Azerbaijan Wants to Sell Rare Karabakh Horses to Preserve the Breed
The saga of how Azerbaijan lost control of the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh revolves around issues of ethnicity and culture. But it also involves a breed of horse.
Karabakh horses, valued for their endurance in mountainous terrain, mild temperament, and rich chestnut color, are considered to be Azerbaijan’s national animal, even though no pure-blood Karabakh horse is known to exist today. A combination of war, negligence and cross-breeding with Arabian horses diluted the country’s breeding stock. Now the focus is on how to preserve what horses remain.
Just how many Karabakh horses -- jokingly termed “Internally Displaced Horses” by one Azerbaijani owner -- still exist is a matter of contention; various sources put the number at anywhere from a handful to a few thousand.
“In my opinion, there may be 10 mares that are one-half true Karabakh horses,” German horse breeder Verena Scholian, who has spent 20 years researching the Karabakh breed’s blood-lines, commented in a phone interview from Ginsheim-Gustavsburg, Germany.
In 2007, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Agriculture drew up a 15-year plan for preserving and publicizing the breed. The goal, according to Khandan Rajabli, the managing director of the ministry’s Azerbreeding division, was to bring the horses’ documentation up to international standards and to sell enough horses each year to sustain facilities needed for their upkeep.
The first step is to analyze what Karabakh horses Azerbaijan still has. “We want to develop a genealogical profile, so we know what is unique in our national breed,” said Rajabli. The agency “recently” submitted hair samples from 137 Karabakh horses for DNA testing at a German laboratory.
How the ministry plans to use those findings to market the horses abroad remains unknown. Rajabli could not say how many horses the government keeps. He noted, though, that if Baku could sell about 10 to 20 Karabakh horses per year – most likely in Europe -- the fees would help pay for breed-preservation efforts. According to breeder Scholian, prices for a horse that makes the breed cut-off would likely range between 2,000 and 3,000 euros (about $2,555 to $3,831).
Meanwhile, to provide an economic stimulus for interest in the breed, ministry officials are debating whether to offer a “substantial” premium on purse money won by Karabakh horses in races. The idea would be to encourage private breeders to preserve the line. Several Azerbaijani horse clubs are thought to contain the breed.
But that strategy may only go so far. “I don’t care if they win competitions. They’re not made for competitions. They are mountain horses; they love freedom,” said Yashar Guluzade, an Azerbaijani entrepreneur who keeps a few dozen Karabakh horses at a farm he owns in the mountains near the northern town of Sheki. Guluzade claims a love for the breed and for Azerbaijan drives his interest. “I do this because anything about my homeland is valuable to me,” Guluzade continued.
Other individuals could also claim as much. No one disputes that if it were not for the dramatic 1993 rescue of hundreds of Karabakh horses from a stud farm in Agdam, a town near Karabakh that is now under Armenian occupation, this national treasure would probably have been lost.
The horse evacuation was undertaken by two separate groups of horse keepers, who, acting on their own initiative, risked their lives to re-enter the farm while the area was under bombardment by Armenian forces.
Kamil Kadirov, now 61, was a supervisor at the farm when fighting broke out. On July 2, 1993, he and his son, along with two other Agdam workers, began to corral the 285 mares they tended and moved them to the nearby town of Yevlax. “I realized I had to take out the horses,” recounted Kadirov. “I said I wouldn’t leave a single horse behind and we didn’t -- we were responsible for those horses. We didn’t want them to be left behind.”
After three months, Kadirov was told to bring the Karabakh horses back to Agdam, but the fighting had not abated. The mares were instead loaded onto trucks and sent to Baku’s hippodrome.
Meanwhile, Atayel Shamsadin, a third-generation horse keeper, faced a similar decision with the seven stallions he cared for in Agdam. Shamsadin had fled with his family when the bombing began; at his request, the horse farm director gave him two trucks to return for the stallions.
“My father always said the horses were our bread, they were our livelihood,” he said. Shamsadin, together with two drivers, reentered Agdam amid ongoing sniper-fire. “It was pure luck the stallions weren’t killed, but there they were,” Shamsadin said. “Some of the stallions had never been in a truck, but they were subdued that night. I think they knew.”
It took 40 minutes to load the seven stallions, each tied to a wooden beam to keep them apart since the males are prone to attack one another if not kept in separate stalls.
Both mares and stallions spent the following winter in Baku; around 70 of them died of hunger, according to eye-witnesses who requested anonymity. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Rajabli disputed the hunger-death estimate, and instead blamed the loss on the climate change from Agdam’s much higher elevation to seaside Baku. “There were people dying at that time, too,” said Rajabli, “It could not be the focus of the government at that time.”
Whether the government’s market-inspired preservation plan can now make a difference remains to be seen, but private owners still hope for the breed’s revival. Said German breeder Scholian: “The best horse I ever got was my Karabakh horse and that's why I try to save them.”
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