Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Turkmens and Ahal Tekes

Sacred Horses: Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathan Maslow

...The Eurasian steppes are almost indisputably the place where humans first domesticated, bred, and eventually mounted horses as well as one of the places where Equus caballus flourished as a wild species. The exact date of the horse's domestication is unknown, but by the third millennium b.c., steppe herdsmen were likely keeping mares for food and milk, leaving them in season where wild stallions would cover, or mate with, them. Everything learned from paleontology and archaeology tends to confirm the idea that a wild blood horse continued to exist in Central Asia long after domestication. According to Soviet mammalogist W. O. Witt, it had "outstanding speed and endurance, (was) high on the leg, with a dished face, and highly developed nervous system."

With the invention by the Central Asian nomads of the harness and stiff saddle, steppe peoples were ready for a life of long migrations and constant mounted warfare over pasturage and water. They were highly mobile cavalry archers—the scourge of ancient warfare—and traveled with their herds in front of them so that each man might create the scarifying effect of fifty. When the Scythians swept across the steppes in the seventh century b.c., they already were the ancient world's most infamous warriors. Herodotus said of them, "Their country is the back of a horse." By that time, they were gelding colts for use as pure riding horses. These Central Asian light cavalry-type horses became far and away the most famous horses of the ancient world, sought after by Chinese emperors, Mongol khans, and Persian sultans. When Herodotus described the Persian empire's military resources led by King Xerxes into Greece in 480 b.c., the Arabs were expressly distinguished as riding camels, not horses, while the Central Asian tribes contributing horse cavalry were those who gave their names to these anciently renowned breeds: Turanian, Bactrian, Median, and Parthian horses. Eventually, they acquired the name Turkoman horse, from the Turkoman tribes who were the most recent nomads to occupy the extreme southwestern  Asian dry steppes and deserts. This classical area of fine horse breeding is located in the former Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan.

About one year after I began to plan my journey across the steppes, I came across an artitle on Turkmenistan in a Soviet magazine. It described a Socialist republic in the Kara Kum Desert with a population of "former nomads" now practicing settled agricultlire with the help of water from the eleven hundred kilometer Kara Kum Canal, a monumental Soviet engineering project diverting water from the Amu Darya River. The Amu Darya had been known in ancient times as the Oxus and was the limit of the known world until Alexander's march through barbarian Asia. The intriguing term "former nomads" seemed to go along with the article's coy admission that tampering with nature on such a grand scale as diverting the Amu Darya River was the principal reason the Aral Sea was drying up, creating new desert and salinated wastelands. What is a former nomad anyway? I wondered. Did it mean a people granted sufficient pasturelands that they were no longer forced to migrate and conflict with their neighbors, or a people denied all rights to herds and pasturelands, thus cut off from their traditional livelihood and culture? Perhaps it was some combination of the two, but the article did not say, and the term itself smacked of the ruthless process by which "civilization" was imposed on peoples by more technologically advanced societies for profits and political ends.

Much to my surprise and excitement, however, the article went on to say that Turkoman horses were still bred there, refined further as the Akhal-Teke breed. Consulting The Encyclopedia of the Horse, I found the Akhal-Teke described, in unflattering terms, as "a small, lean, wiry, obstinate horse," albeit with a handsome and unique golden-colored coat possessing a "brilliant metallic sheen." Cryptic coloring and camouflage for life on the golden steppes? Akhal-Tekes, I further learned, are among the world's toughest breeds. They were employed in a famous marathon trek in 1935 from Ashkhabad—the marvelously named capital of Turkmenistan—to Moscow, some 2,500 miles, during which the horses crossed 225 miles of the Kara Kum Desert bounding the steppes on the north in three days with no water whatsoever.

When the Soviet curators of the fine exhibition "Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes" at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington agreed that Turkmenistan was the best place to go if I hoped to find horses, ex-nomads, and ride through the Eurasian steppes, I began to focus on that little-known and remote corner of the world called the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan - where, the Sovietethnologists warned, I ought to bring a truckload of provisions since there was nothing at all to eat. In this matter, however, they proved incorrect. When I dinally got to Turkmenistan, all the people did was eat. I have never seen more food in my life.

... "The Turkmen loves three things," Yusup went on. "His horse, his wife, and his hunting dog. The old Turkmen started out from his tent at four a.m., when the air was fresh and cool, and rode his Akhal-Teke hard, so they needed to breathe deeply and develop strong leg muscles for galloping through the desert. The Akhal-Teke was always used for hard work over long distances—perhaps across to Iran on a raid, then back down to the desert. Tell Phil Case that the foals have to go out with their mothers. Only with their mothers. You can't let other mares out with them. They need to run. That is the answer to the contracted heel problem. Here foals are generally hardy, but they could be stronger if they exercised the mares more when in foal. Here they are afraid of walking them. They do the same with pregnant women here; it's the Turkmen culture to confine pregnant females. But these mares have been birthing for many years. They are constantly confined. As a result, their muscles and uteruses have atrophied. If this continues, it will weaken the breed. Already our horses are not attaining the size of earlier generations; they are becoming smaller. The reason is weak feed and not running the mares. The Akhal-Teke must run."