The Akhal-Teke's appearance is unique; no other breed of horse shares its distinctive features, which are embodied in words like dry, thin, straight, high-set and lean. The head is long and chiseled, often with a broad brow. The eyes are large and expressive and sometimes almond-shaped. The ears are narrow, high-set and readily swivel on their axis, alert to sound and movement. The long neck is set high and straight relative to the shoulders, the withers are quite prominent. The chest is narrow, the body is long and lean, the muscling well defined, but smoothly hugging the bone. The legs are slender, with strongly sculpted tendons and long and flexible pasterns. The skin is thin, the hair is silky and the mane and tail are spars. Several colors are possible, but the most common include, bay, black, dun, chestnut, gray and palomino. A distinctive feature is a pronounced metallic sheen, a glossy golden polish overlaying the basic coat color.
Within the breed, three types can be distinguished. Type 1, the most typical type and closely fitting the descriptions above, is well represented by the following lines: Gelishikili, Peren and Kaplan. Type 2, somewhat smaller and well regarded for its speed, is represented by the Karlavach and El lines. Type 3, a more massive body type and noted for its stamina, is best represented by the Arab and Dor-Bairam lines. At the present time, the breed is represented by 17 separate lines, 12 of which trace back to Boinou (1885-1908).
The 1981 studbook (Vol. VI) records the following average measurements in centimeters for an Akhal-Teke breeding stallion is 157.6 (height at withers), 160.1 (body length/barrel, measured on the diagonal), 176.4 (chest circumference), 18.8 (cannon bone circumference) and for a mare are 157-159-175-18.7. Twelve years later, in 1993, statistics for stallions, based on an evaluation of 190 horses from 13 countries (including 88 from Turkmenistan, 51 from Russia and 21 from Kazakhstan), showed an increase in all measurements except body length: 159.2-160.0-177.5-19.18. Figures broken down by country indicate that horses in Western Europe are larger than the average, while those from America, often bred for endurance riding, tend to be smaller.
The Akhal-Tekes are brave riding horses, lively and alert, but are known to be obstinate and rebellious at times. They are generally a one-rider horse.
According to some, the Akhal-Teke have been kept hidden by their tribesmen for years. The area where the breed first appeared, the Turkmenistan desert Kara Kum, is a rocky, flat desert surrounded by mountains. However, others claim that the horses are descendants of the mounts of Mongol raiders of the 13th and 14th century.
The breed is very similar to the Turkoman Horse, bred in neighboring Iran. Some historians believe that the two are different strains of the same breed, and that the incredibly influential Arabian was developed out of this breed.
Tribesmen of Turkmenistan first used the horses for raids, feeding the animals grains and mutton. They selectively bred the horses, keeping records of the pedigrees orally. The horses were called "Argamaks" by the Russians, and were cherished by the nomads.
In 1881, Turkomenistan became part of the Russian Empire. The tribes fought with the tzar, eventually losing. A Russian general, Kuropatkin, who grew to love the horses he had seen while fighting the tribesmen, founded a breeding farm after the war and renamed the horses "Akhal-Tekes," after the Teke Turkmen tribe that lived near the Akhal oasis. The Russians printed the first studbook in 1941, which included 287 stallions and 468 mares.
The Akhal-Teke has had influence on many breeds, including the Thoroughbred through the Byerley Turk (which is thought to be Akhal-Teke), one of the foundation stallions of the breed. The Trakehner has also been influenced by the Akhal-Teke, most notably by the stallion Turkmen-Atti, as has the Russian breeds Don, Budyonny, Karabair, and Karabakh. The Arabian is also thought to have had an influence by the Akhal-Teke, most noteworthy being the Syrian Arabian.
The breed suffered greatly when the Soviet Union required horses to be slaughtered for meat, which however the local Turkmen refused to eat. At one point only 2,000 horses remained and export from the Soviet Union was banned. The government of Turkmenistan now uses the horses as diplomatic presents as well as auctioning a few to raise money for improved horse breeding programs.
In the early 20th century, crossing between the Thoroughbred and the Akhal-Teke took place, aiming to create a faster long-distance racehorse. However, the Anglo Akhal-Tekes were not as resilient as their Akhal-Teke ancestors, and many died due to the harsh conditions of Central Asia. The crossbreeding was ended in 1935, after the 2,600 mile endurance race from Ashkabad to Moscow, when the pure-breds finished in much better condition than the part-breds. The Thoroughbred cross is believed to have been so destructive to the breed that a horse with Thoroughbred ancestors must have 15 generations pass before it can be registered in the studbook. Since 1973, all foals must be blood-typed to be accepted in the stud book in order to protect the purity. A stallion not producing the right type of horse can be removed. The stud book was closed in 1975.