Aleksandr Klimuk Interview
To the connoiseurs of the Akhal-Teke breed Aleksandr Klimuk needs no introduction. The long-time manager of the Stavropol Stud, universally acknowledged to be one of the best, if not “the” best Akhal-Teke studfarms in the world, Klimuk has produced numerous show and racetrack winners during his career. He is widely respected not only for his success as a breeder but also for his extensive knowledge of historical sources and for his balanced views.
MM: Let’s start from the end: what creative ambitions has the “author” of Gench, Yazaidym, Garayusup, Khanbegler, Primula, Yarodzha and others got left? Are there limits to perfection?
AK: Perfection knows no bounds, and every year one wants to produce good foals.
MM: Are there ever disappointments in your work? Is there anything you regret?
AK: Unfortunately, my work is not without its disappointments. Not every foal, by far, lives up to the expectations set when selection decision were first made. The biggest disappointment in horse breeding is the untimely death of a good horse.
MM: Let’s go back to the beginning – how did the infatuation with horses and the allegiance to the Akhal-Teke first started? Did you “graze the verges” of a racetrack when you were a boy? Took lessons in a riding school? What’s closer to your heart - classical sports or racing?
AK: I was horse-crazy from early childhood. I grew up in a village, both my grandfathers loved horses and, probably, their stories influenced me the most. I took a special interest in the Akhal-Teke already then, probably influenced by the book I read by S.I. Filatov “Rome is Applauding”, in which he speaks a lot about Absent.
MM: Who were your Akhal-Teke mentors?
AK: I consider V.P. Shamborant to have been my main mentor.
MM: Have you always had an image in mind of an Akhal-Teke you wanted to create? When was this image formed and has it changed over the years?
AK: My image of the Akhal-Teke has been formed when I was still a student, during my work experience in Dagestan and in Turkmenistan. During this time, I saw practically all the Akhal-Teke horses alive at the time and met their breeders. Since then, my perception of the Akhal-Teke breed has not changed significantly.
MM: Let’s talk about a controversial subject which, from time to time, gives rise to lively debate, especially in the West. The modern Akhal-Teke – is a product of the Russian and Soviet efforts to “create a breed” in the modern sense of the word but there still exists an ancient Turkmen horse, whose descendants have survived and are kept to this day by the mountain people of Northern Iran. What does the modern “artificial” Akhal-Teke have in common with it and how do they differ? Should we, as we usually do, draw a sharp dividing line between them? Or should we broaden our definition of the Akhal-Teke breed? How close are the Stavropol Teke of today to their ancient predecessors? Have they not lost something in the process of artificial refining in glasshouse conditions? What justification can you offer to the claim that the modern Akhal-Teke is the embodiment of the true essense of the breed?
AK: It is precisely the modern Akhal-Teke which is the closest variant of the ancient Turkmen horse. Undoubetdly, in the past the majority of Turkmen tribes were breeding the same type of horse. At the same time, an exchange of genetic material would have also taken place between the different Turkmen tribes. But from the beginning of the 19th century, all the sources available to us point to the fact that the best Turkmen horses belonged to the Teke tribe, and the most valuable ones - to the Teke tribe in the Akhal region. This situation was in evidence when Turkmenistan was annexed by Russia [at the end of the 19th century]. The Commission tasked with assessing the state of horse breeding in Turkmenistan in 1896 concluded that “of all the Turkmen horses, the Turkmen themselves particularly value the Yomud and the Akhal-Teke. The horses the Turkmen consider the most valuable of all, are the purebred examples of the latter”. Not only did the Teke people produce the purebred horses, other tribes engaged in purebreeding as well. The great Boinou belonged for a time to a Turkmen from the Saryk tribe, the mother of Mele Kush, to judge from the horse’s name, belonged to a Karadashly tribesman. The Turkmen of other tribes liked to use the Akhal-Teke stallions under saddle, as well as improvers for their other horses. Thus, a well-known Yomud serdar Dzhunaid-Khan rode the famous Mele Khadzhi Nureh and attempted to buy Bek Nazar Dor. For a long time, the Yomud breeders in Tashauz used the Akhal-Teke stallions such as Peren, Keimir, Alty-yab and others. Talking specifically about Iran, before the [Russian] Revolution, Iran was the main market for the Akhal-Teke horses raised in the Akhal region, especially for stallions. In 1853 Russian veterinarian Nannie wrote that “the horse of an eminent Persian, at least in the region bordering Turkmenistan, is always a Turkmen stallion bred by the Teke tribe – so was I able to conclude myself”. The purebred Akhal-Teke had gone through many trials and tribulations during the 20th century but, thanks to the efforts of Turkmen, Russian and Kazakh breeders, it has been preserved in all its splendor and glory. To merge it with other breeds, including those related to it but clearly of inferior quality, would be very unwise. However, Iranian breeders can themselves try and breed the pure Akhal-Teke, or, in any case, use Akhal-Teke sires as improvers, as their ancestors had done. The main principle guiding the Turkmen breeders was to produce fast horses of good type with good workability. “A first prize and a pureblooded horse are the only things to wish for, the rest is unimportant”. This was also the principle my teacher V.P. Shamborant followed. It is the same principle I try to follow when making selection decisions.
MM: Let’s continue the controversial theme, that of purity. Controversial, at least, in some Western circles. According to the General Akhal-Teke Studbook, the purity is determined by DNA and blood-type analysis but if we take into account the fact that the modern Akhal-Teke has foreign blood in it, especially English Thoroughbred blood, going back some generations, can the concept of purity be considered absolute? For example, in Europe and in the US, there is a number of decent horses with “dark spots” in their pedigree. Should we not start accepting them into the Studbook, to widen the genetic pool, especially, if they have proved themselves in sport?
AK: Purity of the breed is not determined by DNA testing or blood-typing. It is a concept steeped in history and tradition. Purity tells us about the high degree of perfection achieved by selective breeding, and of the role a breed has played in the world-wide context. Pure breeds are those selected according to the principles of pure breeding. But absolute purity can, of course, be only achieved when breeding gnats in laboratories. Yes, due to a tragic mistake made seventy years ago, Akhal-Teke breed was contaminated by an insignificant amount of Englsh Thoroughbred blood. Fortunately, the damage it caused to the breed was successfully overcome. To suggest that this dangerous experiment should be repeated is a short-sighted view, if not to say, a travesty. The histories of other pure breeds are dotted with blank spots too, but nobody is suggesting that Shagiya Arabs should be used on purebred Arabians, or Trakehners who, in their mass, have 70% of English TB in them, should be accepted into the Wetherby’s Studbook.
MM: The General Akhal-Teke Studbook is the property of the Russian Government, passed down from the Soviet times, while the homeland of the breed is Central Asia. Can we justify this position? How do you feel about the attempts to give the breed back to the Turkmen?
AK: Until 1973, the Akhal-Teke Studbook for the whole of the Soviet Union, was maintained by M.I. Belonogov who was working in Turkmennistan. After his death, it was left lying around and nobody touched it. Because of this, the Director of the All-Union Research Institute of Horsebreeding, Professor Barmintsev, suggested that his organisation takes on this responsibility. The work of the Institute, particularly its work in Turkmenistan, is difficult to over-estimate. Can you imagine how much effort went into establishing a basic system of recording breed population in Turkmenistan? By doing this work, and by resuming the publication of the studbooks, the Institute of Horsebreeding really did give the breed back to the Turkmen. As to the publication of the studbooks in the Akhal-Teke homeland today, I do not possess any information on the subject.
MM: How should, in your view, breed registration work: through a centralised studbook or, considering the spread of the Akhal-Teke population across several continents, should we aim to create national studbooks, similar to the Arab Horse studbooks where every country has its own?
AK: In principle, every country which has a population of Akhal-Teke, could publish its own studbook, with one over-riding condition: the horses inscribed in them must be pure. Such studbooks could be regulated by MAAK or a similar international body, created to represent Akhal-Teke breeders and enthusiasts. Unfortunately, nowadays MAAK has, for all intents and purposes, become dormant.
MM: What is your view on grading, licensing and other directives issued by VNIIK [All-Russia Institute of Horsebreeding]? Some breeders feel that the only regulating factor within the breed should be “the market”, while others feel that the absence of clear governing policies leads to the loss of type and allows genetic defects to slip into the population. Are you an advocate of regulation or freedom in Akhal-Teke breeding?
AK: I am against licensing of any kind, but grading, based on solid agreed principles, could provide useful points of orientation for the breed enthusiasts, especially those who are new to it. I have respect for T.N. Riabova and am always ready to listen to her, even though I do not agree with her on every point, by any means.
MM: For many years, you worked for a state-run concern. Was it difficult to adjust to the new economic reality in Russia? Have you an opinion on what direction the development of the market for the Akhal-Teke horse should take?
AK: In selective breeding of any horses, state-run studfarms have always played an important role, and continue to do so. One cannot over-estimate the role of Tersk, Yanovsk, Marbah and El Zagra studs for the Arabian breed. Sportshorse breeding in Germany and France has, by and large, been developed by the state-run establishments. Similar organisations made their contribution to the Akhal-Teke breed, and quite probably, not for the last time. When Stavropol Stud was a state concern, we had to sell horses. Now that it’s been privatised, we still have to sell. But now the very survival of our stud depends on the success or failure of our sales. The Akhal-Teke horse should be promoted in today’s world, first and foremost, as a purebred horse. Besides its iridescent beauty and brilliance of its coat colours, this horse possesses a string of indisputable qualities as a riding horse – primarily, it is the lightness of gaits and comfort for the rider. Individual Akhal-Teke horses may be successfully used in equestrian sports, both in classical disciplines and in endurance. The Akhal-Teke may also prove to be a valuable ingridient in sportshorse breeding which is a thriving industry today.
MM: Let us leave aside the material world and come back to the spirit of the Akhal-Teke and everything about it which captures our imagination. What is the most exciting aspect of you daily work: the planning of breeding pairs for the next season and waiting for a foal to be born? The cups you win at the Akhal-Teke shows? First prizes at the races?
AK: I am more a breeder than a sportsman. Prizes at shows and races are very important. They are the external measurement of the success of our studfarm. But the most intersting, the most captivating element of my work is the birth of a foal, often “conceived” a lot earlier than a year before its birth.
MM: Do you ride? Do you have favourite horses? Or is this an amateurish question?
AK: Unfortunately, I don’t ride a lot, I don’t have the time. Yes, I do have favourite horses but there are so many of them – probably, all of our stud and many besides.
MM: Where do you see the best use for the Akhal-Teke in today’s world? Who is the ideal buyer for the horses from your stud?
AK: I have already answered the first part of your question. As to selling horses, I would like to sell to those people who will treat them well. It’s good to deal with buyers who know what they want to buy and why.
MM: Where does the future of the breed lie – in Russia, or in Central Asia, or do you see a global future? Is the future in popularising the breed or in keeping it exclusive?
AK: The future of the purebred Akhal-Teke is the world. Of course, the breed should be promoted and popularised but the breeding of the best horses and the ownership of the best horses will always remain exclusive.