What historians and scientists know is that the Akhal-Teke, Arabian, Barb, and Turk share similar ancestry, with the latter three contributing to the blood of the modern Thoroughbred.
Everyone knows of the Arabian horse as a venerable breed, but the Akhal-Teke may be even older. While documentation of the Akhal-Teke goes back about 3,000 years, equine remains found preserved in permafrost in a southern Siberian burial site, which dates from the 6th Century B.C., are very similar to today's Akhal-Teke.
Early breeders of the Akhal-Teke were Turkmenistan tribesmen, who used their horses to raid neighbouring territories. It is believed that both the Persian Emperor Xerxes and the Macedonian king Alexander the Great rode Akhal-Tekes. The breed quickly established a reputation as lightning fast and hardy, and it was highly valued by the Russians and Chinese, Marco Polo having learned of the Akhal-Teke's attributes in his travels along the Silk Road.
Akhal-Tekes in the old days were not kept in herds but rather tethered outside their owners' houses or tents. They were covered in felt, which helped develop their short, glistening coat, and hand fed a bare diet that included a small amount of grain and mutton fat to encourage a lean, muscular body.
Even once hay became available in this part of the world, green food was typically withheld from the Akhal-Teke's diet, to replicate what they were traditionally fed in the desert. These horses were also given a minimum amount of water, and they grew into a breed that was easily able to travel long distances without needing to stop for hydration.
In 1881, what is now Turkmenistan was subsumed by the Russian Empire, and the Akhal-Teke became a popular Russian horse. It was at this time that the breed acquired its current name: "Akhal" for the oasis at which it was first developed and "Teke" for the Turkmenian tribe that raised the horses.
During the early 20th Century, Anglo Thoroughbred blood was introduced, in an attempt to increase the size and speed of the Akhal-Teke, although this practice was discontinued soon after.
Moving into modern times...
A now famous race in 1935 from Ashgabat (the capital of modern Turkmenistan) to Moscow showed that purebred Akhal-Tekes outperformed their half-bred counterparts. In perhaps the most demanding endurance race ever, the horses crossed 2,580 miles (4,152 kilometres) in just 84 days, including three days with no water at all.
That's an average of 34 miles or 49 kilometres per day for nearly three months straight, across rough mountainous terrain and the Karakum Desert!
Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan became a sovereign nation, and pure Akhal-Teke lines were once more mixed with Thoroughbred blood, mostly for flat racing.
Because of these attempts to produce faster horses with mixed breeding, DNA testing is now used to evaluate the purity of Akhal-Teke lines. Turkmenistan is still considered a major Akhal-Teke breeding and auction centre, as is Russia, with fine horses also being bred throughout Europe and in Iran, Australia, Uruguay, and the United States of America.
What makes the Akhal-Teke appearance and conformation unique?
Thousands of years in a harsh environment have developed a one-of-a-kind look to the Akhal-Teke.
The face and head are built to withstand fast running and sandstorms, with almond shaped, often hooded eyes, tall, slim ears, and large nostrils in a usually convex profile.
One of the most noticeable and desirable traits of the Akhal-Teke is the luminous, metallic sheen to its coat, which may have afforded camouflage in the desert. Akhal-Tekes can be found in a wide range of colours:
- Black (including smokey black and smokey cream)
- Bay (ranging from black to mahogany to golden, with glittery reds, dapples, and highlights, as well as buckskin and perlino colours)
- Red and liver chestnut (including palomino, cremello, and light gold palomino, AKA isabella in Europe)
- Grey (dappled coat that may eventually turn entirely white)
- White markings are common on Akhal-Tekes. This breed also enjoys many blue-eyed horses—in all colours, not just cremello—and there are odd-eyed and marble-eyed horses in all coat shades as well. The mane and tail are typically quite sparse.
The conformation of the Akhal-Teke is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition amongst horse aficionados. Most remarkable is the horse's very long, straight neck—almost vertical—set high on sloping shoulders above high withers.
Akhal-Tekes have a long back, flat croup, shallow rib cage, and narrow chest, with slim hindquarters as well. The forelegs are extremely straight, and the rear legs are frequently sickled (cow hocks).
Akhal-Tekes stand on tiny feet with low-set heels, about 14.2 to 16 hands, with an average of just over 15 hands.
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Like a ballet dancer who looks unpromising until he or she begins to move, the Akhal-Teke is graceful and athletic.
The conformation that may look jarring at rest allows many to enjoy what they call the "glide ride": smooth gaits, with little bodily swing and powerful but supple impulsion. At liberty, Akhal-Tekes will prance about more, shifting their heads and turning their ears in an exotic fashion, always alert to the world around them.
What kind of dispositions do Akhal-Tekes have?
It should come as no surprise, given how they were raised for millennia, that Akhal-Tekes tend to be one-person horses, making them less than ideal for rentals and family swapping.
Spirited, proud, and highly intelligent to the point of being opinionated, Akhal-Tekes can be excitable and challenging, even for experienced riders and trainers.
However, their willingness to work hard and their loyalty win them big points, and they perform best for someone who offers them regular strenuous exercise, attention, and variety.
Some Akhal-Teke owners say their horses even protect them like guard dogs, placing themselves between their owners and strangers or trying to bite people they believe are a danger to their riders.