Divine Horses and Political Injustice
Geldy Kyarizov is a man condemned by his past and robbed of his future.
His country once hailed him as a champion because of the 4,300 kilometre ride he made to Moscow to save the Akhal Teke breed. Turkmenistan showed its gratitude by making it a crime for him to touch a horse.
Kyarizov organized a parade of more than a thousand Akhal Tekes through the nation’s hippodrome. Turkmenistan repaid his loyalty by falsely accusing him of stealing his own horses and then imprisoned him in a horrifying gulag.
His Akhal Teke stallion was considered so beautiful that the president of Turkmenistan chose that horse as the national symbol and ordered a gold statue erected in its honour. The government then demolished Kyarizov’s stable and starved his Akhal Teke horses to the point of death.
How did Kyarizov become the victim of a terror campaign perpetrated by a nation described as the “Second North Korea”?
To comprehend the present we should re-examine the past. To understand recent political events we must exhume Turkmenistan’s equestrian history. To explain why Geldy Kyarizov is illegally detained we need to understand how the Akhal Teke horse became the sacred tribal totem of two tyrants.
It all began a long time ago.
An Equine Treasure
The horses known today as the Akhal Teke are believed to be descended from one of the original ancient breeds. Assyrian cuneiform texts dated 1100 B.C. describe the horses. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Persian Emperor Xerxes used the animals in 465 B.C. Alexander the Great employed the horses in his army in 320 B.C. and Marco Polo made a special mention of them in his book in 1300 A.D.
The horses were beautiful and elegant; but what made them of military importance was their ability to rapidly travel astonishing distances under gruelling conditions. For centuries the Akhal Teke was the most valuable equine of its day; which explains why these horses were sought out by a remarkable Long Rider.
In 1414 a Chinese diplomat named Chen Cheng was ordered by Emperor Yongle to undertake a hazardous equestrian journey to the distant city of Herat. Located in today’s modern Afghanistan, Herat was then the capital of the Timurid Empire. Chen Cheng’s mission was to deliver precious Chinese silks to Emperor Shahrukh. In exchange, the Chinese Long Rider was ordered to obtain a large herd of the valuable horses used by Shahrukh’s renowned mounted archers. The diary kept by Cheng is the oldest known example of a Long Rider’s “Story from the Road.”
|Central Asian horses were ridden by armoured knights in the Ottoman Empire and were the sires of the Byerley Turk, one of the originators of the Thoroughbred.|
During the intervening four hundred years, stories continued to circulate about the horses of Central Asia. Known for their speed and endurance, these equines were reputedly able to carry their Turkmen riders astonishing distances in an incredibly short amount of time. As evidence soon proved, the horses were also tools of the slave trade.
One of the first eyewitness accounts was relayed back to London by English Long Rider Edward Mitford. Setting off in 1839, Mitford rode 7,000 miles from Eastern Europe to Ceylon.
Mitford faced a host of dangers during that singular journey. But he encountered a unique hazard in Persia; namely the threat of being captured and enslaved by Turkmen raiders.
Mounted on their fleet horses, the Turkmen would venture deep into neighbouring Persia, capture hundreds of inhabitants and then drag their victims back to the slave markets of Central Asia.
In his book, “A Land March from England to Ceylon,” Mitford wrote, “Budusht is a walled village with a small low gateway at which we were obliged to dismount before we could enter. The entrances of the villages are formed in this manner to prevent the Turcoman plunderers riding into them and taking them by surprise….Their treatment of prisoners is very unpleasant. It is their object to make the Persians slaves; so they do not kill those who may promise a good sale. These are obliged to march at the rate of forty miles a day attached by a cord to a horseman and thus traverse the deserts of Tookestan.”
Mitford was warned to be on his guard because “a body of eight hundred Turcoman horsemen had been seen on the road we were going.”
|This drawing depicts mounted Turkmen raiders returning with Persian slaves, who sold for between forty and eighty pieces of gold a piece.|
According to mid-nineteenth century accounts, there were an estimated 200,000 Persian slaves in Bukhara and a further 700,000 in Khiva. The Turkmen not only enslaved Persians. The fierce tribesmen were equally fond of capturing and selling Russians. There were so many thousands of Russians in captivity that this was one of the reasons the Czar authorized the military conquest of Central Asia.
A European Eyewitness
The next important equestrian witness was the Swiss Long Rider Henri Moser. A watch maker who settled in St. Petersburg, Russia, Moser was given permission to undertake an unprecedented equestrian exploration across newly-conquered Central Asia. Setting off in 1882, the young equestrian explorer left St. Petersburg bound for Tashkent. In the company of Russian soldiers, Moser rode to Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. He then made his way to Tehran, crossed the Caucasus Mountains and finally emerged at Istanbul in 1883.
Not only did Moser purchase valuable horses from their Turkmen owners, he also documented the incredible feats which these horses could travel.
In his book, “A Travers l’Asie Centrale,” Moser wrote, “The bravest horses are trained for the alamane, a raid on rival tribes. The Yomud horse will travel 700 versts (a Russian linear measure equal to 1.06 kilometres) across the desert, and cross the territory of the Turkoman Tekes – with whom they are continually at war – to raid on the other side of the Atrek River, 1000 or 1200 versts from their tents, and return with a woman tied hand and foot, thrown across their crupper like a sack; with this double load, and with food and water for all three, 100 to 150 versts per day. This is hardly believable, but true; I can confirm it, having lived with these proud warriors.”
|An Akhal Teke that could cover long distances, find speed when necessary, without much need of rest, or grass, or water, was worth its weight in gold. To the Turkmen, such horses were the first requisite of existence.|
Czars and Communists
After decades of bitter conflict, in 1881 the country now known as Turkmenistan was conquered and incorporated into the Russian Empire. There were many unexpected equestrian results from this clash of cultures.
General Aleksey Kuropatkin, who had fought the mounted Turkmen, was deeply impressed with the nomad’s horses. Kuropatkin is credited with naming them “Akhal Teke,” in honour of the Teke Turkmen tribe that frequented the Akhal oasis. The Russians also organized the first modern stud book for the breed.
The demise of Czarist Russia in 1917 meant that the Turkmen and their Akhal Teke horses became victims of the political vacuum that swept across from St. Petersburg to Siberia. Even though the Bolsheviks promised reform, the Soviet Union continued the political suppression of Central Asia. A national liberation movement fought back against the communists. Many of the freedom fighters, known as Basmachi, were mounted. In her book, “Turkestan Solo,” Swiss Long Rider Ella Maillart recalled how she was present when a large group of Basmachi were captured and executed by Soviet officials.
“So savage was the Basmachi resistance that for a long time the Red Army was compelled to maintain large numbers of troops under arms in Turkestan,” Maillart wrote.
The movement was eventually crushed; even worse was to come.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin mistrusted horsemen. In 1928 he passed a law making it illegal for private individuals to own a horse. Next, Stalin created an enormous agricultural collective. After seizing control of all private farmland, he ordered every animal larger than a chicken to be confiscated. Horses were no exception. They were forcibly taken from the people and placed into state-controlled farms. The result was a Russian horse holocaust wherein an estimated 50 percent of the nation’s millions of horses either died or were eaten.
According to various sources, by the early 1930s only 1,250 Akhal Tekes had escaped the destruction. Fearing the extinction of their beloved horses, in 1935 a group of Turkmens rode from Ashgabad to Moscow. Upon their arrival at the Soviet capital, they successfully petitioned Stalin to exempt the horses. A Russian news reel captured images of the Turkmens riding their Akhal Tekes through the desert on the way to Moscow.
|Despite political differences, the Akhal Teke horse is beloved by the Turkmens and the Russians. An example was seen at the conclusion of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union’s Marshal Zhukov rode a grey Akhal Teke horse during the Moscow Victory Parade of 1945.|
In the waning days of the Soviet Union an impassioned young Turkmen believed the Akhal Teke was again in danger. Geldy Kyarizov mounted his Akhal Teke on June 1, 1988, determined to repeat the ride from Ashgabat to Moscow. His 4,300 kilometre journey took him through what is today Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia. He was forced to ride 370 miles through the scorching heat of the Kara Kum Desert. Once more an Akhal Teke had demonstrated the breed’s legendary endurance and a Turkmen had saved the nation’s horses.
Because of that journey, Geldy was acknowledged by the Guild as the first Turkmen Long Rider in the history of modern equestrian travel. He was also instated as the first Turkmen to be made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Turkmenistan declared its independence in 1990. Kyarizov subsequently went on to champion the Akhal Teke horses, not only in Turkmenistan but throughout the world.
As a result of Geldy’s efforts, President Saparmurat Niyazov appointed Kyarizov the General Director of “Turkmen Atlary,” a Cabinet level government position which placed him in charge of the state equestrian organisation of Turkmenistan.
Kyarizov secured government funding for the establishment of a large equestrian complex in the capital, complete with the nation’s first veterinary laboratory able to perform the DNA testing necessary to set up a stud book for the Akhal-Teke in Turkmenistan. What he discovered changed history and destroyed his life.
|Geldy Kyarizov in traditional Turkmen garb at the time of his ride to Moscow.|
This story cannot continue without explaining a vital point.
The Long Riders’ Guild does not promote any breed. Nor do we care what type of horse is ridden or what nationality the rider is. Thus we have no interest in Akhal Tekes or Turkmenistan; except as equestrian historians. Our mission is to assist horses and humans successfully complete journeys.
Yet the Long Riders' Guild Academic Foundation has published a unique study which sheds a light on what may have caused Geldy Kyarizov’s personal and political destruction.
Professor John Borneman, who teaches at Princeton University, is the author of a ground-breaking investigation into the concept of equestrian tribalism.
According to Professor Borneman, "Breeds are culturally constructed and are structured on the model of ethnicity."
In other words, imagine what would happen if someone denounced Arabian horses in Saudi Arabia, scoffed at Criollos in Argentina or mocked mustangs in America. Such a critic might expect to undergo a vigorous verbal challenge.
Now shift your gaze back to Turkmenistan.
History proves that a certain type of horse has inhabited the region known as Turkmenistan for centuries. What is unique is that when the Turkmen government was formed, it placed the Akhal Teke on a pedestal; thereafter the horse became a sacred symbol of the country’s equestrian heritage and prestige.
This meant that tampering with the nation's equine mythology was filled with risk!
To make matters worse, Turkmenistan was ruled by a vindictive dictator.
Blessed with the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas resources, Turkmens should have rejoiced when they gained political independence from the Soviet Union. Yet instead of liberty the people were quickly subjected to a new type of political serfdom.
The leader of the newly liberated country, Saparmurat Niyazov, declared himself “President for Life.” Denounced by his critics abroad as a “megalomaniacal lunatic”, Niyazov crushed Turkmenistan’s fledgling freedom, silenced the media, severely restricted travel and ruled like the Czar of old. As Niyazov’s eccentric hold on power grew, he banned opera, renamed the days of the week after himself and erected an immense gold statue of himself that rotated to always face the sun.
Geldy Kyarizov, the man who had dedicated his life to Turkmenistan’s horses, violated an equestrian tribal taboo when he informed the world that unprincipled individuals were breeding Akhal Tekes to Thoroughbreds. In an open letter to the Executive Committee of the World Akhal Teke Organisation, Kyarizov warned “All the breeders today know how we in Turkmenistan had to weed out the cross-breds from the Akhal-Teke breed between 1997 and 2002.”
|As a symbol of the nation’s revered equestrian heritage, in 1992 President of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov presented Maksat, a pure bred Akhal Teke stallion, to British Prime Minister John Major.|
The Price of Truth
The law, either legal or social, is invisible. The moment Geldy Kyarizov spoke out about impure Akhal Tekes, his life spiralled out of control. Kyarizov not only provoked the resentment of other Akhal Teke breeders, whose deception he had exposed, he also incited the anger of the Turkmen government.
The result was that Kyarizov was stripped of power, publicly humiliated in a kangaroo court, imprisoned in a hell-hole, denied medical treatment and is now being held as a political captive by a still-resentful government.
|Geldy Kyarizov (right) was imprisoned in Ovadan Depe, one of the world’s cruellest prisons. A fellow inmate recalled, “Wake up was at 6 a.m., you had to get up, collect all your bedding and pile it up on one bed. And the whole day you had to sit and face the door. The whole day! If you didn’t do it, they’d kill us. The guards didn’t care about their ages. Whether he’s 50 or 60 years old – they beat them all.”|
New Ruler – Same Rules
To add to Kyarizov’s woes, after President Niyazov died in 2006, he was succeeded by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a former dentist turned politician who worships Akhal Teke horses. The new president wrote a book about Akhal Tekes, frequently rides the horses at highly publicized events and has compared Turkmenistan to the sacred horses of the steppes.
“Our country is moving forward with the speed of an Akhal-Teke stallion and I call on you all to move forward and only forward,” he said.
No one in Turkmenistan is going to argue because Berdymukhamedov has created a personality cult which rivals that of his predecessor. After assuming the title of “People’s Horse Breeder,” he enforced his equestrian image upon the nation by erecting a huge monument to himself in Ashgabat, the capital city. Cast in bronze and covered in 24-carat gold leaf, the 69-foot statue (which appears at the beginning of this article) shows Berdymukhamedov poised astride an Akhal Teke stallion. The statue soars 20 metres from the ground and is perched on an outcrop of white marble.
|Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, leader of the repressive Central Asian state, is a passionate advocate of the Akhal Teke|
It is important to note that in the intervening years since Kyarizov was unjustly punished; other Akhal Teke advocates have also fallen afoul of the Turkmen government. In February, 2013 President Berdymukhamedov fired the head of Turkmenistan’s national state equine association, accusing him of failing to breed Akhal Tekes, to maintain proper veterinary care and to account for state funds. The result was a complete failure; but it provided Berdymukhamedov with a convenient excuse to explain why Akhal Tekes have never been entered into international competitions, despite Turkmen claims that the horses are unequalled in all respects.
There may be more victims; but in a country that ruthlessly restricts coverage by the foreign media, such details have remained hidden. What is certain is that the Turkmen government shows no sign of forgetting or forgiving their first critic.
After his release from prison Kyarizov was granted a Russian visa. He was also invited to attend a meeting of Long Riders being held by the Guild in Switzerland. Despite the lack of any legal restrictions, the Long Rider and his family were threatened by government thugs, physically attacked and prohibited from leaving Turkmenistan.
Some believe that the government is hampering Kyarizov’s departure because of a fear that he will disclose details about the villainous Ovadan Depe prison where he was held.
While the Guild doesn’t discount that possibility, we believe Kyarizov’s unlawful detention is connected to the government’s unjustified concern that Akhal Tekes will be revealed to have been genetically diluted by the deliberate introduction of Thoroughbred blood. Thus politicians in Ashgabat may mistakenly believe that by silencing Kyarizov they can protect the equestrian myth enshrined by their leaders.
Turkmenistan might wish to continue that pretence but the rest of the world need not agree. The truth about Akhal Tekes is widely known and easily accessible.
A quick check of a public source such as Wikipedia instantly reveals that it is common knowledge that Turkmenistan’s Akhal Tekes are genetically suspect.
“At present Akhal-Teke horses in Turkmenistan are not registered with any other studbook. The main reasons for this are allegations of a heavy infusion of Thoroughbred blood into the breed to create faster horses for racing in Turkmenistan. There are estimates that as many as 30% of the horses in the Ashgabat hippodrome were not purebred. This may have also been a main reason for the fabricated charges against the first horse minister of Turkmenistan, Geldy Kyarizov, who tried to avoid and remedy the secretive out-crossing and found himself in severe opposition to fellow breeders.”
Such accusations are based upon solid equestrian investigation. In 2009 Maria Marquise Baverstock, a knowledgeable leader of the Akhal Teke community in Great Britain published a scathing indictment about the Akhal Tekes. Entitled “Purity - Fact or Fiction," it documented how Akhal Teke experts around the world knew that Turkmen horses had been bred to English Thoroughbreds.
Ironically in the intervening years since Kyarizov’s arrest, other countries such as Italy, England and America have excelled in breeding pure Akhal Teke horses. And in a further blow at the breed’s purported purity, the Nez Perce Indians began breeding Akhal Tekes stallions to Appaloosa mares in 1995.
The facts are staring the world in the face. As the equestrian evidence demonstrates, there is no reason to continue to keep Kyarizov and his family under house arrest.
Unless Long Rider Geldy Kyarizov is freed, his Akhal Teke stallion Yanardag, which appears on Turkmenistan’s national coat of arms (right), may soon represent a symbol of shame and an icon of political slavery.
Propaganda and Punishment
Tales of repressive governments and cruel dictators are nothing new. And it should be remembered that previous despots have used celebrated horses to promote foul political purposes. The most startling example of equine propaganda was undertaken by the Third Reich.
Despite the legendary blitzkrieg, Hitler kept his army on the move thanks to an estimated 2,750,000 horses and mules. Additionally, he fielded the most successful equestrian team in the history of the Olympics. The Nazi leader was delighted in 1936, as for the first and only time in Olympic history one nation, Germany, managed to capture all six equestrian gold medals in every event.
But it was Hitler’s passion for dramatic display that should serve as a dire warning to Turkmenistan’s political leaders.
Austria was annexed by Germany in 1936; only four years after Hitler came to power. Shortly after this invasion, the Nazis drafted the Lipizzaner stallions into their equestrian war machine by placing the Spanish Riding School under the direct command of the German Wehrmacht.
The legendary riding academy provided Hitler with a perfect theatre wherein he draped swastika-covered flags inside the school. Eva Braun, the Fuhrer’s mistress, attended a performance to mark the Lippizan’s forcible conversion into equine Nazis.
|Like Turkmenistan’s Akhal Tekes, the Lipizzan stallions of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School were turned into political tools.|
Using the famous “dancing white stallions” to promote genocide is shocking; but there is an equestrian element to the Kyarizov situation that is legally unparalleled.
After surviving for years in the infamous Ovadan Depe gulag, the Turkmen authorities made Kyarizov sign a document which forced the Akhal Teke champion to promise that he would never involve himself with horses again.
This barbaric act of injustice, which is akin to making it illegal for Mozart to play the piano, appears to be the first recorded equestrian punishment of its kind in history.
An Akhal Teke Martyr?
Gaze across the centuries and you will find a breed of beautiful horses running across the Equestrian Equator of Central Asia. They have been called many names. The ancient Persians knew them as Nisean. The Chinese referred to them as Han Xue Ma. The Russians named them Akhal Tekes. No matter what they were called, men have cherished them for 3,000 years.
Geldy Kyarizov was no different. He loved them so deeply that he dedicated his life to them. He lost his freedom because of them. He was tortured and imprisoned because of them. Now he may die because of them.
Kyarizov is already being compared to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the political dissident who was illegally confined by a Burmese dictator and then awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However there is difference between these two victims. Kyi survived her ordeal.
Given his perilous health and urgent need for medical attention, Kyarizov may not live long enough to receive any international acclaim. The chances are high that the persecuted horseman will soon die in captivity. Then Turkmenistan will have to deal with the everlasting legacy of an equestrian martyr, akin to the restless ghost of Ibrahim Bey, the defiant Basmachi rebel who fought the Soviet Union until his death in 1931.
Support or Shame?
Nations, like people, need time to mature; but time has run out for Turkmenistan which is now at a crossroads in its equestrian history. Move in one direction and the country will receive the world’s support. Move in the other and the nation’s famous horses will once again become a symbol of slavery.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Geldy Kyarizov are both passionate advocates of Turkmenistan’s legendary Akhal Tekes. One is now at the apex of political power; while the other is in danger of dying from a lack of medical care.
No soaring golden statue of an Akhal Teke stallion can disguise the injuries inflicted on this Long Rider. No flashy annual horse parade can conceal the brutality lurking behind Ashgabat’s marble palaces.
Being a leader calls for difficult decisions. That is why the time has come for the president of Turkmenistan to realize what is at stake if he continues to condone the unethical detention of Kyarizov and his family.
The Long Riders’ Guild calls upon President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to recognize and respect Kyarizov’s human rights; to review his case without delay; to provide justification for keeping him and family detained; to either release Kyarizov or face the condemnation of the world.
If Turkmenistan continues to ignore its own laws and violate the rules of humanity, the Long Riders’ Guild will urge the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate President Berdymukhamedov on charges of kidnapping, illegal confinement and violations of human rights. It will place President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in the Guild’s Hall of Shame. It will urge the international Akhal Teke community to boycott Turkmenistan and refuse to attend the nation’s annual equestrian celebration.
|Myth or Reality? Let the world decide. The romantic myth of the Akhal Teke is seen in the golden statue of Geldy Kyarizov's Akhal Teke stallion Yanardag, (left) who was honoured by a statue in the nation's capital. The reality can be seen in Geldy's Akhal Teke horses that were saved from starvation by donations from British horse lovers.|
Editor's note: Geldy Kyarizov was freed one week after the publication of this article. On September 14th 2015, he flew to Moscow for urgently-needed medical treatment. Daud, Geldy’s son, wrote, “Our family couldn’t be happier than we are right now. It is safe to say this wouldn’t have been even possible without your help and the help of people who have been fighting on our behalf. I believe your last letter addressed to the minister of horses definitely had an effect and the government finally gave in. You can truly call yourself a human rights defender!”
CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s international association of equestrian explorers and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club. Author of "Khyber Knights, he is currently completing the “Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration,” the most comprehensive equestrian exploration guide ever written.
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