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If you ever had the chance of seeing an Akhal-Teke in person, and better yet ride one, it was surely a memorable experience. Akhal-Teke’s unique coat colors take the quote, ‘shine like a fresh-from-the-mint penny’ to a completely different level. Akhal-Tekes beautiful, shimmering coat is almost as mysterious as the breed’s history. Researchers have dated their origin to over 3,000 years old, making them older than the Arabian and one of the only purebred, ancient breeds to still exist. As far back as second century B.C. Roman historians noted the breed with a combination of size, speed and beauty worthy for any kingdom. Whether called Nisaeans in ancient Persia, Parthians in Roman times, or the Turkoman, the Akhal-Teke is regarded as the most valued yet least understood ancient breed to still be seen and bred today.
The Akhal-Teke name comes from the recognition of the ‘Akhal’ region near the Kopet Dag mountain range in present day Turkmenistan and ‘Teke’ for the Turkman tribe from that region that famously preserved and bred the horses since the time of the Persian Empire. Turkmenistan, like parts of India all the way to southern Greece and Egypt made up the vast Persian Empire and traces of the long legged Akhal-Teke can be seen throughout the empire. It is said that Alexander the Great’s legendary horse, Buccephalus, was an Akhal Teke. In the early 1900s during the Russian occupation of Turkmenistan the breed was at risk of extinction after years of being the pride and joy of Turkmenistan families and an in of the country. Instead of surrendering their horses to Russian ‘State’ farms where most horses were slaughtered for meat, the people fled to Afghanistan or set them free in the desert where many survived thanks to their resilient genetics adapted to the harsh Central Asian environment.
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The Soviet Union however did take interest in the Akhal Teke horse after learning of their strength and endurance through a famous dangerous, waterless journey of 35 Akhal-Teke horses from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan to Stalin in Moscow. Soviet breeders began breeding the Turkmenistan horse after the journey of over 3000 kilometers (1864 miles) that took them less than 90 days. In 1960 at the Rome Summer Olympic Games, a beautiful black Akhal-Teke stallion took the gold medal in dressage for the Soviet Union and introduced the widely unknown breed to the world. Since then, importing of Akhal-Tekes began worldwide and the jeopardy of the breed was no longer a threat.
Most of the characteristics that helped the Akhal-Teke survive in their harsh homelands are still seen today in the breed. Their bone density is very light and their muscling is very lean compared to other breeds due to centuries of minimal amounts of water in their diets. Like their owners, they were nomadic and had to endure long distances without water or nutrients and the breed adapted to survive the rough lifestyle. Sharp eyesight, long ears and necks helped the horses detect things such as predators or invaders in the far distance. Their light, narrow frames and sturdy small hooves helped them cover long stretches of desert sands with minimal fatigue. In all seasons, but especially in the wintertime, the horses were protected by layers of felt blankets which produced a fine, thin coat and skin.
Generally Akhal-Tekes stand between 14.2 and 16 hands tall and can have a variety of coat colors. A metallic sheen included in the coat color distinguishes the breed from other horse breeds but may not always be present. Typically, Akhal-Tekes have very thin manes and tails. Sometimes they don’t have a forelock.
Similar to Arabians, the Akhal-Teke was the prized possession of their owners and lived closely with a family, often sleeping within the families’ tent with them. This sparked a very strong loyalty within the breed and during times of war, the breed would protect and serve its owner until its death. Today the breed is still considered to be a ‘one-man horse’, devoted to one rider, old or young, but skittish and aloof to foreigners.
Akhal-Tekes make strong competition horses in strenuous events where there strength and sensitivity shines such as in three-day eventing, show jumping, dressage and endurance racing. A rival to the Arabian as the best endurance racing horse, they can be seen in endurance races around the world.