By western standards, the Akhal-Teke is not a perfect specimen. Standing at about 1.57 m (15.2 hh), it is often long-backed with a tendency to be split-up behind, lacking the substantial second thigh so prized by western riders. The rib cage is also shallow but there is an unusually pronounced muscular development and the head, set on a long neck, is arresting in appearance.
The skin is particularly thin and the hair is very fine, which is a characteristic of desert-bred horses. The coat colours are bay, chestnut, or dun, and they frequently have a golden metallic sheen. A peculiar feature of the breed, which is not appreciated in the West, is for the head to be carried above the level of the rider’s hand. This head position is termed “above the bit”, and is deemed to reduce the rider’s effective control. Racing is endemic to the Turkoman people.
The origin of the Akhal-Teke is part of the mystery. In at least 1000 BC, horses bred at Ashkhabad, still a centre for the Akhal-Teke, were famed as racehorses, as they are today. Five hundred years later, the 30,000-strong Bactrian guard of King Darius of Persia (522-486 BC) was mounted on horses of this type in and around Turkmenistan. The official Russian version, which is not easily substantiated, claims that the Akhal-Teke is a pure breed. It also claims that it is as old as the Arab Whether this is true or not, the breed approximates almost exactly to the postulated Horse Type 3 and there is a distinct similarity to the Arab racing strain, the Munaghi.
The question as to whether the Munaghi Arab and wrapped in heavy felt both against the cold, desert nights and in the midday sun to ensure a complete absence of surplus fat. To maintain hard condition still further, they feed the horses on a high-protein, low-bulk diet. Traditionally, the feed comprises a little dry lucerne (when available), pellets of mutton fat, eggs, barley, and quatlame, a fried dough cake. In modern times the Akhal-Teke was “improved” for racing with outcrosses to the Thoroughbred. However, this reduced the horses’ capacity to withstand intense heat. The policy has now been reversed, and breeders have returned to the pure lines.
The Akhal-Teke is renowned for its endurance over long distances in severe climatic conditions, even more than for its racing ability (which is not comparable to that of the Thoroughbred). The most famous test of their endurance was the ride from Ashkhabad to Moscow, made in 1935 by Akhal-Teke and Iomud horses. The distance was 4,128 km (2,580 miles), 960 km (600 miles) of which was over the desert, where water was not easily available. The horses travelled most of the way virtually without water. The journey was completed in 84 days, and the extraordinary feat has never been equalled.
In the countries that made up the former USSR, Akhal-Teke horses are used for a variety of competitive sports, such as jumping, long-distance riding, and dressage The 1960 gold medal dressage winner in Rome, the stallion Absent, was an Akhal-Teke, and was the son of a noted high-jump specialist. It must be assumed that he was the exception proving the rule since in order to win, he would have had to carry his head in the conventional manner, the mouth somewhat below the rider’s hand.
In recent years the participation of the former Russian republics in international equestrian sport has increased, although the pattern is still far from being consistent. Inevitably, contact with foreign teams and equestrian thought and practice outside the confines imposed by the Iron Curtain concept has had its influence on the breeding of sport horses. To compete in the major disciplines with any hope of success the horses have had to meet the accepted requirements of the tests, and that has an obvious effect upon breeding policies. As a result, even the highly individual Akhal-Teke is being developed to meet new criteria and beginning to show a conformational outline closer to the pattern of the European competition