History of Akhal-Teke


Genetic researchers, assisted by archaeologists, performed DNA analyses for several years, and drew the conclusion that the remains of horses of Hungarian origin found on sites dating to the 10th century can be identified with the present-day Akhal-Teke breed from a genetic point of view

Lovas Nemzet January 2007

In Europe, the breed in the last half century has slowly become known among the lovers of special horses. We Hungarians responded a little later, despite only we have had a relationship with the breed in our ancient history among the Central European nations.

Biological Research Institute of Szeged Prof. István Raskó

The history of the Akhal-Teke breed looks back upon a long period of time: those, who are interested in it have to go back 2-3.000 years in history to the boundaries of great ancient cultures and endless steppes, where the Silk Road forked towards the great empires of those days.

It is important to determine the geographical area where this breed lived. This area is surrounded by the Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea, the Thian Shan mountain ranges and the Pamir Mountain. The name of this area surrounded by these seas and mountains is called Central Asia. Maybe it is even more important to locate the exits from this area. To the east there was a narrow pass through the Tarim Basin in the direction of the Chinese Empire. Another exit to north-west meandered around the Caspian Sea across the rivers Don and Volga in the direction of Europe, while to the south there was another exit through Persia in the direction of Asia Minor, Arabia and India.

Well, this horse breed, which is so important for us, was created in this spacious area of “central” importance that also had diverse exits. We think that this breed is more important than it is commonly acknowledged regarding its history of breeding and culture.

Major trading activities were performed in this area among main centres of ancient civilizations before seafaring and trade began to take its share in general trade.

The southern part of this ancient eastern region is commonly referred to as Persia.

When the Parthian Empire or Bactria is mentioned, the concept of equestrian culture is associated with these regions immediately, although they are the same areas As far as warfare, cavalry had a much more important role here than in other peoples living in various other areas. The Parthians even made a distinction between light and heavy cavalry, which indicates that they had two types of horses.

During the migration period in the 5th and 6th centuries the Magyars and the Turkic peoples arrived in this area about half a century apart only. The Turks arrived first in an area east of the Caspian Sea neighbouring Persia and also in an area between the rivers Volga and Don, which later became the Khazar Khaganate, the largest state in those days.

We, Magyars set up our dwelling place on the other side of the river Don, and we were neighbours with the Turks for over 200 years in the southern steppes.

It would be useful to have more knowledge about this period. I am not a historian however I should like to know why so many strong nomadic peoples disappeared and we, Magyars survived. I can imagine how important this period of two centuries was. The time period the Magyars spent with the Khazars must have provided a lot of patterns and examples. With a modern expression we could say that this was a multicultural environment with the relationships among the courts of the monarchs, new ways of economic activities, trading routes, which led to the relatives of the Khazars, the Turkic peoples, who lived in the northern part of Persia, and the Persian culture itself, which had a great impact on the whole region. It is quite certain that all this had an influence also on the Magyars living in this region.

The HORSE occupied a central position in this local universe,

Now let us take a closer look at the horse breed, which now exists in the areas of the Amu darya river and the Karakum Desert in the 20th century.

Our starting point may be that the original, ancient breeding area for the horse is the grassland of steppes. An ancient, primitive form was preserved since the husbandry used for horses remained unchanged for millennia. With a great number of headcount no particular selection was performed. Even if there was a small amount of grass, endless graving pastures were available. This is what horse husbandry has been like in the steppes of Kazakhstan and Mongolia up to this day. In southern regions the steppes were even dryer. The landscape was also different with fertile pieces of land in narrow valleys and oases only surrounded by large, barren areas. In such a region there could not be a large number of horses, and what people had only but a handful, enjoyed great respect since the oases were sometimes 150-200 kilometres apart. A decision had to be made about the selection of the most suitable breed of horses. Mass breeding in the steppes was replaced by individually handled horses in later years. Most probably this was one of the most important feature in the history of horse breeding.

Selection performed in oases resulted in the appearance of the ancient thoroughbred. This is a commonly acknowledged fact, although this process is attributed to have taken place in Arabia. The Arabs set out to conquest various lands in the 7th century A. D. About 100 years prior to this a legend was born about Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. The story was that this horse came from Central Asia, the region described above. 1000 years is a very long period of time during which a great abundance of events took place in Persia and in the areas east of the Caspian Sea and the fast gallop of horses was in the centre of these events if I may use such a picturesque description. When the Arabs appeared in Central Asia, a highly developed equestrian culture had existed there for several centuries. To cut a long story short, the oases mentioned above were in the areas of the Amu darya river and the Karakum Desert.

If we return to the role of Russians, we can say that some Soviet army generals could afford to patronise this breed. Some of them paraded riding the best specimens of this breed in Red Square in front of the Kremlin during the military parade celebrating their victory at the end of World War II.

The western world got to know this breed at the Olympic Games in Rome. Absent, a black Akhal stallion won the gold medal in dressage to take it home to Moscow.

We started to continue this story in Hungary in 1973 however this leads us to the story of our horse breeding.

The busiest trading routes on dry land in Eurasia were to be found in this region between ancient times and the 18th century. It is easier to evoke those days if I mention the names of empires and cities. Khorezm was founded at the same time as the ancient Greek culture existed, and Khorezm remained a state until the Middle Ages. Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand, Khiva, Kasghar and Fergana were trading cities and the centres of empires. It was transportation and the tough semi-desert environment that developed the features of this breed to be what it is like today.

If the “heavenly steeds sweating blood” went as far as the court of the emperor of China and were ridden by the bodyguards of the Khalifa of Baghdad, why would they not make their way to us? We were in the right place at the right time. Take a look at the map: we ate cherries from the same plate with the Khazars, people related to the Turks in Turania. There were trade routes in that area everywhere. Let us rejoice that it was like that and that this is now a scientifically proven fact thanks to Professor István Raskó.

These miniatures were made in Persia probably in the 15th century. In these pictures the type and especially the colour of the horses is indicative to the fact that this breed spread over a larger area than what was inhabited by Turkmens in those days. In the third picture a Persian aristocrat is depicted during a hunting session when he meets some horse shepherds. The hats these shepherds are wearing show features characteristic to the attire that steppe nomads wore. The aristocrat is offered a drink from a cup, while at the background a white liquid, koumiss(?) is poured out of a leather bottle. To me this picture suggests that in those days nomadic Turkmens were accepted as horse keepers in that contemporary social structure and they were regarded and respected as such. I also have the additional thought that they saved this breed and helped it to survive from ancient times from which only ruins of fortifications and legends remained.

It was however another nation, the Russians, who played an important role in the fact that this breed returned in the 20th century. The Russian tzars colonised Turkmen and Uzbek regions in the second half of the 19th century. Turkmen horses gained popularity among Russian army officers very quickly, so they were bred for military purposes. This breed played an important role in the development of several warm-blooded breeds even outside the borders of Russia. Akhal-Teke stallions were recorded also in the Trakhenen Stud Book. It is known that out of the three stallions that founded the English Thoroughbred one stallion, Byerley Turk was a Turkmen horse.