The Akhal-Teke

Akhal Teke horse

Ulruppelt/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

A photograph of a horse that recently went viral is captioned "the most beautiful horse in the world." Beauty, of course, is subjective—and whether this caption rings true for you depends on whether you admire Akhal-Teke horses.

Known as "the gift from the desert," this breed was developed for endurance and speed. Some equestrians find the breed too weedy, with conformation that does not meet the standards of a good riding horse. Others consider them the art piece of the horse world—elegant and graceful in appearance and stride. Whatever your opinion, the Akhal Teke is among the rarest, most exotic full-sized breeds in the world, and it is growing in popularity. Until very recently, they were unknown outside of their native homeland of Turkmenistan. Now, however, an estimated 3,500 Akhal Teke horses exist worldwide, with several hundred in North America alone.

History and Origins

The Akhal-Teke is an ancient breed, possibly descended from some of the same common ancestors as the more well-known hot-blooded breed, the Arabian. It developed in the Kara Kum desert that covers most of the country of Turkmenistan, where these horses had to tolerate sparse water and food supplies as well as extremes of heat and cold. The Akhal-Tekes lived closely with their nomadic humans, each being essential to the other’s survival.

The first official breeding farms of Akhal-Tekes were started in Russia, which Turkmenistan joined in the late 1880s. Thoroughbreds were introduced into the bloodlines with the intention of improving the breed, but the effort was unsuccessful.

Interest in this breed (and in horsemanship in general) waned during the turmoil that marked the early days of Soviet Russia, and numbers dwindled. With the free-market environment of the last few decades, however, more Akhal-Tekes are being bought and bred in an increasing number of countries.

The breed's name refers to both its origins and its breeders. Akhal is an oasis in the Kopet Dag Mountains; the Turkmen warriors who bred the horses were called the Akhal-Teke. The breed's closest relatives were known as Massaget, Parthian, Nisean, and Turkmene.

Body Type

The Akhal-Teke is distinctively fine-boned and flat-muscled. Its body—with its thin barrel and deep chest—is often compared to that of a greyhound or cheetah. The facial profile is flat or slightly convex, although some appear to be moose-nosed. It can have nearly hooded or almond-shaped eyes. It has long, slim ears, a long back, sloped shoulders, a flat croup, and a long, high set on a neck that can appear inverted compared with most other breeds. Its mane and tail tend to be sparse and fine-haired, and it may have no forelock. Overall, this elegant horse gives the appearance of raciness and wiry endurance. In fact, being thick-set or very weedy is considered a fault.

Size and Lifespan

The Akhal-Teke is a tall horse, typically standing between 14.2 and 16.3 HH, and weighing between 900 and 1,000 pounds. The average life expectancy is about 20 years.

The Akhal-Teke is rather tightly bred and is somewhat lacking in genetic diversity. This makes the breed susceptible to a number of genetically carried health issues, such as:

  • Cervical vertebral malformation (CVM): This is also known as wobbler syndrome.
  • Cryptorchidism: This is the absence of one or both testes in the scrotum, making neutering more difficult and sometimes causing other health and behavioral problems.
  • Naked Foal Syndrome: This causes foals to be born hairless, with tooth and jaw abnormalities, and the tendency to develop other problems with digestion, pain, and more.


Akhal-Tekes were originally used by nomadic tribesmen of Turkmenistan for transportation; their speed and endurance were prized during raids. Nowadays, they are used for dressage, show jumping, long-distance racing, and pleasure riding. In modern-day Russia, an Akhal-Teke is a status symbol, signifying wealth and standing.

The breed's positive characteristics echo through the horseracing world. More than 200 purebred Akhal-Tekes were shipped to Great Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries for breeding. The genes of an estimated 15 percent of them contributed to the makeup of today's racehorses.

Color and Markings

Akhal-Tekes are thin-skinned, and their coats are very fine. Many carry a gene for the cream dilution—which can result in palomino, cremello, and perlino coat colors. Some horses even have pale blue eyes. All colors and patterns are accepted in the breed registry.

Unique Characteristics

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Akhal-Teke is the brilliant metallic sheen of some individuals. This is because their hair lacks the opaque center of the typical horse's hair shaft; taking up the space is the medulla, which is transparent and refracts light, resulting in the breed's celebrated glow.

Their grace is legendary among their aficionados, who prize them for their smooth, flowing gaits. The Akhal-Teke temperament is notable as well. Loyalty is a strong trait; many owners characterize them as intensely devoted "one-person" horses. While they tend to be very sensitive, they are also very even-keeled and highly intelligent.

This horse's deep chest, which allows ample room for lung expansion, gives it remarkable endurance. In 1935, a posse of Turkmen rode their Akhal-Tekes from Ashgabat to Moscow—a 2,500-mile journey—in 84 days; included in the long excursion was 235 miles of desert, which they covered in three days without water.

Champion and Celebrity

The Akhal-Teke stallion, Absent, won the gold medal in individual dressage at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. By the end of his career, he had won five medals in three Olympic Games with three different riders.

Senetir was the first Akhal-Teke stallion to stand stud in America. He died in 1999.

The Akhal-Teke is a national symbol of Turkmenistan and appears on the country's coat of arms and currency.

Is the Akhal-Teke Horse Right for You?

This is a remarkably tough breed, having adapted to the rough conditions common to its homeland. It does well in nearly any climate. A calm, level-headed ride, the Akhal-Teke is always vigilant but not flighty, so it's well-suited to beginning riders. Some owners say these horses are the family dogs of the horse world, exhibiting great affection and attachment. 

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