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Riding Ahal Tekke horses

You know Akhal-Teke horse?"
"Not yet."
Clouds of reverence, ambition, and suspicion crossed Alex's face. His black eyebrows knit together conspiratorially, and he lowered his tone.
"Please, I tell you. These horse you will never forget. There is no such horse in world like these horse. When you see Akhal-Teke horse, you are see something very wonderful. Not usual. This is desert horse. They raise their head so high, to smell the danger long way off. From baby they run always in deep sands, they make the very high step, very beautiful for the dressage. I believe no horse in the world can beat these horse in steeplechase. The coat shine like the gold."

Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy [Jonathan Maslow]

The Akhal-Teke horse, a desert purebred for hundreds of years, is quite unlike an Arabian, an English thoroughbred or any other equus: it has enormous stamina (it can cover 125 miles a day for weeks on end) and beauty (a much longer neck than other horses and an iridescent coat). This breed is a Turkmen's most precious possession, but it was almost wiped out under Soviet rule, and only recently has it begun to make a comeback. Few Westerners have ever laid eyes on these marvelous creatures, but the author was determined to see and ride them, and to spend time with their breeders and trainers.

The horse occupies a central place in Turkmen culture. While there are different sub-species of the Turkmen horse, most taking their names from the tribes with which they were traditionally associated, the most celebrated of the Turkmen horses is the Ahal Tekke. Lean in build, with long, thin legs, long ears, a sparse mane and small head, the Ahal Tekke is also characterised by a shiny, almost metallic coat, shown to particularly stunning effect in the golden-coated members of the breed. Turkmen horsemen claim that the long neck, also characteristic of the Ahal Tekke, is developed by placing the meals of young horses in holes dug into the sand, forcing them to stretch their necks to eat.

Ahal Tekkes are particularly well suited to long-distance endurance races. It is likely that some of the Eastern horses brought into England in the 17th and 18th centuries as 'Arabs' or Turks', and which helped to develop the English thoroughbred, were in fact Ahal Tekkes. But the breed has experienced a difficult history. Under tsarist rule in the 1890s, attempts were made to ensure the future of the Ahal Tekke through the establishment of a stud farm at Keshi, outside Ashgabat. The outstanding stud horse, Boynou, is recognised as the forefather of the modern lines of the breed. But with Soviet rule came collectivisation, and the banning of the private ownership of horses. The Red Army showed little interest in the thin-looking Ahal Tekkes, whose future seemed to lie as draught animals on collective farms.

It was to demonstrate to the Soviet authorities the stamina of the breed, and thereby help to guarantee its future, that in 1935 30 Turkmen riders covered a 4,300km journey from Ashgabat to Moscow in 84 days, arriving in the Soviet capital, to rapturous applause, wearing traditional Turkmen telpeks. The strategy seemed to pay off: in 1945, Marshal Zhukov inspected the Victory Parade in Red Square on a white Ahal Tekke. Khrushchev gave the Ahal Tekke stallion Melekush to Queen Elizabeth II in 1956; this horse's wonderful golden coat gave rise to a new colour in British equestrian vocabulary: 'old gold'. In 1960, the black Ahal Tekke stallion Absent, ridden by Sergei Filatov, won a dressage gold medal at the Rome Olympics.

The post-war Soviet focus on mechanisation of farming prioritised tractors, not horses, and it was not until the 1980s that the authorities started again to show real interest in the breed. Another Ashgabat-Moscow horse race, in 1988, helped to consolidate it. This time 28 riders covered a more direct route of 3,200km in 63 days. Following Turkmenistan's independence, the Ahal Tekke horse has been given a central place in the iconography of the new state. A Turkmen Horse Day has been celebrated each year since 1992 on the last Sunday of April. Yanardag, a golden Ahal Tekke stallion owned by the president, is depicted at the centre of the Turkmen national emblem. The state association Turkmen Atlary has been established to develop the breed, as well as the sport of horse racing.

There are good opportunities to ride Ahal Tekke horses. Some overseas travel companies bring tourists to Turkmenistan specifically for this purpose. Turkmen travel agencies can put together horse-trekking trips of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. Two of the best-equipped private stables, both of which are used by travel agencies, lie in the Geok Depe area.

Shahmenguly - Hemra Gulmedov runs a stable of 40 Ahal Tekke horses at this farm, 2km to the west of the village confusingly named Geok Depe, which lies northwest of Geok Depe town. Accommodation is available here, either in the form of yurts, decorated in traditional style with felt rug flooring, or in a motel block comprising six air-conditioned rooms with en-suite showers. Hemra does not accept direct bookings, but works through several local travel agencies. He can put together trekking programmes ranging from a few hours to long desert expeditions.

Alaja - To reach these stables, turn southwards off the main Ashgabat to Geok Depe road, 8km west of Abadan. The turning is signposted for Geokdere. After another 8km, turn right at the base of the hills. A couple of kilometres further on, turn left onto a rough track, which heads a few hundred metres towards the clearly visible farm. Katya Kolestnikova has around 25 Ahal Tekke horses, amongst a menagerie of dogs, cats, doves and the occasional cow. Katya's stables stand at the foothills of the Kopet Dag Mountains, and her treks tend to focus on the hills, as opposed to the desert environments favoured by Hemra. While also working through local travel agencies, Katya can be contacted direct (Mob 800 663 30362), charging around US$10 an hour to ride one of her Ahal Tekke horses. She can provide helmets and basic riding equipment.