We stood in a huddle in a clearing at a state horse breeding farm near Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, under injunction not to move ‘no matter what’. That injected the right amount of mystery and alarm into the proceedings. Suddenly, without any warning, scores of majestic horses burst on the scene in a storm of hoof beat and dust. They streaked away, wheeled round, presumably at signals from unseen handlers, and bore down upon us, the transfixed spectators, in what can only be described as a controlled stampede. The animals were reputedly highly trained, but they were also highly intelligent, clearly aware that no harm was to come to us. Later, when the hair-raising display was over, we were allowed into the stalls to inspect them. Even to the uninitiated, each horse — with a sculpted head, a long graceful neck and a coat gleaming with a metallic shimmer — seemed to be a work of art, regal in bearing, a mount fit for a king.
And they were. Turkmenistan’s akhal-teke ‘golden horses’ did indeed excite many a king to try to possess them by whatever means possible. Legend has it that the Persian emperor, Cyrus, married a daughter of the King of Medes to gain access to the horses. The Han emperor, Wu Ti, mounted military expeditions and on a successful foray, got 13 horses from Ferghana. For Wu Ti, these ‘blood-sweaters’ (a water-borne parasite causing easy bleeding in the horse’s neck) were the ‘heavenly horses’; their possession was the mark of heaven’s grace.
But the royal connection that the enthusiasts of the akhal-teke most like to flaunt is the one with Alexander of Macedon. For them, the akhal-teke is ultimately Alexander’s horse, his Bucephalus, the most famous war horse of history, itself having been an akhal-teke. This last can do with further scrutiny, but according to historical accounts, to the extent they were reliable in an age much dominated by myth, Alexander did indeed own the Central Asian horses.
The akhal-teke is one of the oldest extant horse breeds of the world, tracing its ancestry to animals living thousands of years ago and identified as, variously, the Turkmene, the Scythian, the Nisean horse, ‘the super horse of the ancient world’. Herodotus, while describing the sacred chariot of Ahura Mazda in the army of Xerxes, mentions a horse “bred in the Nisei plain between Balkh and Midis”, which is graceful, with a clearly shaped head, long flexible neck, large eyes and fine but strong legs. Even allowing for the inevitable cross-breeding experiments over centuries and the blending of bloodlines since the time of Herodotus, it can very well be a description of the horses we were watching at the Turkmen farm. The akhal-teke seems to have defied time in the timeless vast expanses of its home, Central Asia’s Kara Kum desert.
The horse is named after its habitat (the Akhal oasis) and its breeders (the Teke tribe). The tribal masters raised and used the animals for the purpose of raiding. So they had to be adapted to both the severe climatic and food conditions of the desert and the requirements of their intended, somewhat violent, use. The horse was wrapped in numerous felt blankets so as to sweat out any surplus fat, making it a light, sturdy, long-distance vehicle, combining speed, stamina and endurance, need-based qualities that their raider-masters bred into them.
Contrary to all this build-up, the akhal-teke is not a big animal. It typically stands at 14 to 16 hands (or under 163 centimetres). The horse comes in different colours: golden buckskin or palomino, bay, black, chestnut and grey. What distinguishes it is a natural metallic bloom of its coat. It is this beautiful sheen that has led to the sobriquet, the ‘golden horse’. The animal is intelligent, lively and alert, and is known to bond best with a single master.
There is an interesting speculation about how the akhal-teke came to acquire its present build and features. With the rising desertification of habitat in Central Asia, its forebear, a stockier animal raised on the grasslands, was thought to have begun a slow evolution into the lean and hardy form of today. The long neck, large eyes, long ears equipped the akhal-teke to detect the dangers of the open plains. The unique golden colour aided camouflage in the desert.
Most of the estimated 6000-odd akhal-teke horses today are found in Turkmenistan, the country’s national emblem and pride, and in Russia, the inevitable consequence of the annexation of the Turkmen land by the Russian empire, but a smaller number is also to be found in north America, Europe and Australia. So even if, during our memorable visit, the Turkmen authorities treated the subject of the akhal-teke horse as almost an official secret, in the globalized village of today, one can buy an akhal-teke from a ranch in America or Europe.
Websites of commercial breeders, while advertising the horse as a racer, a show jumper, a dressage mount, illustrate its noble lineage by the sweeping claim that Genghis Khan’s mount and Alexander’s Bucephalus were both akhal-teke. But was Bucephalus an akhal-teke?
In his popular novels about Alexander, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, recycling legend, tells of the master and the mount coming together for their first encounter in a dramatic scene. Bucephalus, King Philip’s expensive present at 13 talents to his young son, is maniacally defying its grooms and scattering them to the ground. The prince, mesmerized by the “black stallion shining with sweat like a bronze statue under the rain, blacker than a raven’s wing, with a white star on its forehead in the shape of a bucranium, an ox’s skull”, shouts to his father that the horse be let free. A talent being the equivalent of 60 pounds of precious metal, Philip quite reasonably reminds his son of the high cost and says that more time is needed to break in the mutinous animal. Alexander lays a bet for 13 talents that he alone can tame the horse and proceeds to do so with a mix of raw courage and good horse psychology. At the end of the astonishing showmanship, Philip rather melodramatically tells his son that Macedon is not big enough for him, and that Alexander must seek out another kingdom for himself, thus effectively launching the manic conqueror on non-stop military campaigns through the known world.
While ancient chroniclers invariably glorified the son, the father remained somewhat under-rated. But Philip seemed to have been ahead of his times in realizing the value of horses, using the cavalry as a fighting unit, and encouraging a scientific breeding programme. He was known to have obtained horses for his troops from far-flung places. He had Bucephalus procured from a horse dealer of Thessaly, where prime existing local stocks were being crossed with Scythian, Persian (Nisean) and Ferghana horses to improve quality.
Therefore, by the time of Philip’s reign, the ancestor of the akhal-teke was already known to the Macedonian breeders, and Thessaly being one of the most important breeding centres, Bucephalus and today’s akhal-teke would have been logically connected through a common progenitor, making them blood-brothers of sorts.
But in case this explanation would still not satisfy the votaries of the akhal-teke wanting a more unambiguous endorsement, Alexander laid all speculation to rest when years later, during his campaigns through what are today Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, he married a Bactrian princess, Roxane, and collected a tribute of 50,000 ‘eastern horses’ from captured cities. That was finally the vindication of the noble akhal-teke’s Alexander connection.