Leonid Babaev, breeder of Akhal-Tekes : A good horse is of no particular color

Interview by Laetitia Bataille.

Journal N°3 - 2013 March
The Akhal-Teke is one of the most ancient breeds and is considered as an excellent pure riding horse. This breed was traditionally bred by the Teke tribe in Turkmenistan.
Nowadays, the breed has become rather mythic, and is often called – in a too simplistic way- the horse with "a golden coat".
Leonid Babaev, who runs the Shamborant stud in Russia, granted Cheval Savoir a long interview and gives a modern and realistic version.

He tells us about the true qualities to be sought for any riding horse –strength, conformation, gaits and good temperament. Despite the difficulties that breeders encounter nowadays in Russia, he maintains in constant research for excellence.

Cheval Savoir : Leonid Babaev, what led you to breed Akhal Teke horses ? Is it because you love this breed or because of family, cultural or national tradition?

Leonid Babaev : No, there is no tradition of horse breeding in my family, over and above the common heritage of equestrianism which I share with the rest of humanity. The motivation to breed was for me a consequence of the existence of the Akhal-Teke horse, my own personal involvement with it and my understanding of its significance for horse breeding in human history.

Shumer Shael
Shumer Shael, by Yas Yar Shael out of Sharida Shael. © Collection Shamborant Stud

My family upbringing and education have set me to strive to become the best, not just in the world, but also in one’s own backyard. I came in contact with the Akhal-Teke horse in 1971 as a young boy, and it is through this breed that I felt I could achieve what I strive to achieve in life in general. Didn’t some wise man say: “Find yourself a job that you like and you won’t have to work a day more in your life”. This one sentence sums up my involvement in horse breeding.

C.S. Was it a passion at first? If so how did it come and why? Could you tell us about your equestrian career?

L.B. My first all-consuming passion was a desire to participate in equestrian sport. A deeper motivation and understanding come later, with experience and the passage of time. As a rider, I tried everything: starting with racing and later, when I got too heavy to ride as a jockey, I rode in classical disciplines. However I can’t claim any special achievements in my riding career: I chose to focus on other things in my life, namely, on education. I saw my future in sciences. But things turned out differently, as they do sometimes. Nevertheless whatever I was going to do, I had to be in the forefront, I had to lead the way.

The perfection of the Akhal-Teke horse and its image of sophistication –among other qualities – is the stuff of which dreams are made

C.S. Lots of people show fascination for the Akhal Teke horse, because of its elegance, originality, wonderful coat colours and abilities…

Leonid Babaev

L.B. I consider myself a professional breeder and the charm of the Akhal-Teke horse for me is in its capacities as a riding horse. They include, amongst others, elegance, suppleness, strength, willingness to work with humans. The best examples of the Akhal-Teke breed have excellent expressive action and a desirable self-carriage. The qualities found in pure breeds should be seen as a benchmark, the quintessence of the qualities which make a riding horse. The perfection of the Akhal-Teke horse and its image of sophistication –among other qualities – is the stuff of which dreams are made.
Having said that, far too many defects can be found in the breed today which are presented as typical traits. Some inexperienced breeders multiply these defects. As a result, the very existence of the breed is threatened, exacerbated by the lack of coherent breeding management today. Some horses find their way into the breed on the basis of unusual coat colour and metallic sheen. It is deplorable that, instead of being a pleasant extra to compliment the majestic presence of these horses, coat colour starts to be seen as the trait of the breed. I stick with the old principle that a good horse is of no particular colour.

C.S. You breed AT for horse races, jumping and dressage. Can you define AT qualities / skills in these three different disciplines?

L.B. The selection work at the Shamborant Stud has dressage as its primary focus. There are different reasons for this, not least the economic factors but also the physical ability of the Akhal-Teke horse. In my view, the best representatives of the breed (and I dare to think that some of them exist in our stud farm) have the qualities which make a dressage horse at the higher levels. In other disciplines, the aptitude of the Akhal-Teke is less obvious. It is certainly possible to select for jumping ability but it would take considerable time and effort. In any case, I am talking about the achievements at the highest levels of sport in mind.

A breath taking horse with magnificent expression and extended gait… © Artur Babaev

C.S. Are there any historical justifications for these skills?

L.B. Undoubtedly, there are examples of successes of the Akhal-Teke horses in high-level dressage: Absent, Muar, Abakan and many others. Competition results dating back to the Soviet period prove this. In the last thirty years we see a decline in all sports in Russia. This is a consequence of political upheavals. But compared to dressage, the results of the Akhal-Teke in other disciplines are less impressive.

C.S. Are there any horse races specifically dedicated to Akhal-Teke horses in the world? In which country?

L.B. Historically, Akhal-Teke horses are raced in Russia and Turkmenistan. However, due to the peculiar political situation, with its secretive regime, it is hard to know what is really going on with the horses in Turkmenistan today. For the last thirteen years, horse registration has been haphazard or non-existent and I am afraid that the state of the Akhal-Teke breed in Turkmenistan as a result has reached the point of no return.

The majestic presence of the Akhal Teke horse enhanced by he stallion Garant.© Fotart/Shamborant stud

C.S. The use of AT in horse races is due to its morphology as for thoroughbred horses. As a dressage horse, the Akal Teke shows magnificent expression and stretched / extended gait. But isn’t its rangy conformation a drawback /difficulty for collected gaits?

L.B. I am convinced that if Akhal-Teke breeders want to enter the top sport with their production, they must work harder on selecting for correct conformation. Instead we have to admit that the majority of Akhal-Teke horses produced today are not suited to ANY equestrian discipline. I am repeating myself when I say that so much of today’s breeding is about selecting for extreme type and unusual colour. As a result of this deplorable attitude, the riding qualities of the Akhal-Teke horse are steadily declining.

C.S. Some horse breeds (e.g. Iberian horses) have been experimented with to change size and model in order to become more polyvalent and competitive, to the detriment of the original breed-type. Does this kind of evolution affect the Akhal Teke horse? If so what kind of Akhal Teke model is trendy and in demand nowadays?

L.B. A horse breed is not a relic cast in stone, it’s a living animal which must evolve in step with the times, it must change and develop. Visiting a museum can be very appealing, if one is curious about the past. However we do this only a few times in the course of our lives, usually as children. Most of us go to restaurants a lot more often, but who wouldn’t get an extra kick out of the food being served on a dinner service from a museum collection in a historic setting?

Shumer Shael
Shumer Shael
Two year-old Shumer Shael already shows outstanding and strong conformation.
© Collection Shamborant Stud

C.S. The Akhal Teke horse is also considered as very good for horse trekking and trail riding. Is this rustic character due to breeding conditions, i.e. tough Russian climate or inherent genetic characteristics of the breed? If Akhal Teke horses were bred in a milder climate would these rustic attributes be lost?

L.B. The Akhal-Teke horses have been bred for nearly five thousand years. Imagine how many human generations have come and gone, how much human intellect has been invested in this breed over time! Over the centuries, through the demands placed on it by history, this horse has acquired an exceptional ability as a riding horse, making it capable of meeting the demands of top sport. To use the Akhal-Teke horse in trekking and trail riding, or similar pursuits is, of course, possible and nobody can stop the owner from engaging in such pursuits. However, such a use cannot serve as a guide for selective breeding. It is too primitive! One can shoot sparrows with a cannon but the engineer who designed the cannon, most likely had a different application in mind.

C.S. At your stud, do broodmares live outdoors (in fields) all year round? Or do they live in stables and are turned out daily?


L.B. I breed horses near Moscow where the temperatures in the winter can be below 35 degrees and in the summer – above 35. So we adapt our management to the time of the year and to the weather on a particular day. Mostly, our mares are out 24/7 in the summer and stabled at night/out by day in the winter.

C.S. What do you feed your horses with? What kinds of feed and what kind of additional supplements (extra food and minerals)?

L.B. We don’t feed anything special. Oats, hay and minerals. In the summer, pasture provides grazing. One always wishes one could feed even better but a breeder has to bear the cost of his production in mind. Everything must be within reason.

C.S. Do you use modern techniques such as artificial insemination and embryo transfer? Are these methods allowed in Akhal Teke breeding?

L.B. I personally am against artificial technologies in horse breeding, primarily for economic reasons. Whether or not it is permitted within the breed I cannot even say, due to the chaos which reigns in our breed management. I try to distance myself as much as possible from the majority of activities within our breed today because I am just not happy with the quality of what is being produced.

C.S. Do you receive any State financial aid for breeding?

L.B. This is the main point of contention for me. No, I do not receive any state subsidies. I am aware that there is some meagre state funding for keeping broodmares. In theory, I know there are some advantageous lending conditions on offer but I refuse to take part in such programmes.

Elegance and strenghth… © Ekaterina Drux/Shamborant Stud

C.S. How is Akhal-Teke breeding organized in Russia?

L.B. Historically, since the Soviet times, stud-books are administered by the All-Russia Institute of Horse Breeding (VNIIK). So everything is in the hands of power-wielding bureaucrats. For the last six years, the horses produced by the Shamborant stud are not even registered in the studbook and are left outside the mainstream Akhal-Teke breed. The breeders have no control over the activities of the Institute and cannot be sure of the accuracy of the pedigrees entered into the book. The blood-typing method still used in this breed today is particularly unreliable when it comes to parentage verification.

C.S. Are there several sections in the Akhal Teke Studbook? Is the Akhal Teke Studbook closed to registration for non-registered horses?

L.B. There are two registers in the book: the purebred register and the part bred. In my opinion, the latter constitute horses of a different breed, they are not Akhal-Teke.
Formally, the stud book is closed to those individual animals whose ancestors are not already part of the book, but what is actually going on in this book is impossible to say, due to the complete lack of control over the work of the employees of the Institute.

C.S. Is crossbreeding practiced with Akhal Tekes? What is the result of Akhal Teke crossbreeding with other breeds?

L.B. Yes, there is some cross-breeding but it is lacking any purposeful goals. Therefore, it is difficult to judge how successful cross-breeding with Akhal-Teke really is, as any successes are a matter of luck. Probably the most successful result of cross-breeding is the Russian Saddle horse. This breed is in reasonable demand amongst dressage riders.

Powerful stallion Khair. © Ekaterina Drux/Shamborant Stud

C.S. Can you tell us about the temperament of the Akhal Teke? The Akhal Teke is said to be extremely fine, sensitive and delicate? Is it a horse for everyone? Can we consider Akhal Tekes as family horses?

L.B. It’s very hard for me to answer this question, as I don’t really come into close contact with horses of other breeds. For me, a horse must have the ability to focus on the rider, to want to cooperate with the rider. Of course, at times, the horse will resist and evade and then the success of the partnership will depend on the determination and skill of the rider. As a breeder, I try to take this into account in my selection goals. All other discussions on this topic tend to be rhetoric and come from beginners. The main thing is not to anthropomorphise the horse and to remain its “master”. I am sure that most horses bred by our stud can be ridden by children.

C.S. What piece of advice would you give to someone who would buy Akhal Tekes horses? Are there any good studs out of the original breeding area?

L.B. If you decide to buy an Akhal-Teke, you will have acquired an intelligent, curious, energetic creature. Sometimes their intelligence is quite staggering; they are so clever that they will always try to participate in every aspect of your life. But there is only one approach – one must not equate them to human beings. One must love and cherish them, but at the same time keep a distance, preserving the “boss-subordinate” balance in your relationship with the horse. Then, believe me, your Akhal-Teke will be your friend and give you many years of happiness.

Small photos : Portrait of Leonid Babaev. © Private Collection ; Stallion Garant. © Fotart/Shamborant Stud.