Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kara Leylek Akhal-teke Stud

Thursday August 30 2007

Did you ever, when you were little, hear something, or see a picture of something, that ended up shaping the course of your life? That's what happened to Michele Van Kasteren when she saw a classic picture of Kambar, a shimmering golden Akhal-teke racehorse from Turkmenistan in the 1960's. When she saw that picture as a little girl, she knew from then on she wanted an Akhal-teke. Kambar was actually a palomino color, though in Michele's photo, faded from time, he looks like a silver horse. You can still see his magnetic sheen, whatever his color, and he's a magnificent, fit, lean equine specimen. (This “magic photo of Kambar” seems to be responsible for starting the addiction of many Akhal-teke enthusiasts.)

When Michele finally had enough money to buy her first horse (an Akhal-teke, of course), she looked at 3 or 4 places until she found him. I asked how she knew that was the one she wanted, and she shrugged. “You just get a feeling.” It was Peter Van Kasteren who sold her her first Akhal-teke long ago, “and he came with the horse!” They are married now, and have 40-something purebred Akhal-tekes on their farm in southern Belgium.

While Michele always loved the Akhal-teke, she wasn't always into endurance. She took riding lessons when she was young, then got into eventing. Later on, when Peter took her to her first 120 km ride, she found out how painful endurance can be, if you weren't conditioned for it. “I went back to eventing!” “What?” I said, “But you eventers are crazy!” “Yes, but eventing doesn't last all day!” Eventually, however, Michele began competing in endurance on their Akhal-tekes when Peter took a break from riding. She started riding in international rides 3 years ago.

The two things that pique my interest in the Akhal-teke is their unique conformation, and that shimmering quality of their coat. While the many strains, or sire lines, of Akhal-tekes can be quite different, from a sleek greyhound look to an almost warmblood-type, I see in most of them the distinctive head and neck, head carriage, and floating way of moving. The metallic sheen in their coat is due to the unique structure of their hair follicles (unlike other horse breeds), a smaller, opaque core and larger, translucent outer covering, which refracts light – changes its direction - and focuses the light like a crystal. On some of the golden horses – like her stallion Myr – it's almost hypnotic. “Riding him in the sunshine is like truly riding gold!” said Michele.

Michele still calls her Akhal-teke passion and breeding farm her 'hobby,' but with over 40 horses, it must be a full time job – and she already has one of those. In good weather seasons, (this was not one of them – with all the rain Belgium, and western Europe, has had, they missed a lot of training, and therefore a lot of rides) this is a typical day: Get up 3:30-4 AM, go for a ride, then go to full-time work as a lawyer in Luxembourg, ride at lunchtime (on a horse or two she keeps at a friend's near work), return to finish up work, drive the 60 km home, and then ride another horse or two at home. “The latest I got finished riding was at midnight!” That is dedication, or, perhaps, obsession - something I seem to find in many of the Akhal-teke people I've met so far.

The Van Kasterens are on their 3rd generation of breeding Akhal-tekes. I asked which of all of them was her favorite, but Michele couldn't pick one. “They're all unique.” They aim to have 5 or 6 foals a year, keep two of them to raise and train and campaign in endurance. They have 5 in endurance competition now, and a herd of Akhal-tekes from yearlings to 5 years old, and a herd of mares turned out with their black 20-year-old stallion, Sugun (means “deer” in the Turkmen language). Throughout his career he performed in eventing and endurance, and showing. Sugun looks quite content with his lot in life right now!

Most buyers like the buckskin or dun color, but, the Van Kasterens breed for performance, not for color. And while the Van Kasterens compete with their horses in endurance, they don't specifically breed just for endurance, but performance in general, whether it be dressage, jumping, endurance or eventing, believing that the Akhal-teke is a very versatile horse.

Michele prefers to breed the mares young, get 2 or 3 foals out of them before breaking them in and starting them in endurance, since most Akhal-tekes don't fully mature till they are 7 or 8 – what we all like to think of as the beginning of the prime age for endurance horses. And, in general, the Akhal-teke is very easy to break, says Michele. “You just throw a saddle on their back. They turn their head back at you, say, 'Huh? What's that, a saddle? What, you're up there on my back? OK.' And off they go.” Of course it's probably a little more involved than that, but it goes with what others have told me of the Akhal-teke, that they are intelligent, quick to learn, and gentle. The Van Kasterens never have problems with them, such as bad feet, or colic – they've always been reputed to be tough horses throughout their existence.

As people in a minority, the Van Kasterens sometimes feel like they're fighting an uphill battle in endurance (and other sports) with their Akhal-tekes, when people try to say the Akhal-teke is not so successful in horse sports. But Michele does offer a simple, valid argument. “Just look at the numbers of Akhal-tekes there are in the world compared to the Arabian.” (One figure sited is 3500 Akhal-tekes in the world while another says 1500; and as of June 2007, there are over 996,000 registered Arabians in the world). Looking at it that way, the odd Akhal-teke completing 100-mile rides – such as Sabel, in this year's Tevis Cup - is quite an accomplishment, just for the fact that the Akhal-teke was IN the ride in the first place.

Without seeking them out, the Akhal-teke seems to keep finding its way into my endurance wanderings. It just goes to show again that there many sides to endurance around the globe: the serious endurance racing and the casual family atmosphere endurance riding; the purebred Arabian and the alternative breeds like the Akhal-teke and the mule; the shaikhs who ride and the homeless who ride (and I'm not just talking about me here!), the $1,000,000 Arabian and the $500 Arabian that would have gone to slaughter, $100,000 live-in horse trailers and the people that ride across country to get to the endurance rides (OK, so that doesn't happen so much now). There is a place for all of it. Endurance variety – the spice of life!

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