, Icelandic Horse, Saddlebred, etc.). One of the main selection criteria has been their manner of moving. The Teke wanted a horse which "moves as a snake", which means they wanted flowing movements without a lot of swing in the area where the saddle is placed, they wanted horses which seem to glide over the ground, never really touching. A Teke horse covers a lot of ground without consuming a lot of calories, which means that all the gaits are directed forwards and are rather flat compared to the high stepping gaits of breeds such as warmbloods or Baroque horses (Andalusians, Lippizans), a trait much desired by their nomadic, warring creators, and maintained vigorously today. The Teke horse is an easy mover, it does not take a lot to make them move ahead and keep them doing so. Thus the rider can conserve his own energy. Their action is magnificent- free flowing, gliding and elastic; the horse seems to slink beneath the rider and cover ground effortlessly. It is a feeling like no other.