World’s best horse breeds: Akhal-Teke

In 1956, The Queen was gifted an unusual horse by Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the then Soviet Union — a bright golden-dun stallion named Melekush. The story goes that the royal grooms tried to clean off what they thought was an unnatural polish, but Melekush glowed even more after washing.

He was an Akhal-Teke, a breed that is known for its iridescent metallic sheen. The breed name comes from the long oasis in the foothills of the Kopet-Dag Mountains called Akhal, which is now part of Turkmenistan. The “Teke” is for the Turkmen tribe, a nomadic people who inhabited the oasis and raised these exotic horses.

akhal-teke horseThough the exact age of the breed is unknown, it is thought to be an ancient one, perhaps even older than the Arabian. Some believe that the “Byerley Turk” — one of the progenitors of the modern Thoroughbred — may have been an Akhal-Teke. It is thought to be the oldest surviving cultured equine breed and, while its blood has influenced the development of several modern horse breeds, its own unique features have remained largely undiluted for centuries.

Certainly, its location kept the breed pure — historic movement of peoples through Central Asia, whether for raids on other tribes or for trading with them, tended to bypass the Akhal oasis, which is sheltered by mountains to the south, the Caspian Sea to the West and the fearsome Karakum desert to the north. It was this desert, which covers most of Turkmenistan, that made the Akhal-Teke the hardy creature it is. It had to withstand extreme heat: Karakum is the hottest desert in Central Asia — dry, stinging cold and drought.

With little grazing available for most of the year, the Turkmene horse had to survive on meagre rations, mostly grains mixed with mutton fat supplied by its masters and fed by hand. To this day the breed has an affinity with its human handlers.

Like the Arab, it excels in endurance riding, but an eight-year-old black Akhal-Teke stallion named Absent won individual dressage gold at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, individual and team bronze in the 1964 Tokyo Games and team gold in Mexico in 1968.

Images: Akhal-Teke stallions, both by Artur Baboev, CC BY-SA 3.0;


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