The Akhal-Teke is native to Turkmenistan, a republic in central Asia, and is believed to have descended from the Nisean horse which existed 3,000 years ago. It is thought to be a direct descendant of the extinct Turkoman horse, and was selectively bred by Turkmenistan tribesman for long desert rides, and prized for their speed and endurance when conducting desert raids. The breed gets its name from a string of oases in the north side of the Kopet Dag mountains that were inhabited by the Tekke tribe of Turkomans.
The breed’s proud lineage dates back to the Classical Age and Ancient Greece. It may even include Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. This large horse was reportedly afraid of its own shadow, and Alexander turned the animal into the sun to ride him for the first time. Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had a “wall eye” (blue eye), and his breeding was that of the “best Thessalian strain.”
The Persians also had an incredible cavalry with many different breeds of horses. In his stable, Xerxes’ had Nisean horses (or horses from the town of Nisaia, located in the Nisaean Plains at the foot of the southern region of the Zagros Mountains, Iran) which had many notable traits that were passed on to their descendants. One of them was a bony knob on their foreheads often referred to as horns. It’s quite likely that King Darius, Xerxes descendant, flushed with success over defeating the Greeks, could have made gifts of Nisean stallions to the Macedonians. Bucephalus could then have descended from Nisean stock mixed with the ‘best Thessalian strain’.
The horse’s name translates to Ox-head. Was this because he was stubborn? Or was it because he was a handsome ram-headed horse with ‘horns’ like an ox? If he was a descendant of the Thessalonian mares covered by the Persian stallions, then it is every bit conceivable that Alexander’s favorite stallion was indeed ox-headed like the Carthusian, Lusitano, and Spanish Mustang.
In 1881, Turkmenistan was overrun by the Russian Empire. Russian general Kuropatkin developed a fondness for horses he had seen while fighting the tribesmen, founded a breeding farm near the Akhal oasis after the war and renamed the horses, “Akhal-Tekes”. Eighty years later, with Russia struggling to modernize after World War II, the Akhal-Teke breed was nearly wiped out. It was during Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s reign, in the Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s when the party decreed that the horses were of no use other than to be used for meat. Saparmurad Niyazov, head of Turkmenistan’s Communist Party, ended the slaughter in the late 1980s; at that point there were only about 1,250 animals left.
Today, Akhal-Tekes are the national emblem of Turkmenistan, appearing on the country’s official coat of arms, banknotes and stamps. The government offers the horses as diplomatic presents and auctions some to raise money to improve their breeding programs. Akhal-Teke horses are now bred all over the world.
The Akhal-Teke is a lean, elegant horse with a long, thin neck and a noble head with a straight or moderately dished face which features large, expressive eyes and attentive ears. High withers, a deep chest, and long, slim body sit atop long legs with small but tough hooves. Mane and tail are typically silky and thin. Average height ranges from 14.2 to 16 hands,
Coat colours include chestnut, bay, palomino, grey, dun, black and cream, but the breed’s most striking feature is the natural metallic sheen to its coat. These horses are well known for those individuals who have a golden buckskin or palomino color, a result of the cream gene, a dilution gene that also produces the perlino and cremello colors.
The Akhal Teke is intelligent, quick to learn and gentle, but can also be very sensitive, spirited, bold and stubborn.
The Akhal-Teke’s long-striding, fast, agile, and smooth gait makes it an ideal mount for endurance competition and flat racing. Its athleticism also makes it suitable for dressage, show jumping and eventing. One notable example is the Akhal-Teke stallion Absent, who won the Grand Prix de Dressage at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, an individual bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo (Sergei Filatov), and a team gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (Ivan Kalita).