Photography by ARTUR BABOEV

Text by Aleksandr Klimuk

Abrams, New York

in association with PQ Blackwell

“The Akhal-Teke is one of the oldest horse breeds in the world.

It represents the purest version of the Turkmen horse and is a direct

descendant of the famed Central Asian mounts of antiquity:

the horses of the Massagetae, the Niseans, and the Parthians. ”

The end of the twelfth century saw the rise of a new power:

the Khwarezmian Empire. According to the Hiva historian

Abulgazi, Khwarezm wielded power over the Turkmen tribes,

including the Teke, who were part of a larger tribal alliance

headed by the Salyr people. But at the height of its influence,

the Khwarezmian Empire came up against Genghis Khan and

his Mongol army. Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, the last ruler of the

Khwarezmian Empire, was defeated in battle on the banks of

the river Indus; rather than allowing himself to be captured, he

rode his horse into the river, swam to the other side, and fled

from his Mongol pursuers.

He continued to oppose Genghis Khan and fought for another

ten years until his death. The Turkmen tribes who supported

Khwarezm (including the Teke) were eventually forced to

accept Mongol rule, but they retained their customs, including

their horse-breeding secrets. Those tribes who did not accept

Mongol rule migrated west. Among these was the Osman

tribe, who were to lay the foundations of the Ottoman Empire.

Evidence that Turkmen horses were being exported to nearby

countries by the thirteenth century is clear from the writings

of the Italian explorer Marco Polo, who noted their superior

quality. So, too, did many merchants, including the Russian

Afanasy Nikitin, who took a well-bred stallion to India to sell

in the fourteenth century. Indeed, some well-known Asian

breeds can be considered direct descendants of the Turkmen

horse: the Persian horse, the Karabakh horse of Azerbaijan, and

the Indian breeds Marwari and Kathiawari.

Although the Ottoman Turks had easy access to Arabian

horses, they attached special value to the horses bred in their

historic homeland. According to the eighteenth-century

German-born explorer Carsten Niebuhr, the Turks did not

value Arabian horses, but instead preferred their taller, slender,

majestic-looking horses decorated with elaborate jewelry. In

Asia Minor and throughout the Near East, the Turkmen

horses continued to be bred, and there is evidence that in

Syria this continued until the nineteenth century. In the

1890s, well-known Arabian breed expert O. A. Balakshin

noted certain similarities in the conformation of the Syrian

Arab and the Akhal-Teke.

Naturally, these Turkmen horses greatly influenced local

breeds. In Mesopotamia, a new strain emerged within the

Arabian breed as a result of crossing Arabian and Turkmen

horses. Experts on Arabian horses, such as Carl Reinhard

Raswan, Johannes Erich Flade, and Erica Schille, agree that

such a cross-breeding took place, but there are differences of

opinion about the extent to which it occurred. The new strain

was known as the Muniqui Arabian: taller than the classic type

and longer in the body, with a certain angularity of form and

an impressive speed.

While Turkmen horses were less well known in Europe, they

nevertheless left a significant trace. Horses from Central Asia

and the Near East that found their way to Europe were often

referred to as Arabian and exerted considerable influence on

European horse breeding, including in the creation of the

English Thoroughbred. According to eminent Russian

hippologist Professor V. O. Vitt, the English Thoroughbred

foundation stallion Darley Arabian, who was shipped to

England from Syria in 1704, was a Turkmen horse, or possibly

a Turkmen-Arabian cross. Besides Darley Arabian, a host of

horses used to create the English Thoroughbred bear a striking

resemblance to the Turkmen horse. Significantly, certain

aspects of the English race-training tradition—such as

exercising under blankets, early breaking, and training of

young stock—are remarkably similar to the old Turkmen

traditions. It is therefore a safe assumption that the training

methods themselves may have been brought to England by

the grooms and handlers who accompanied the horses on

their journey to the British Isles. While the authentic type of

Turkmen horse did not survive in Turkey, the Turks were

always aware of their common Turkoman heritage and when

the Turkmen horses found their way to the stables of the

sultan, they were valued more than another breed.

At the end of the Mongol invasions in the late 1200s, the

Turkmen tribes who had remained in their historic homeland

found themselves under the rule of three contiguous political

entities: the Golden Horde, the Ilkhanate of Persia, and the

Chagatai Khanate. These states had nominal borders, and their

existence was punctuated by incessant wars and scuffles. By

the fourteenth century, practically all of Central Asia and

Persia were amalgamated under the influence of Tamerlane.

Some Turkmen tribes supported Tamerlane and others

opposed him in bitter armed struggle. After the fall of

Tamerlane’s empire, the history of the Turkmen territory, up

to the time of its annexation to the Russian Empire, is an

integral part of Persian history and that of two Uzbek

principalities: the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of

Khiva. Both of these states aspired to exert influence over the

Turkmen people, and the fortunes of each, to some extent,

depended on whose side the famed Turkmen mounted

warriors were prepared to take.

The reputation of the Turkmen was inextricably linked to the

superior quality of their horses. No other type of horse that

the Turkmen came into contact with could compare with

their own prized breed. This was probably the main reason

why Turkmen horses were bred to stay pure: the quality of war

horse guaranteed the owner not only his wealth but his life

itself. Keeping such finely bred animals in Turkmen conditions

was very expensive, but in the desert, any horse required the

owner to buy barley and lucerne, so there was no real

advantage in keeping the cheaper, more common steppe horse

(known as yabi in Turkmen language).

The Teke tribe, like all Turkmen tribes, was divided into

sedentary (chomur) and nomadic (chorva) people, and those

who could afford to move around generally possessed greater

material wealth. It is interesting to note that horse breeding

was more the domain of the chomur, who were poorer but

more militant. Unlike the diets of other peoples of Central

Asia, the Turkmen diet never included horse meat or mare’s

milk (kumys), and killing a horse, no matter how old or sick,

was regarded as sinful.

When the Turkmen were not out on alamans (mounted raids

on the Silk Road caravans), or attacking rival tribesmen, they

raced their horses. Race trainers, known as seis, guarded their

training secrets and passed them down orally through the

generations. Preparation for a race was divided into two stages.

The first stage was “feeding up,” where the condition of the

horse was enhanced by feeding it the standard Akhal-Teke diet

of barley and alfalfa, but with the addition of eggs and bread

smeared with mutton fat. During this period, horses were

worked only at a walking pace, usually by riding them to a

watering hole. The second stage was race training, which

included a gradual increase in canter work, while also

continuing the walking regime. The horses were worked

under felt blankets to encourage sweating, allowing them to

lose fat and build muscle.

Races were a favorite national pastime of the Turkmen people

and were staged on auspicious occasions. Most races were run

between just two horses and over a distance no longer than 5

furlongs (0.63 mile); the winner usually took part in the next

race, running as many as four races in one day. Race winners

were in great demand and were widely used in breeding.

Races were a key factor in determining selection criteria for

Turkmen horse breeding, as was the performance of horses in

military raids. This was not the case for the Turkmen’s Central

Asian neighbors, however, who saw horse racing as mere

entertainment and usually gelded their winners.


In Russia, too, Turkmen horses, known as argamaks, were

highly regarded. They were ridden by the gentry and used at

imperial stud farms. Merchants and emissaries traveling to

Persia, Khiva, and Bukhara invariably returned with argamaks

to be presented as gifts to the tsar. The wars waged by Peter the

Great during the seventeenth century wiped out a huge

portion of the Russian equine population and decimated the

imperial stud farms. When the time came to restore horse

breeding, industry breeders turned to the argamaks. By decree

of Peter the Great, new stud farms were built in Kazan and

Simbirsk principalities, with instructions to use Persian

stallions on Cherkassy mares. Although the project itself was

never completed, it tells us that the “recipe” for producing

quality saddle horses—using the argamak as an improver—was

well known to horse breeders at that time.

Turkmen horses in general, and particularly those bred by the

Teke tribe, played an important role in Russian selective

breeding in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth

centuries. Professor V. O. Vitt describes this vividly in his

collection of articles entitled “Horse Breeds of Central Asia.”

According to the data he collected across stud farms in Russia

in the 1840s, almost 40 percent of horses were Turkmen in

origin. To source Turkmen horses, the Russian government

dispatched special expeditions to Central Asia, led by

veterinarians Kersting and Nanni, who between them

purchased thirty horses. Teke stallions commanded the highest

price and the most expensive of all was the future stud stallion

of the Streletsk stud farm, Yalantush-Khan, who played a

central part in the creation of the Streletsk breed.

According to Professor Vitt, the foundation sire of the Orloff

Saddlebred, the dark-brown Sultan the First, was most likely a

Turkmen horse, too. In the Don stud farm in 1839, there were

over eight hundred Turkmen stallions (though they were

sometimes referred to as Persian).

Turkmen horses were also used by breeders of the Bashkir

region and by the Ural Cossacks. Nineteenth-century Russian

historian and ethnographer Pavel Ivanovich Nebolsin

described a Turkmen stud stallion he saw in a breeding stable

in Bashkiria: “I couldn’t take my eyes away from a gray Teke, a

tall, beautiful animal, five vershoks tall [the writer means two

arshins and five vershoks, which is equal to 16.2 hands], with a

long, straight neck and wondrously fine skin. He had virtually

no mane. His muzzle, legs, and chest were a pleasure to behold.

. . . He was being led by two stocky Bashkir men; he barely

touched the ground as he danced along, and one could see

Akhal-Teke stallion Sardar, by B. P. Villevalde, oil on canvas, 1882. From the Museum of Horse Breeding at the Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy

every ligament under his skin, like a taut steel string. His

whole body, covered in sweat from excessive energy, was

literally swathed in gold. That is the only way to describe the

color of his coat in the sunlight.”

One of the best-known breeding stallions in Germany at the

beginning of the nineteenth century was the golden bay

Turkmen-Atti. He was used at the Neustadt stud, where he

sired a line of horses subsequently used in the creation of the

famous Trakehner breed. It is quite possible that other Eastern

imports used at European stud farms were Turkmen, but

referred to as Arabian, Persian, or Turkish. For example, stallion

Gomoush-Bornu at the German stud farm Weil (now known

as Weil-Marbach) was likely to have been of Turkmen origin.

European explorers and military men who traveled through

Central Asia and Persia often gave pithy descriptions of

Turkmen horses and clearly recognized their superior caliber.

When in 1884 a consignment of six Turkmen horses arrived

in France from Merv, the famous French hippologist Eugène

Gayot wrote about them with great excitement and proclaimed

them to be “the new blood horse.” One of the horses in the

consignment was a stallion named Merv, who was shipped on

to England and included in the Eastern section of the

Weatherbys Thoroughbred studbook.

By the eighteenth century, the Teke had emerged as the most

powerful tribe in the region. Led by Keimir Ker, the Teke

conquered the Akhal oasis, and in the nineteenth century they

annexed Merv, with Kaushut Khan as their leader. Traditionally,

the Teke were considered to be under control of the Khan of

Khiva, but over time they had effectively become independent.

Attempts to subordinate the Teke, first by Khiva in 1858 and

then by Persia in 1861, resulted in outright failure, with severe

military losses. By now, the Teke tradition of selective horse

breeding had become highly sophisticated. Many visitors to

the region noted that the Teke tribe had the best horses among

the Turkmen. Those who encountered a Teke horse for the

first time were struck by its resemblance to the English

Thoroughbred. They noted its exceptional speed and stamina;

its dry, long limbs; and an almost complete lack of mane.


“It was crucial for a Turkmen warrior to have a good war horse to ensure

his and his family’s safety, so well-bred horses were highly prized.”

extinguish Kuropatkin’s zeal to support horse breeding in

Transcaspia. In 1897, he allocated funds from the regional

budget to enable Colonel Kovalev to purchase three purebred

stallions: Abbas-Shah, Abrek, and Alaman-Bay. The following

year, he appointed Grigory Andreevich Mazan, a cavalry

officer of the Caucasian division, and originally a Cossack

from the Korennovsky settlement of the Kuban region, as

manager of Transcaspian Stables. Twelve loose boxes were

erected as stables in the village of Keshi, where the Turkmen

cavalry division was stationed at that time.

A landmark in the history of Transcaspian Stables was the

purchase of Boinou, the greatest purebred Akhal-Teke sire

(the term used in those days was “Akhal-Teke bloodhorse”).

He was acquired at the age of sixteen, by which time he was

well known for the quality of his offspring, who demonstrated

both strong type and superlative speed. Later stallions,

including Voron, Agar, Gecheli, Baba-Akhun, Dovlet-Ishan,

Sapar-Khan, and Mele-Kush, also became famous for the high

caliber of their progeny and eventually became line founders

in the breed. Every mare was issued a covering certificate, and

Mazan accurately recorded the pedigree of the foals and

assessed the quality of the offspring from each breeding pair.

Breeding season lasted from March to June, and two additional

breeding stations were set up in Merv (now Mary) and Fort

Alexander (now Aktau, in Kazakhstan), where local Turkmen

breeders could bring their mares for in-hand cover. From the

time when Transcaspian Stables first opened until 1909, breeding

for the mares belonging to local Turkmen breeders was free.

After 1909, they were charged half the cost established for other,

non-Turkmen breeders residing in the Transcaspian region.

In 1901, regular exhibitions started to be organized to show

the Stables’ yearlings, with the best ones being awarded

monetary prizes and trophies. The activities of the Stables met

with approval from traditional Turkmen breeders, especially

those residing in the vicinity of Ashgabat, the nation’s capital.

The stallions of Transcaspian Stables were in great demand,

exceeding supply. In his reports to the governor of the

Transcaspian region, Mazan regularly highlighted the need to

acquire new “Akhal bloodhorse” sires. In order to retain the

best stallions as well as the best mares, Transcaspian Stables

undertook an expansion that allowed it to maintain a herd of

its own mares, gradually transforming it into a proper

Transcaspian regional stud farm. This move was most likely

prompted by the fact that from 1904 to 1905, 214 Akhal-Teke

mares were exported to Persia, Afghanistan, and India.

Considering the limited overall number of mares within the

breed (recorded as 551 heads in 1896), this one export

constituted a loss of nearly half of the Akhal-Teke mare

population. One hundred hectares were allotted near the

village of Makhtum-Kala near Ashgabat, and Mazan began to

acquire mares for the stud at every opportunity.

Over time, what had started off as a modest undertaking by

General Kuropatkin became a site of keen interest for Ashgabat

and the whole Transcaspian region. Visitors to the area, even

those who were not necessarily horse breeders or enthusiasts,

gave interesting accounts of their excursions to the Stables. A

Russian composer of Swedish descent, V. N. Garteveld, wrote:

“I have never been ‘horsey’ and have never been particularly

interested in equestrianism. However, I must admit that I have

never seen, and could not even imagine, horses of such striking

beauty as those I saw in Ashgabat. Every horse is a piece of

poetry.” Another visitor, gendarme officer A. M. Poliakov,

could not contain his excitement at the sight of the Akhal-

Teke horses: “I remember when the head of the stables,

Captain Mazan, showed me their stallions. It should be noted

that Teke people only ride stallions; to even sit on a mare is

considered shameful. Mazan showed me the difference

between a purebred Akhal-Teke horse and an English

Thoroughbred. I have to say that comparing them does not do

the latter any favors. An English horse stood next to a Teke

looks rather like a commoner before a nobleman.”

The work of Transcaspian Stables came to the attention of the

general public during the exhibitions in Tashkent, Piatigorsk,

and Kiev between 1909 and 1913. The breed, which was once

well known in Russia but then forgotten, had been

rediscovered. Enthusiastic responses abounded in the press,

and the government was called upon to encourage the

breeding of Akhal-Teke horses by state-owned stud farms

outside Transcaspia. The exhibitions changed the economic

fortune of the breed in a seminal way. While Mazan had

previously written about the difficulties of finding commercial

outlets for the horses, after the exhibitions he received so

many inquiries for mares from prospective buyers that “if I was

to satisfy every interested party, there [wouldn’t] be any decent

mares left in the whole of Akhal.”

The combination of Mazan’s efforts at Transcaspian Stables

and the activities of individual traditional Turkmen breeders

led to a renaissance of the Akhal-Teke breed and an increase in

both the quantity and the quality of the horse population.

After Count N. B. Scherbatov, the chief of Imperial Horse

Breeding, visited Transcaspia in 1914, new measures were put

forward that were designed to support Akhal-Teke breeding:

The number of stallions at Transcaspian Stables was to be

increased to sixty; stipends were to be awarded to private

stallion owners; and Transcaspian Stables’ mare herd

(numbering forty to fifty at that time) was to receive

government support. The proposed measures were presented

to Tsar Nicholas II, who, upon consideration, gave them his

royal stamp of approval.

Sadly, with the onset of World War I, the new measures did not

have a chance to be implemented. During the ensuing military

campaign, the Turkmen cavalry regiment, consisting of

Turkmen volunteers mostly riding Akhal-Teke stallions,

became known as the Teke Legion and earned a reputation for

carrying out swashbuckling attacks. The officers of other

cavalry regiments who had been stationed in Central Asia

during peacetime also often chose to ride Akhal-Teke stallions.

Many of these horses died at the front, creating an

unprecedented demand for replacements. The situation soon

reached critical proportions, prompting Mazan to initiate a

petition from the State Horse Breeding Regulatory Authority

to the Ministry of Military Affairs to exempt Akhal-Teke

horses from being sent to the front. The petition was honored,

and the remaining horses were re-registered and some of them

returned by the military to the stud farm. Nevertheless, the

breed was now close to extinction, with the total number of

horses exempted from the military campaign (not including

those kept at Transcaspian Stables) amounting to 643—of

which 405 were mares, 25 were stallions over four years of age,

and the rest youngstock.

During the Russian Civil War, which followed the Russian

Revolution of 1917, the crisis worsened. In an attempt to save

Transcaspian Stables from the advancing Bolshevik Red Army,

the officers of the anticommunist White Army evacuated the

horses to Tersk in the North Caucasus, to a place known today

as the Malkin stud farm. However, the revolution soon arrived

there also, and some of the stallions were requisitioned into

the Red Cavalry, while others found their way into the hands

of local residents. Untold damage was also done to the breed

in Transcaspia, where British troops who had fought alongside

the White Army took sixty Akhal-Teke stallions away with

them as booty. Having thus witnessed the destruction of his

lifelong project, Mazan was forced to depart for Ekaterinodar,

where he fell ill and died on December 28, 1919.

Following the revolution and the creation of the new Soviet


Top left: Buckskin stallion Mele, breed champion of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition. Sirotkin, 1939. From the

Museum of Horse Breeding at the Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy

Above left: Black stallion Voron. I. Lozinsky, 1909. From the archive of TsGAKFFD of Saint Petersburg

Top right: Dark bay stallion Ovlak-Sakar II in front of the graves of Bureida and Gifari (fifteenth-century AD),

Mary, Turkmenistan. A. Shtorkh, 1977

Above right: Buckskin stallion Mele-Kush, All-Russia Exhibition, USSR. D. Kryukov, 1923. From the Museum of

Horse Breeding at the Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy



Right: Stallion Shakhmed, Russia, 2011

Preceding spread: Stallion Esugeibatyr, Slovakia, 2012

Following spread: Stallion Dagat, Russia, 2011

“I couldn’t take my eyes away from a gray Teke… with a

long, straight neck and wondrously fine skin. He had

virtually no mane. His muzzle, legs, and chest were a

pleasure to behold … he barely touched the ground as he

danced along, and one could see every ligament under his

skin, like a taut steel string. His whole body, covered in

sweat from excessive energy, was literally swathed in gold.

That is the only way to describe the color of his coat in

the sunlight.”

Pavel Ivanovich Nebolsin, Russian historian and ethnographer, circa nineteenth century


Right: Herd from Medeus Stud, Slovakia, 2012


Right: Stallion Pai, Russia, 2012

Preceding page: Stallion Khorezm, Kazakhstan, 2013

Page 82: Stallion Ulukbek, Russia, 2010

Pages 80–81: Colt Menelik, Russia, 2013


Above: Stallion Tokhtamysh, Kazakhstan, 2012

Above: Stallion Palvan, Kazakhstan, 2012



Above: Stallion Tyllagush, Russia, 2010

Above: Colt Gepard, Russia, 2010

Following page: Stallion Prestij, Uzbekistan, 2013

Page 93: Stallion Dagat, Russia, 2012



Right: Mares Palba and Maudja, Kazakhstan, 2012

Following spread: Stallions Shakhmed and Gergebil, Kazakhstan, 2012

Pages 152–153: Stallion Gepard, Russia, 2013


Above: Stallion Shakhmed, Kazakhstan, 2012

Above: Stallion Gergebil, Kazakhstan, 2012

Following spread: Stallion Liman, Spain, 2013

Pages 98–99: Stallion Liman, Spain, 2013



Above: Stallion Gepard, Russia, 2013

Above: Stallion Khanbegler, Turkmenistan, 2011

Following spread: Stallion Gapur, Russia, 2011



Right: Mares Palba and Maudja, Kazakhstan, 2012

Following spread: Stallions Posman-Kara and Gala, Russia, 2012

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