While perusing the internet in search of a delicious slice of horse news to feed you fine people, I came across a tantalizing headline: “Horse Breeding and Human Rights in Turkmenistan”.
If you are not familiar with the country of Turkmenistan, don’t know your Leftistan from your Rightistan, here’s a visual:
Turkmenistan is mostly desert, sparsely populated and contains the 4th largest reserve of natural gas on the planet. It’s also considered to be one of the world’s most repressive nations, governed by the state’s heavy hand, and happens to be home to one of the world’s oldest, rarest, most stunningly beautiful horse breeds: the Akhal-Teke.
Much like the ancient Mongolian horse, the Akhal-Teke was developed centuries ago to meet the demands of Turkmenistan’s vast, harsh landscape and largely nomadic population. Thus, the breed possesses a desirable blend of speed and endurance to go along with a signature metallic (some say “golden”) coat. Turkmen carefully developed the breed over the centuries keeping only an oral record of bloodlines.
The Akhal-Teke population suffered mightily when the country was gobbled up by the Russian Empire in the late 19th century. When Turkmenistan regained independence with the fall of the USSR in 1991, a horsemen named Geldy Kyarizov worked valiantly to restore the Akhal-Teke breed as a national symbol. He was even appointed Minister of Horses by Saparmurat Niyazov, who ruled Turkmenistan with a dictator’s touch from 1991 to 2006. The good times didn’t last however, as Niyazov eventually stripped Kyarizov of his rank and had him thrown in jail. Dictator’s gonna dictate, after all.
After five years in prison, Kyarizov was pardoned by Turkmenistan’s newly “elected” leader, and fellow horse enthusiast, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, in 2007.
Berdymukhamedov is still running the show today and with an assist from state-controlled media, censorship and propaganda, is a full-fledged cult-of-personality. He’s also still championing Turkmenistan’s native equine and has been known to gift foreign dignitaries with Akhal-Teke stallions.
“Welcome home honey, how was Turkmenistan?”
“Did you bring me a souvenir?”
“Yes…and I think he’s hungry.”
So apparently, Berdymukhamedov likes to play up his horseman persona any chance he gets, much like Putin is a rugged outdoorsman, and Kim Jung Il was the world’s best golfer. It all backfired one day in 2013, during the nationwide Day of the Horse celebration.
Berdymukhamedov was riding in a horse race, and wouldn’t you know it, he won! However, just as his mount crossed the finish line, the horse lost his balance and tumbled to the ground. A helpless Berdymukhamedov broke the hard fall with his face. The packed crowd looked on in eerie silence, not sure how they were “supposed” to react as their beloved leader lay lifeless on the track behind a sea of scurrying black suits. You can watch the whole thing right here, unless you live in Turkmenistan, where it’s actually illegal to view since it “never actually happened.”
After regaining consciousness, Berdymukhamedov returned to the track to wild applause, smiling and waving like nothing at all was amiss and accepted his prize for winning the race: $11 million. He then announced that he had forgiven the horse for his “error”, and all was well again in Turkmenistan!
Bizarre, right? It doesn’t end there.
Back in May, thousands of Turkmen gathered in the capital city of Ashgabat for the unveiling of this giant gold statue of Berdymukhamedov on a horse. The statue is cast in bronze and coated in 24 karat gold and soars 65 ft. above the ground. It’s a rather audacious monument in a country rife with widespread poverty and unemployment, but look how shiny!
So that’s what’s happening in the horse-centric world of Turkmenistan.