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Profile: Turkmenistan - The Land of Horse Heaven

Edited by GreenReaper as of Wed 23 Mar 2022 - 19:24
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Emblem of TurkmenistanThe Day of the Race Horse is coming!

In Turkmenistan. It’s the last Sunday in April, April 28 this year. It’s a national holiday there.

Turkmenistan is widely regarded as one of the more corrupt and repressive nations of Central Asia; called by the New York Times “the North Korea of the former Soviet Union”. But not for oppression of its horses. In Turkmenistan, the odds are almost 100% that they are Akhal-Teke horses, the national breed that goes back to prehistoric times.

The Akhal-Teke is claimed to be the earliest domesticated breed of horse. Alexander the Great’s favorite battle charger Bucephalus (honored on a gold coin), which Alexander named a city after, was an Akhal-Teke. Alexander praised the Akhal-Teke for its hardiness, speed and stamina. See the Embassy of Turkmenistan’s website for an official description of the horse’s status.


Do the Turkmen worship their horses? Officially, they are all devout Muslims. But … shades of Bucephalus:

Political horseplay

To digress, Niyazov had a fondness for golden statues. In 1998 he had the Neutrality Arch, a 246-foot tall monument commemorating Turkmenistan’s neutrality in world politics, erected in downtown Ashgabat, with a 39-foot tall golden statue of himself placed on the top, on a rotating pedestal so that he would always face the sun. The statue was illuminated at night. Smaller golden statues of Niyazov were set up throughout Ashgabat and in every city in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan 50 manat note featuring YanardagIn 2010, after Niyazov’s death, Turkmenistan’s second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, had the Neutrality Arch taken down, moved closer to the Statue of the Ten Horses in Ashgabat’s Independence Park, with a slightly smaller statue (36 feet instead of 39 feet) and improvements; at the same time removing the smaller statues. “‘It’s going to be exactly the same as before, only more beautiful,’ said a workman guarding the site on Friday. ‘It will have a fountain underneath and a restaurant on the top, and yes, it’s going to revolve and have a statue of the first President.’” – ‘The Telegraph’, 24 May 2011. The new site is also on higher ground, so while the old complex was only 246 feet high, the new one will reach 290 feet and be visible throughout Ashgabat. The new Arch was reopened on December 12, 2012.

The opening ceremony was attended by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, government officials, public representatives, who laid flowers at the monument.

According to official information, the parameters of the structure symbolically reflect the historical date of December 12, 1995. The total height of the Monument of Neutrality is 95 meters, including a 12 meter high sculpture of the first President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov on top of the monument.
Turkmenistan painting of horses

The multilevel structure is decorated with bronze bas-reliefs with gilt, depicting the important events from different historical periods of the Turkmen state - from ancient times to the era of independence. It displays images of the founder of the nation – Oguz Khan Turkmen and his six sons, the image of carpet patterns, ancient monuments, images of the Turkmen riders on Akhalteke horses, and various scenes from the life of Turkmens.

Inside the building is the Museum of neutrality, which consists of three halls. The museum’s exhibition depicts the country's ongoing domestic and foreign policies and important events in the modern era.

Residents and visitors of Ashgabat can view the sights of the white marble capital city from two viewing platforms, as well as a panoramic elevator, which is the main axis of the Monument of neutrality.

Flagpoles with the flags of the United Nations member countries encircle the monument. There are cascading fountains, decorative gazebos and cafes in the adjoining parkland.
(‘Monument of Neutrality inaugurated in Turkmenistan’, 12 January 2013.)

Berdymukhamedov does not share Niyazov’s penchant for golden statues of himself, but he loves Akhal-Teke horses as much as the next Turkman. As the President, he has his own prize stud farm. To quote an ‘Inquirer News’ article of April 30, 2012,

Berdymukhamedov, 54, has written a book about horses [Akhal-Teke Horses; Our Pride and Glory] that was published in a print-run of many thousands [in Turkmen, English, French, and Russian editions] and once posed on his favourite steeds for a calendar.

The former dentist [he was the personal dentist of Niyazov, who appointed him Minister of Health in 1997, from which position he rose to Deputy Prime Minister in 2001] took over the leadership of the energy-rich state in 2007 after the death of the eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, who renamed months and days of the week in honour of himself and his family.

Being a professional dentist apparently also qualifies Berdymukhamedov to perform cancer surgery, according to ‘Turkmenistan President Carries Out Cancer Surgery’ in The Telegraph, 22 July 2009. He was re-elected President in 2012, with 97% of the vote, topping the 89% he got in 2007.

The world's greatest mandatory equine beauty contest

More importantly, in 2011 Berdymukhamedov proclaimed an annual horse beauty contest to be held on the Day of the Turkmen Race Horse, one holiday of Niyazov’s that is genuinely popular. Even so, attendance at the horse races is mandatory (hardly necessary).

Ashgabat’s popular Hippodrome is active all year round, although since Turkmenistan is a Muslim nation, there is no legal gambling. The winning jockey of each race gets a car, and the winning horse gets a carpet for its stall. Last year,
Statue of the Ten Horses

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov awarded ‘the most beautiful horse of the year’ prize to a thoroughbred stallion called Khan of the Eagles, which beat the nine other finalists decked in traditional bridles.

The leader then pulled off his jacket and leapt onto a horse to ride a victory circuit of the racecourse outside Ashgabat to cheers from the crowd. (Ibid.)

The same judges who pick the most beautiful horse also present prizes for artwork (ceramics, paintings, sculpture, and tapestry) depicting the Akhal-Teke. This year the beauty contest is being expanded into an International Horse Exhibition, including theatrical performances, expositions, a horse marathon, and a scientific conference (“Winged horses of the epoch of might and happiness”).

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Turkmenistan would like to express our greetings and compliments and gratefully acknowledge that the first International Fair, dedicated to the Holiday of Turkmen Horse will be held on 26-28 April 2013 in Ashgabat city, Turkmenistan. The Organizers of this event are the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Turkmenistan and the State Horse-breeding Association ‘Turkmenatlary.’ [more]

Turkmenistan’s Nurana Ay travel agency is offering two six-day packaged holiday tours to the “Holiday of Akhal-Teke Horses”.

If this year is like the last two, the horse beauty contest will be publicized during the preceding week by essays and poetry glorifying horses in Neutral Turkmenistan, the official government newspaper. Look for news in English in late April on the Embassy of Turkmenistan website.

Hmmm. Nothing mentions the presence of equine Fursuiters at the horse beauty contest. Furry fandom may be missing something here – if any Fursuiters have Akhal-Teke Fursuits. Or, what if someone enters a painting of anthropomorphic Akhal-Tekes in the art contest?
Golden HarvestWould this be received enthusiastically, or as blasphemy?

There is no information on whether My Little Pony – Friendship Is Magic is known in Turkmenistan, or what the popular reaction to it may be. But then, they are not Akhal-Teke talking ponies.

Public holidays in Turkmenistan fall into three main categories: (a) holidays commemorating historical events (the defense of the Geok Teppe fortress in 1881, World War II in 1941-45) and landmarks since the declaration of Turkmenistan's independence in 1991 (Independence Day, Neutrality Day, State Flag Day, Day of Revival and Unity); (b) traditional and religious holidays revived since independence (Nowruz Bayram, Kurban Bayram, Oraza Bayram); and (c) new holidays introduced to honor and reinforce cultural traditions of the Turkmen people (harvest, water conservation, folk singers, Turkmen carpets, and the Turkmen racing horse). […] • Last Sunday in April – Turkmen Racing Horse Festival. (Wikipedia; CC-BY-SA)


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Fascinating stuff! Thanks for that, Fred. It's good to learn something new each day and if that new thing is about horses then so much the better.

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I found the video about former president Niyazov intriguing. Lots of background on Turkmenistan.

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This is an outstanding article: fascinating and beautifully written.

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You know, I'm surprised the Internet's pony-nose-worshippers are not all over this article.

Not that I'm complaining about a little equestrian knowledge.

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The 2013 Day of the Horse celebrations in Turkmenistan are over. Several press releases were issued:

29.04.13 16:59
President of Turkmenistan receives foreign guests participating in Turkmen Horse Day celebration

President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov received a number of foreign guests, who arrived in Ashgabat to participate in the celebration of Turkmen Horse Day, the correspondent reports. >>>

27.04.13 12:20
Fair and Conference marking Turkmen Horse Day opened in Ashgabat

The first-ever International Fair marking Turkmen Horse Day as well as the 5th International Scientific Conference titled “Turkmen horse and international art of horse breeding” opened in Ashgabat. >>>

27.04.13 11:58
International Association of Akhal-Teke Horse Breeding holds 3rd meeting in Ashgabat

The International Association of Akhal-Teke Horse Breeding held its 3rd meeting at hotel Oguzkent in Ashgabat. The meeting was chaired by President of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. >>>

Fred Patten

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From coverage of the scientific conference in the second link:

Among the speakers were the representatives of France, Turkey, Japan, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and other countries. They raised issues relating to the introduction of new methods of horse breeding, the possibility of using DNA analysis in identifying purebred Akhal-Teke horses, which are of high value as carriers of the unique gene pool, as well as new ways of testing purebred horses to determine their capacities and best qualities.

Perhaps one day, Akhal-Teke furries will also be possible!

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It's almost April 2014, and there has not been much yet about the Day of the Race Horse celebrations this year in the Turkmenistan press -- possibly because the President of Turkmenistan fell off his horse at last year's celebrations. England's "The Telegraph" had the story:

Fred Patten

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Oops! I admit that I had forgotten all about the Day of the Race Horse in Turkmenistan. This commercial message from the Philippines has reminded me of it.

It’s still a national holiday there on the last weekend of April, but there doesn’t seem to have been anything published about the 2016 celebrations. The most recent article that I can find is this in The Guardian from last November, written about Turkmenistan’s April 2015 celebrations. It has lots of nice photographs.

And The Guardian ran a story in May 2015 about President Berdymukhamedov erecting a giant golden statue of himself astride a horse, “by popular demand”, just after the 2015 celebrations. “Cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, the statue of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov soars over 20 metres from the ground and is perched on an outcrop of white marble cliff.” If any furry fans visit Ashkabat, will they send us some photographs of it?

Fred Patten

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Catching up on Turkmenistan’s love affair with Akhal-Teke horses: on November 21, 2015, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov issued a decree requiring all Akhal-Teke horses to be named at birth. Further, according to Radio Free Europe, “The new order makes it illegal to change an Akhal-Teke horse's name during its lifetime. The name of each horse must remain as recorded at birth in the studbook, or genealogical record, kept for the breed by the government.”

The decree also requires that when an Akhal-Teke horse dies, it must be given a “proper burial”. This is mostly a formality since Turkmen who have owned horses, such as farmers, have for centuries given them burials as though they were family members, somewhere on their farmlands in a simple ceremony with the farmer, his family, and friends. No longer. The decree requires that the burial must be “in an area designated by local authorities and in the presence of an official, who will register the death. What kind of area is to be designated is not immediately clear.”

Ain't bureaucracy wonderful?

Fred Patten

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It is 2017. The Day of the Race Horse is April 30th, a little over a week from now. There doesn't seem to be any news about it, but this has been announced for the week afterwards: AIMAG 2017.

Fred Patten

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Surprise, surprise.

Fred Patten

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It's the Alabay sheepdog's day - the breed had a golden statue erected in November. Perhaps dog-breeding is safer than horse-riding?

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About the author

Fred Pattenread storiescontact (login required)

a retired former librarian from North Hollywood, California, interested in general anthropomorphics