Allegra Steck Interview
Allegra Steck has been involved with the Akhal-Teke ever since she had graduated from college with a degree in Equine Stud Management. For many years, she worked for one of the first Akhal-Teke stud farms in the USA and, more recently, has been running her own Akhal-Teke stud. During her career, Allegra trained numerous Akhal-Teke horses and has competed in dressage and in jumping up to AAA level.
MM: How did you first get involved with the breed? Had you heard you about it and went looking for it, or did it find you?
AS: I went to college for an equine major, actually it was in Equine Stud Farm Management, and a few months before graduation replied to an ad for a Breeding Farm Manager that just happened to be the only Akhal-Teke stud farm in the US at that time.
I did not know when I replied to the ad that it was an Akhal-Teke farm, although when I heard it was I knew what they were, I had seen them in breed books but wasn't aware there were any in the US.
I still recall seeing them for the very first time, I thought they were very funny-looking, weedy little creatures !! But they were willing to hire me based on my degree, even though I had little hands-on experience right out of school, so I took the job thinking it would be a good learning experience, I didn't have to really like the breed to do the job, I told myself...:)
MM: How many times have you been to Russia? Turkmenistan? Anywhere else in Central Asia? What trip was the most memorable and why?
AS: I attended the International Conference in Turkmenistan in 2001 and the Moscow Championships in 2003. I would like to visit as many Teke breeders as possible, but I'm not free to travel much anymore with having so many horses at home now to look after.
Both experiences were memorable. Seeing Tekes living in their native land was so exciting, it really gave you the feel of why they evolved the way they did and how they survive such a harsh life, compared to the conditions we keep them in here. Being surrounded by their culture really puts it into perspective. Being in Moscow for that show was great in that you saw them competing, against each other, over here our horses are so spread out you never get to see them together, only one at a time against other breeds, so that was the best part of it for me. Teke after Teke in the dressage and jumper rings, I was in heaven but my friends had to hold me in check, I wanted to ask the riders if they would get off so I could get on and ride them all myself !!
MM: Who is your Akhal-Teke "horse-hero" from the past?
AS: Without a doubt, Absent. Yes, he is the most recognizable name, but it goes far beyond that for me. Being a dressage rider myself, I understand just how difficult and remarkable it is to reach the Olympic level. For Absent to have acheived that not just once, but 3 different times is astounding. The fitness, the stress, the training, the travel, the competition itself. And not only that, but to perform at the International level under three different riders is equally amazing. It is analogous to pairs figure skaters, imagine getting to the point where you know your partner so well you are one and the same mindset, then losing that one and having to start over again, with a new one, only withough the benefit of a spoken language. But on a world stage. Truly incredible to me. Anyone who says the Akhal-Teke is difficult temperamentally should read that story. It still has never been done again, by any other horse. And he could have gone a fourth time too, I read that in Elena Petushkova's book, but Olympic rules did not allow it. To stay sound, fit and competitive at that level for so many years is a testament to what this breed is.
MM: Have you ever counted how many Teke you have ridden in the course of your equestrian career? The next obvious question - please, name the three most memorable ones and explain your choice.
AS: Oh gosh, no, I haven't counted them all. That would just make me feel old !
They are all memorable though, just like old friends. My most long-lasting partnership, with my 7/8 gelding Kazakhstan, he was spooky and opinionated but such a talented jumper, he made me such a better rider over the years by making me have to get better to keep up with him. Doblet, the Cadillac of stallions, he was long and comfortable and like driving a luxury sedan. Goklen never made you feel like he exerted any effort at all but there you were going over 4' jumps. Karakan had a canter that made you feel like you could ride it forever and never get tired. Kashman, who was like riding a cheetah, long and slinky and unbelieveably elastic. Senetir, who was perfectly happy walking 30 feet on his hind legs just because he could. They were each individuals in every sense of the word.
MM: What disciplines have you trained Teke for over the years? What has been your highest achievement?
AS: I prefer the FEI disciplines- dressage and showjumping, mostly, as I don't like the way eventing has changed in the past 10 years, even though I think it is a sport the Akhal-Teke is supremely suited for, and one I used to compete in. I trained Kazakhstan through many of the FEI dressage movements, although we got stuck on flying changes. He could do them all day long as long as it was when HE wanted to do them. Showjumping was much more his element, he had many championships at AAA shows, limited as he was by my time and money constraints. I also love to foxhunt Tekes. Their natural balance, endurance, and athleticism is perfect for the huntfield. They just want to be in the lead all the time, and must be convinced you can't pass the MFH! I would love to get involved in endurance, but realistically I don't have enough time to do the conditioning work necessary. But to ride your Teke for hours at a time out in nature sounds just fabulous.
Thinking back, I believe one of my proudest moments was at aa AAA jumper show I went to along with Kiki Osborne, who was riding some of Phil Case's Tekes at that time. In a jumper class of almost 30 horses, Tekes placed 1st ( Goklen ), 2nd ( Kurina ), and 4th ( Kazakhstan). We beat many excellent horses that day, and it was such a thrill watching them fly around the jumpoff and smoke the competition.
MM: Could you point out the physiological and mental characteristics of the Akhal-Teke which most affect the training process? Would you say that the individual traits of each horse outweigh the common threads running through the breed? Or is it the other way around - any Teke is, first and foremost, a Teke and individual variations are less significant in comparison?
AS: These are difficult questions to answer in a limited space. First, the primary characteristic of a Teke that makes it challenging is their intelligence. Very often their brains are far ahead of their bodies and this is when they become bored in their work. It takes years of good steady work to build the muscles for truly upper-level self-carriage and collection, this can't be shortcut in your training process or the holes will show later on. So the trick is how to condition your Teke's muscles, tendons, cardiovascular system, etc. and develop their frame without repetitive exercises that Tekes find pointless. Many other breeds find it reassuring to do the same routine every day, familiarity is comfortable for them. This is not the case with a Teke. Crosstraining is really ideal for them, doing dressage on trails or jumping or cavalletti work. Just different things every day keeps them interested. I do a lot of ground work too, lunging and driving, it is easier to teach many movements from the ground and let the horse learn them himself before adding the weight and balance issues of the rider. Physiologically, their conformational idiosyncracies make it so important that their backs are properly stretched and strengthened before you begin collected work. But yes, every Teke is an individual and needs to be handled as such with regards to personality. Some are showoffs, think they know it all and need to be carefully directed. Others are self-conscious, and insecure, and need constant reassurance to really blossom. The only real common thread in the Teke is their intelligence, I have never met a Teke who isn't smart. You have to work to stay one step ahead of them. It is humbling, to say the least...
MM: Which was the most difficult horse to train in your career?
AS: None have been really difficult in that sense of the word. But it is much easier to ride the ones you train yourself than those who were started by others. Mergen was difficult for me in that way, he was ridden in Europe by men before I started working with him, and he required much stronger aids than I generally ride with. I had such a hard time realizing this that I took him to my dressage trainer for help, he got on and rode him and loved him, he again was able to ride him more strongly than I. That is another reason I love training the Teke, they are so unbelieveably sensitive that the lightest of aids and they respond. I am not a large person and I can't rely on strength to get my point across to a horse. Nor should you have to, especially with a Teke.
MM: Have you ever had a Teke for whom you had particular plans, in terms of the choice of discipline, based, perhaps, on the physical chracteristics, but then found the horse had its own ideas?
AS: Not yet ! I am lucky in that I can do a lot of different kinds of riding passably enough that I can figure out what each horse prefers, and what is easiest for them, and then specialize from there, whether that be with me or to send them on to someone else who is better suited for their needs. I have found that they will always TRY for you, even when their heart isn't really in it, so you have to be willing to listen to what they don't say more than what they do. I have seen some Tekes that were asked to do things they were not happy doing, for the sake of who was riding them or what their owner wanted them to be doing, and it made me really sad. Tekes love working, and when it is a job they really enjoy doing, they almost tack themselves up to get to it faster ! Working with their person is the joy in their life, so I always try to keep that in mind and make work fun for them. I have no desire to make them do what it is I want if they are unhappy doing it.
MM: Do you ride for pleasure and relaxation? Does your husband?
AS: Not at this time, I'm sorry to admit. We spend most of our time working on upgrading the farm. But it is on the list of things-to-do...:) That shouldn't be taken to mean that riding in itself isn't relaxing and pleasurable for me though ! Just that I have those end goals always in sight, and I stay focused on them ! There will be time for pleasure riding when I am too old to compete.
MM: Do you agonize over the choice of buyer when selling horses? Are you wary of them ending up in the wrong hands? Do you have "a nose" for a future "perfect owner"?
AS: Selling horses you have brought into the world and raised yourself is always hard, in fact that is what makes most amateur breeders quit breeding. They can't let them go and they fill up all their available space. It is a risk, granted, but I think we as Teke breeders have it a bit easier than others. People have to really search us out to find us, and many travel a great distance to see our horses, so that weeds out a lot of "tire-kickers", as I call them. I have been incredibly lucky with my buyers, I am good friends with many, several are repeat customers, and many keep me up-to-date on what the horses are up to these days, I even have one who sends me Christmas boxes full of goodies. I have yet to tell a buyer "no", and to date have only ever regretted one sale, fortunately even that one ended up happy later on.
MM: If you had unlimited funds, how would you spend them to enhance the reputation of the breed and your own reputation as a breeder and trainer? Is there a Teke you would secretly love to own? Even if you don't want to reveal the name, what is it that about this dream-horse that makes you want to own it?
AS: Well, even without the "unlimited funds", I still pour everything back into the business to keep building it. My long-term goal is to have one purebred actively competing nationally in each of the big 4 FEI disciplines- dressage, showjumping, eventing, and endurance. Since I obviously can't be the one to ride all those Tekes, they will have to be placed with carefully selected riders, some of whom I have already chosen, and am just still waiting to breed that perfect Teke for that specific discipline. Unlimited funds would certainly help with the costs of this plan however !
I would also probably delve more into the crossbreeding side, I love to see what the Teke can produce with other breeds, and I have done some lovely crosses in the past, but the downside of that is that they generally don't sell until they are broke and going, and that requires 4 years of feeding and housing them until that time. And we just don't have the room for that.
Secretly, I have always coveted Margaritka, and I wouldn't turn down Tokhtamish either...
MM: What was the last horse you registered with VNIIK? How long did it take from the time of application to when you had the documents in your hand?
AS: All the Tekes I have bought have already been registered with VNIIK when I got them, I just had to get the passports transferred into my name.
MM: Can you see yourself ever changing direction? Or are Teke you "marriage made in Heaven"?
AS: Oh gosh no, it is way beyond that point...) Early on, I left the breed to go work on a farm which trained many other breeds, lots of different ones. It was then that the light came on and I realized how special the Tekes were, when I compared them to what I was working with after them. Everything else was boring intellectually and nowhere near as athletic to ride. It was then that I knew I was lost forever to them! I just don't have any desire to ride any other breed after the Teke, call me spoiled but I know when I have it good.