Every April the Turkmen Horse Festival, set up at the behest of Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, celebrates the Akhal-Teke, a horse with a long back, small head, upright neck, and sparse mane. This animal is a source of national pride and enjoys a worldwide reputation for speed and exceptional endurance; it can cover up to 1,000 kilometers in under a week. Local and foreign horse aficionados meet at the festival for equine-beauty contests and races, and the country, best known for its ultra-authoritarian regime, opens up for a few days.
Like many of his countrymen, Turkmenistan’s president worships this horse; he competed in a race at the track in the capital Ashgabat in April 2013, and won (though his horse collapsed just after crossing the finishing line). Equine historian Jean-Louis Gouraud writes of the Akhal-Teke that “when it moves, with long, skimming strides on the quivering springs of its fine limbs, it exudes an air of vigorous grace, a strange but harmonious blend of strength and fragility, virility and femininity.”
It is possibly the oldest horse breed in the world, going back around two and a half millennia; there are claims that the analysis of remains in Scythian tombs proves the bloodline has remained remarkably pure. Turkmenistan’s official history claims Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s charger, was an Akhal-Teke, and English thoroughbreds are partly descended from the same lineage. The name comes from the Teke horsemen, the most powerful of the Turkmen tribes, feared raiders who lived in the Akhal valley, near Ashgabat.
The Akhal-Teke is a symbol of Turkmen unity and identity, and appears in the center of the national emblem, surrounded by five traditional rugs representing the main tribes. Pierre Lebovics, France’s ambassador to Turkmenistan from 2010 to 2014, said: “When they were freed from Soviet control, less than 30 years ago, the new nation states of Central Asia emphasized unifying symbols of federation. President Berdimuhamedow is using the Akhal-Teke to enhance his country’s status.” A golden equestrian statue of the president in central Ashgabat, looking down on his people from a 20-meter marble plinth, underlines how intertwined the cults of horse and president are.
More than state propaganda
Berdimuhamedow has published several books praising the Akhal-Teke since he came to power in 2007. Christian Lechervy, French ambassador from 2006 to 2009, said: “Celebration of the Akhal-Teke was already part of state propaganda under his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov. He’s taken this further, emphasizing the horse as a means of developing a sports economy.”
This September, Ashgabat hosted the fifth Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, the first major international sporting event held in Turkmenistan. More than 5,000 athletes competed in 21 disciplines. According to games-committee president Dayanch Gulgeldiyev, the horse on top of the stadium is an Akhal-Teke, and, for the first time in the games’ history, horsemanship took pride of place. “Berdimuhamedow got the Asian Olympic Committee to agree to add equestrian sports to the program,” explained Héloïse Ghirardi of the International Association of Akhal-Teke Breeders.