On a recent sunny Sunday morning, crowds gathered, as they do every weekend, at the Ashgabat hippodrome to enjoy the nation’s favorite sport and celebrate its main protagonists — majestic Akhal-Teke horses.
The venue is impressive, completed in 2011 at a cost of $100 million to showcase the venerated breed. Spectators walk in through an entrance adorned with a portrait of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov astride a horse. The leader’s love for Akhal-Teke has been widely trumpeted in state media, and he has even been awarded (by himself some would suggest) the honorific title of “People’s Horse Breeder.”
The grandstand fills up fast. Horseracing is an important family event in Turkmenistan — an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to enjoy themselves in a simple and spontaneous setting. That is a rare luxury in a country where few mass gatherings are permitted, unless they are designed to extol the state and its leaders.
Students wearing identical tracksuits dominate the front rows in the middle of the hippodrome. The back seats are occupied by older viewers and young men, nervously exchanging information about the next race, the jockeys and the horses. Girls in red dresses and twin braids, a hairstyle typically worn by unmarried young women, are also well represented.
Leaflets containing information about the jockeys circulate widely among the spectators. Although gambling is theoretically prohibited, none of the excited young men in the stands make any secret of their betting tendencies. Gambling seems to be the norm, and is an indispensable component of every race.
Police officers stand in the front rows of each section lazily watching the surroundings and paying little heed to the experienced betters shouting numbers, names and sums of money. Relatively huge sums are wagered on every race, sometimes spawning rumors and conspiracy theories about who is running the gambling operations and who benefitting from them.
The stands are filled with representatives of the various horses who facilitate gambling and take bets. They are instantly recognizable as they have cellphones permanently pressed to their ears so they can relay information about the proceedings, an informal oddsmaking system.
The betting ends and a hush descends over the crowd when the horses move from the paddock to the starting line. As soon as the animals are off, some observers start screaming passionately and cheer for their favorite to win, while other gaze in rapt attention. The beautiful, muscular bodies of horses and the jockeys in bright, colorful outfits are a majestic sight as they move over the 1,000-meter course. Once the horses cross the finish line, the tension releases, the winners collect their money and the cycle of betting begins all over again.
The Akhal-Teke is believed to be the oldest domesticated breed of horse, whose name brings to mind the Akhal oasis and the Teke tribe of Turkmenistan. Since ancient times they have been prized for their beauty, speed and stamina. Alexander the Great’s favorite horse — Bucephalus — was said to have been an Akhal-Teke.
The horses appear in countless traditional Turkmen songs and proverbs and are held to symbolize the Turkmen spirit. When a horse dies, it receives a formal funeral, and treating a horse badly is considered a sin.
Turkmenistan has developed a particular cult of Akhal-Teke. Not only is eating horse meat banned, but Turkmenistan also celebrates an annual Race Horse Day, which takes place on the last Sunday of April.
Since independence, the horse has been raised to the status of a national symbol and has been incorporated into the state coat of arms and an elaborate statue in central Ashgabat. Berdymukhamedov’s own tribute was a book called Akhal-Teke: Our Pride and Glory.
Akhal-Tekes were driven to the verge of extinction amid Soviet-era collectivization and a communist ban on private horse ownership. The breed experienced a revival starting in the mid-1980s, when the country was led by Saparmurat Niyazov, who died suddenly in late 2006. As the head of what was then the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic, Niyazov permitted private breeding. Almost three decades later, Akhal-Tekes are coming on strong.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture in Central Asia.