Everything You Need to Know About Akhal-Teke Horses
I’ve never met a horse I didn’t think was beautiful, but there is a spectrum in the equine world when it comes to beauty. You’ll always hear about painted Gypsy Vanners and glorious black Friesians, but perhaps the most unique and iconic horse on the list would be an Akhal-Teke. These horses are something else entirely. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the breed that quite literally outshines all others, you’ve come to the right place.
What should you know about the Akhal-Teke breed? Though the Akhal-Teke is known for its incredible coat, the breed has an even richer history. They are one of the oldest horse breeds on Earth and guarded closely in their native land. They have several remarkable attributes, both physical and otherwise, making them a successful breed in a multitude of disciplines.
Akhal-Teke Fact #1: The breed is one of the oldest in the world
Horses are believed to have been domesticated around 6,000 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that American Quarter Horses and Tennessee Walking Horses were wandering the ranches at that time. In fact, “breeds” as we know them today were not in development until around 1600 AD. It is believed that the ancestors of the Akhal-Teke served as mounts to some of the most famous military captains in the world, including Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.
One ancient horse, the Nisean, is believed to be a direct ancestor of the Akhal-Teke, making this Turkmenistan gem one of the oldest “modern” breeds in history. An exact date of origin is unknown, due to the lack of written records and the theory that the horses were originally kept hidden in the Kara Kum desert by Turkman tribes when the breed first originated.
Akhal-Teke Fact #2: They are not a commonly found breed
Akhal-Teke’s are considered to be a rare breed, and there are only around 6,000 of them to be found globally – the majority of those are in Turkmenistan. In the late 1800s, Russia invaded Turkmenistan and took power; Turkmenistan did not regain its independence until almost 100 years later.
Before Russia took control of the country, most Turkmen families owned a horse or two. Because the Russians perceived the horses to be an opposition threat to their power, they forcibly took the horses of most families and kept them as their own. Shortly after, private ownership was outlawed and the horses were placed in state-owned facilities. In the 1960s, during a time of economic turmoil, the Soviet Union slaughtered most of the horses to feed the people, though the locals refused to eat the horses. Because the country has only been independent for the last 30 years, it will take time to accomplish a significant increase in population.
Akhal-Teke Fact #3: There is a ban on the export of the breed
When Turkmenistan gained independence in the 1990s, President Niyazov banned the export of the breed in an attempt to increase their numbers and preserve their purity. This has resulted in the Akhal-Teke being considered the pride of the nation, and while there are breeders who can be found in other countries now, the majority of the world’s Akhal-Teke still reside in Turkmenistan. The current president himself has over 500 of them!
Akhal-Teke Fact #4: “Gold” is not the only recognized color of the breed
The Akhal-Teke is known as “the golden horse.” This is for good reason – a horse that is palomino, cremello, or perlino will appear to glisten and shine, giving it the appearance of having a golden coat. These colors are the ones you are likely most familiar with when you look up pictures of the Akhal-Teke, but they are not the only colors these horses can be.
Akhal-Tekes also come in black, bay, chestnut, buckskin, and gray. Akhal-Tekes in these colors that carry the “shiny” gene are just as striking, as the glistening feature of the coat is present regardless of the shade.
Akhal-Teke Fact #5: The glistening coat is a result of the hair shaft
Speaking of the shiny Akhal-Teke coat, you may have wondered what it is that causes the remarkable sheen. The hair strand is made of several layers of material, with the shaft containing an opaque core. Due to the genetics of the breed, this core is much thinner, and sometimes even absent.
What happens when a strand of hair is missing this inner core? The light ends up shining right through the hair and refracting. Think of the way that the light affects the surface of a body of water. It creates a shimmer. The same is true for the hair of the Akhal-Teke. While the severity of these genetics will vary between each individual horse, most of them end up with some degree of a shiny coat.
Akhal-Teke Fact #6: They have very sparse manes and tails
Akhal-Tekes may have a marvelous coat, but their manes and tails are quite sparse. Don’t get me wrong – this does not take away from their beauty; their light manes and tails lend to an almost delicate or elegant appearance. These horses originated in the desert. Their bodies, including their hair, have adapted to tolerate the heat and the sun.
Breeds with full manes and tails typically originate from the Northern climates, while breeds with thinner manes and tails usually originate in the warmer climates. This is certainly true for the Akhal-Teke.
Akhal-Teke Fact #7: They require less food and water than other breeds
This fact is remarkable, but also not unexpected – most animals that originated in the desert have adapted to requiring less sustenance than their relatives from other climates; just think of the camel. The Akhal-Teke is a great example of this, and can survive on less feed than other breeds of horse, and can go longer periods without water than other breeds.
The original Teke tribes that raised the breed had a practice of forcing the horses to sweat out their extra fat stores so that they would remain lean, giving them the ability to survive on the little feed that was available to them.
Akhal-Teke Fact #8: Their build is much slighter than other breeds
In seeing a picture of an Akhal-Teke, while the sheen of the coat was probably what you noticed first, the second may have been their incredibly lean build. No, the Akhal-Teke probably wasn’t starving – they are naturally very light and lean, and seeing their ribs is not necessarily an indication of a horse in need of groceries.
Our last fact revolved around the breed’s need for less feed than other horses due to their original climate. Some livestock can gain weight on less food, making them “efficient feeders” – this isn’t the case with Akhal-Tekes. Instead, the breed simply does not require as much fat storage to be considered healthy.
Akhal-Teke Fact #9: They have thin skin
These horses have earned several nicknames over the years, and one of them is “the horse that sweats blood.” Though they don’t actually sweat blood, they have earned this name due to their very thin skin. Their skin is so thin that, depending on the horse’s color, the blood vessels are often visible through the skin after an intense workout.
While most of the Akhal-Teke’s physical features are a result of its environmental adaptation, most desert animals have thicker skins to better retain water. The reason that the Akhal-Teke’s skin is so thin is a mystery.
Akhal–Teke Fact #10: They are sensitive souls
While I mentioned the breed’s thin physical skin in the last fact, now we’re talking metaphorical skin. Akhal-Tekes are known to be both emotional and sensitive. They are considered to be a one-man horse, bonding in puppy-dog fashion with one owner, but often impatient when mounted by another…they probably wouldn’t make the best lesson horses.
They are easily frustrated with inexperienced riders, but quick to cooperate with a more experienced handler. They are not considered to be suitable for beginners but are nevertheless highly intelligent and relational.
Akhal-Tekes Are More Than Their Beauty
While they are well-known for their beautiful coats, Akhal-Teke’s are so much more than that. They have a rich history, are loyal almost to a fault, are intelligent, and have an incredible capacity for endurance. This has made them stand out not only for their looks but also in the show ring. Their intelligence and athleticism allow them to excel in several sports.
Akhal-Teke’s have placed in a variety of high-level competitions, and a horse named Absent won a gold medal in the 1960s in dressage. The Akhal-Teke is an incredible breed, and with the current pursuits in breed conservation, hopefully, there will be many more people who will get to experience and enjoy them.
To learn about other popular golden horse breeds, visit my article Golden Horse Breeds: 10 Horse Breeds With Gold Coats.