Blanca de Toledo Interview
Blanca de Toledo was born in Spain. In the mid-1990s, she travelled to Kazakhstan, to work on an international assignment for the European Commission. There, she came into contact with the Akhal-Teke horses and many professional riders, witnessed the decline of the well-organised equestrian scene of the Soviet Era, plunged into crisis by the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the eventual return to prosperity in the new independent Kazakhstan. Blanca left Alma-Aty with two Akhal-Teke: stallion Ardon and partbred mare Grafinia. After years of living in Luxembourg, Blanca has now returned to her native Spain with her horses.
MM: Was your first encounter with the Akhal-Teke horses when you went to work in Kazakhstan? Can you remember when you saw the first one? Can you describe the occasion?
BdT: Yes, it was at Almaty Republican Equestrian Centre (REC). Although I had been living in Uzbekistan before, I must say that I was never at Tashkent hippodromme, where the tekes were kept. Probably, because life conditions were so harsh to everybody (1994) that I didn´t feel going to see horses poorly maintained.
My first encounter with tekes was very natural. I started going to the Almaty REC on a regular basis. I was taking lessons with somebody who had leased a stable at the REC in order to keep private horses. Horses there were mainly tekes, although there were also TBs and some other local breeds like the excellent jumper kostanai. I saw that, in general, the horses were extremely nice, with strong caracter, in general, difficult for beginners. I now must say that this temperament was not given by the fact of being a teke but the way of riding and handling the horses there. To this, one needs to add the fact that they were stallions…
MM: Tell me more about those years in Kazakhstan and the equestrian scene out there. How did Perestroika affect it? Did you meet many professional riders? What were the facilities like? Did you take lessons?
BdT: As you know, the equestrian actvities at Soviet times were well organised. There were state clubs or hippodromes where children could go to take lessons for free, or almost [free]. If [they] were good enough, you coud become professional rider with a stable, [with your] payroll provided by the Ministry or the Army. Horses - among them, tekes - were bred in good infrastructures maintained by the Government. Good selectionists and biologists were also working in these places like Lugovskoy. Equestrian sports were protected and there were excellent riders.
However, the collapse of the Soviet Union brought chaos and a deep moral and economic crisis, and the worst, shortages for almost everybody. This is the time when I came to Kazakhstan (1998). Due to cutdowns in the budget, salaries to riders and keepers could remain unpaid for several months, and horses were not properly fed, even sometimes, simply not fed. Minor things were the poor conditions of the tack and infrastructures, the major tragedies were, as I said, lack of food and proper veterinary conditions. There were no x-rays machines. Although things were working (the school, the competitions, etc) everything was done in extremely poor conditions. I remember some horses died or were very thin. All in all, it was sad.
People had to survive with anything: the most fortunate people were working for foreigners, like the ones working in our “privatised” stable; others were giving lessons to beginners with their fabulous jumping or dressage champions.
In places like Lugovskoi or Degerez, lots of horses (tekes and TBs mostly) disappeared: they simply starved to death; others were sold by their keepers to buy bread, or given away in exchange for personal favours. The most unfortunate horses were simply sold as meat. I still remember a stable mate who could buy a teke mare of excellent pedigree in foal on her way to the slaughterhouse. He just paid for her several kazakh tenge per kg!
Fortunately, in our “privatised” stable , food was good and regular. But in exchange, Ardon´s protectors or saddlepads were disspearing on regular basis, my saddle - brought from Europe - was used by everybody when I was not there, Ardon´s blankets were stolen,etc. Even Ardon was sometimes used - without my kowledge - to give lessons. Obviously, nothing serious although a bit irritating for me at that time.
Fortunately, this situation has radically changed in the last years: as the economy is booming and the social and economic scene has brought a tremendous wealth to certain parts of the population, the equestrian world of Almaty has benefitted: most of these riders are nowadays employed by wealthy people who like horses and buy expensive competition horses for them. Their salaries are decent and living conditions for horses as well as the infrastructure are good.
Many of these so called “new Kazakhs” are investing in the breeding industry,which has been fully privatised (except, if I´m not mistaken, the Kostanai breeding station in the North of the country). Nowadays, you find luxurious studs in Almaty and Taraz (former Djambul) that have bought the remainings of Lugovskoi and Degerez and are breeding them to some imports from Stavropol and Dagestan. You can barely believe the dfferences between now and just a few years ago!
MM: You bought Ardon for a bet, didn't you? What was his life like before then? Was it always your intention to leave Kazakhstan with two Teke in tow?
BdT: Well, it was not exactly a bet…I had some friends, a Spanish couple, much older than me, and with much less knowledge of horses, if possible, than me, who had a friend who came to Almaty for business. He wanted to see a teke. I took him to the REC and the lady who showed them to my friend thought we wanted to buy…my friend didn´t buy but we saw Ardon…I think everybody saw my eyes because they all convinced me to buy him…Of course, to have a horse had been a dream since childhod. But I didn’t think Almaty was the right place. Overwhelmed, I told the stable manager that I would only buy if she made a susbtantial discount…I didn´t expect her to do it. But she wanted to get rid of him since Ardon belonged to a Swiss genteleman who had left Kazakhstan and was not paying the boarding fee on regular basis…the result is that I got unexpectedly my first horse…who happened to be a teke…but purely by chance…
In his first years of sports carreer, Ardon had been used for eventing. He competed in Kazakhstan but also in Bishkek (Kyrgyz Republic) and Uzbekistan. He had been ridden by several professional riders of the REC.
After buying him, we put him in the hands of a dressage rider, Natasha Iurkievich. Natasha had grown up in the REC, but she had gone to live to Russia for family reasons. After some years she returned to Kazakhstan, but she was no longer on the payroll of the REC. So she was looking for an opportunity, which she found with Ardon. In spite of her “Russian” style of riding, Natasha taught Ardon lots of things and made of him a real dressage horse, taking him to the main National dressage competitions. The results were good, and both Natasha and myself were extremely happy. Then Natasha was given Audan and then, an important sponsor bought for her the unforgetable Matador. But this was when Ardon and I had already left Kazakhstan.
Since I bought Ardon, I never intended to leave him behind. It was awfuly difficult to bring a horse from Kazakhstan to Europe at that time, but we managed. I took him with me together with Grafinia, a partbred AT mare, daughter of Gamrat.
MM: Tell me about Ardon's life in Luxembourg. He was being ridden by a professional dressage rider - what did he think of that? What did the rider think of him? Did they compete?
BdT: In 2001, after 3 years in Kazakhstan, we came to live to Luxemburg. I found a small dressage stable with a professional rider who started working Ardon and also Grafinia.
This was not a major change in his working style, quite intensive. Ardon was a real athlete at that time, full of muscles. But Natasha had taken the best of him and Ardon needed a change for a lighter, more relaxed style of riding. (Or maybe it was me who needed so?)
About what his rider thought of him: I guess what most of the dressage people think of a teke: at the beginning, when they see his basic movements, so different from a warmblood, they are sceptical. But when Ardon starts collecting and making extensions and show his attitude, expression and technique, they open their eyes and they say “ooh, he can do it!”.
However, my trainer didn´t show horses of other people in competitions. And my level is very basic, only to participate in shows where basic airs are required. And this is where it is difficult for a teke, at least in Europe. That is why I decided not to show him in Luxembourg, so close to Germany in the riding style. Would it had been in France or Belgium, maybe things would have been different.
MM: You often sound sceptical about the abilities of the Teke to compete in classical disciplines. Can you elaborate your thoughts on the subject? Where do you see the application for the breed in Europe today?
BdT: A teke can do anything you ask him to do, no matter how difficult and technical is the discipline. And, it is such a comfortable horse to ride! I wouldn´t change Ardon in dressage for any warmblood.
However, nowadays it is very difficult for a pureblood to win in a competition with horses who have been selected not on the basis of blood but abilities for this sport. And also, there are trends and styles that are not the best for a teke. Would you like to see your teke under rollkur training? I wouldn´t.
The teke market in Europe is very narrow. When people buy tekes they do it mostly for breeding. Only a minority buy them for leisure or sport. I hope endurance or trec will give the tekes the oportunity they deserve in sport. Time will tell. The main problem is the lack of riders and the competition of other breeds that are also proving good for endurance, like karabakhs, dons, and of course the arabs, who are much-much cheaper than a teke.
Basically, I see the future buyers of tekes as people who like the breed for various reasons and want to enjoy a friendship with a horse who is beautiful, charismatic and elegant and with whom you can do a bit of everything: eventing, dressage, trails, you name it…And even some of them, if they are well bred and fall in the right hands, could sporadically excell in whichever discipline.
MM: Would you have liked to have used Ardon more as a sire, considering the complimentary assessement of his type and conformation he received from Klimuk?
BdT: Yeah, it seems that Ardon is better acknowledged as breeding stallion in Russia than in Europe ;-)
I think this is partially my fault. Being basically a rider and not a breeder, I don´t do anything to market his assets. I must say that I am preparing a web page about him, but I´m not sure in which language it will be published.
Moreover, most of Akhal teke breeders in Europe have their own stallions. And it is common practice among these breeders to use exclusively their own stallions and not others.
Of course, I have requests from mares owners interested in Ardon. But I don´t do live cover but I sell frozen semen and it is not so easy. So we go very slowly.
But I am happy with the offspring he has produced so far. One of his sons, who won the title of “Hope of the breed” in the Championsip of Solms, will be used now as stallion in Italy, at Mino Denti´s stud. So it seems that the saga will continue…
MM: I wish Ardon many more happy&healthy years but the reality is - he isn't young. Can you see yourself eventually moving on? Do you ever wish you could, one day, ride dressage on a Spanish horse or a Warmblood?
BdT: Warmbloods are not my interest, although they have plenty of good things.Spanish horses are as comfortables as tekes, and I would love to make dressage with a good PRE. But I don´t discard continue with tekes. With Ardon´s offspring or with other. And also, why not trying other disciplines? We´ll see…
MM: Dressage is your interest - have you ever seen a convincing test ridden on a Teke? If so, where was it? Could you name the horse?
BdT: In Kazakhstan you have FEI tests judged by international professionals. There you can see some tekes doing good dressage tests. Among them, the best of best is Guipur 25. This GP stallion, now retired, is a real artist. Moreover, it has a beautiful type, so what else can you ask a teke? I´m really looking forward to going to Kazakhstan to see his offspring. His story is also touching because when his rider for many years, Galina Sukhavenko, stopped riding him, he was very depressed. Not very “professional”, but very teke…
Another excellent GP stallion: old Audan, half brother of Ardon. Audan has succeded in sometimes beating Guipur and even Volan, the hanno-teke who was representing Kazakhstan in the last WEG.
In Europe, I was very impressed by the quality of stallion of arab line. I saw his good performance in his reprise at the championship of Gut Ising in 2005. His name is Kheops and he lives in Italy. I was also very pleased by the reprise of Yalantusklan in Gut Ising. Another example of a teke who is a of good type and not a simple doll but a performer.
MM: What's the most advanced movement you have managed to master with Ardon?
BdT: With Natasha he was doing already passage and a bit of piaffe. Also flying changes but I must say he was not very enthusiastic about this latter…
MM: If you had a choice, in which country, out of the whole world, would you choose to live with your Teke? Why?
BdT: I have been very happy in all the countries I have been. Now that I have returned to my native country I am also quite satisfied. I must say that at the beginning I was very worried for Ardon as there are many differences to the countries he knows: different food with plenty of cereals and little green, dryer climate, harsher trails…but he is in an excellent mood and in a very good shape…he looks more teke than ever…is that because maybe Spain is good for a teke?