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The story of Akhal Teke breeding

Until the time of the Russian victory at Geok Tepe, the Turkmen raised their horses according to tribal traditions. The Tekes, who populated several oases and irrigated zones bordering pure sand desert, were never able to graze herds on their skimpy pasturage. From a very early time, natural conditions determined a unique form of horse breeding. Each Turkmen kept one horse—or at most, if he was rich, an additional mare and foal. By profession the Turkmen was a mercenary for the local despots. Agriculture was secondary. In times of peace between the khans, the Turkmen continued as warriors on their own account, organizing raids against other settlements. Their one recreation was, of course, horseracing. In this Spartan military existence, they were indis-solubly bound to their horses, which were always hand fed, watered daily, covered in felt blankets against the summer sun and winter cold, and kept tethered winter and summer on a long rope outside the Turkmen's kibitka. Whether fighting or racing, the Turkmen showered all his affection and attention on his horse, trained it himself according to precise customs, and prepared his sons to continue the equestrian tradition. From the time they were two years old, the children were made to grip boulders between their legs to develop their riding muscles. The great expanse of Kara Kum Desert lying to the north and east ensured that no infiltration of northern horse types could occur from Mongolia and Kazakhstan. No Turkmen would adulterate the tribal stock with genes of the smaller, shaggier, phlegmatic Mongolian horses, which were considered inferior in every way. Hadn't the great Genghis Khan himself conquered the khanates of Khiva, Bukhara, and Merv to obtain tribute in what the Chinese called the horses of heaven?

With the Russian takeover of Turkestan in the 1880s, however, the mercenary armies were disbanded and the first attempts were made to settle the nomads. The economic and social base for horse breeding began to disappear. Rather than lose their most cherished traditions, many Turkmen moved their tents and horses farther into the desert, or to eastern Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan, where more than one million Turkmen reside to this day.

Thereafter, the Akhal Teke in Turkmenistan was bred mainly for racing, but not the piddling seven-furlong jobs we know in the States. Local races, usually held at weddings, were commonly twenty-five, fifty, or one hundred kilometers. In the meanwhile, the Russians sent Cossacks to occupy Turkmenistan, and they, with their own cavalry and equestrian traditions, began to Russify horse breeding. In 1897, the Russian governor, Alexei Kuropatkin, founded the Zakapiisky breeding stables near Ashkhabad in the village of Keshi. A Kuban Cossack named Mazan was put in charge, and his selections became the foundation of the modern Akhal-Teke breed. Mazan's most outstanding stud was the same Boynou on Geldi's wall. The Zakapiisky stud acquired him as a fifteen-year-old, after a mediocre racing career, but he proved so prepotent that 80 percent of today's pureblood Akhal-Tekes descend from him. The Zakapiisky stables were therefore critical in saving the breed during the transition to Russian suzerainty, though tribal breeding and training continued at some level in the desert oases.

With the Bolshevik Revolution, horse breeding went through another convulsion in Central Asia. In 1918, even before the Reds had defeated the last khan of Khiva and consolidated their hold on Turkmenistan, Lenin promulgated a decree, "On Pedigree Livestock Raising." During the 1920s, all Akhal-Tekes were registered with the state, private ownership of horses was banned, and scientific breeding was introduced among the herd of seventy pureblood horses at the Zakapiisky stables taken over by the Komsomol and renamed, unimaginatively, Konnoza-vod #59 (stud farm #59).

It was now that things began to go radically wrong for the golden horses of Turkmenistan. The new Soviet managers, perhaps better versed in genetics than the average Turkmen nomad, had very different ideas about what was desirable in a pureblood Akhal-Teke. Where the tall sons of Turkmen warriors wanted a tall, lean horse with a fighting spirit, the Red Army wanted a four-legged tank. The most famous Soviet cavalry officer, Marshal Semyon Budyonny, who became minister of war under Stalin, hated the Akhal-Teke and installed a breeding program to produce Red Army cavalry remounts by introducing Donski (Russian Thoroughbred) blood into Akhal-Teke lines. By the mid-1930s, the pureblood Akhal-Teke was in danger of extinction, and it was this that motivated the Turkmen to conduct the famous 1935 probeg to Moscow in an effort to bring the stamina and courage of their breed to the attention of the Soviet authorities, and to stop t he adulteration of the Akhal Teke bloodstock. What a bold and noble impression these Turk men riders must have made parading through the gray streets of Stalin's Moscow on their luminous fiery horses, riders regaled in their silk robes and karakul hats—the only ethnic group in the Soviet Union, Turkmen say, to keep its national costume intact through the years of Soviet efforts to break down nationalities and mold the bland "Soviet Man." And what a daring adventure for the Turkmen, crossing the bandit-ridden desert, the vast wastes of the steppes, in eighty-eight days to a Moscow reception they could hardly have imagined beforehand. It must have been even money they would either be welcomed by their smiling "Little Father" or simply arrested, taken to the edge of town, and liquidated.

In the event, neither occurred. When they reached Moscow in the late summer of 1935, it was in the midst of the brief thaw that came between the forced collectivizations of the early thirties and the purge trials and mass executions, which began in 1936. The totalitarian campaign to "proletarianize" every aspect of life in the USSR was taking a respite. The arts and sciences bloomed in the fashion of sick apartment plants put out in healthy sunlight. Music, movies, and sports flourished. The Turkmen participated in a challenge race circling the entire capital, and won the first sixteen places with their Akhal-Tekes. The favorable impression they made in 1935 can be gauged by the fact that ten years later Marshal Georgi Zhukov, the hero of Stalingrad, led the victory parade ending World War II on a pureblood white Akhal-Teke.

But the Turkmen horses were now firmly tied to the gyrations of the Soviet state. When the screws came down in the postwar period—the grimmest period of Stalin's rule in many respects, for it is always more difficult to reestablish total control of a country than to maintain it from the start—Akhal-Teke horses were among the many victims. These were the years, continuing after Stalin's death through the Khrushchev period, when the state was hell-bent on fostering mechanized agriculture. The tractor driver was elevated to the status of national hero, and all vestiges of national "backwardness" were to be eliminated. Khrushchev returned from his trip to the United States so impressed by the cornfields of the Midwest that he ordered a crash program to make the Soviet Union the world's biggest corn producer. New laws were issued ordering the liquidation of all draft horses. As the antihorse campaign gathered momentum, the economic five-year plans decreed by the Communist party began to treat horses as nothing more than a food product. The state farms in Turkmenistan were issued quotas for horseflesh, and Stud Farm #59 was slated for closure.

The Turkmen could not stand idly by, watching the animals that defined them as a people butchered and ground up for sausage, mainly to feed the influx of Russians and other nationalities who repopulated Ashkhabad after the 1948 earthquake. Escape over the borders of Iran and Afghanistan was too dangerous then; getting caught in the frontier zone smuggling "state property" was a capital crime. So the old nomads turned inward, to the harsh, pitiless land of their ancestors, the Kara Kum Desert. They released their horses to run free and survive on their own in the desert, back to the place where the wild Central Asian bloodstock had flourished long before the Turkmen existed. The breed had evolved under harsh desert conditions and was biologically equipped to survive the hot, dry climate, especially in the absence of many extinct animal predators. To Russians and Westerners the desert is a place of evil and death. The Turkmen bears no such fear, Geldi told me. He quoted the Turkmen poet Atakopek Mergen, who said, "I would never change the beauty of the desert for the beauty of a woman."

No one will ever know how many Turkmen sneaked away into the desert night to leave their horses a bale of pilfered fodder, knowing they would be cruelly dealt with if caught. In their souls burned the pride of their ancestors. Like the biblical prophets keeping the holy laws of the Hebrews alive in desert exile, the Akhal-Teke kept what was sacred to the Turkmen alive during those dark days.

Then in the early 1950s an event of the first importance took place. One of the USSR's most famous horse breeders, Vladimir Petrovich Shambarant, came to Turkmenistan from the Tersk region of Daghestan in the Caucasus, where he had been working. Shambarant knew the story of the desert horses, and came for the sole purpose of mounting an expedition into the Kara Kum Desert to save the Akhal-Teke as a breed under domestication. He captured several feral horses and took them back to the horse-breeding zone of Daghestan in Russia, carefully establishing a breeding program which produced Galishiklee, the prepotent Akhal-Teke stallion of that time. Geldi's black foundation stallion was a grandson of Galishiklee. Shambarant's salvage operation once more snatched the Akhal-Teke from the jaws of extinction. It was only through Shambarant's timely intervention that the possible progenitor of the modern racehorse was saved.

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