Leonid Babaev Interview
Leonid Babaev has been involved with the Akhal-Teke breed for over thirty years. His studfarm “ShaEl-Teke”, founded jointly with the late Sharip Galimov, in memory of V.P. Shamborant is today one of the leading Akhal-Teke breeding establishments in the world. No stranger to controversy and polemics, Babaev is well-known for his outspoken views against Artificial Insemination, over-regulation and utilitarian focus of breeding programmes. He is the founder of the “Akhal-Teke Gold Cup” at Equiros – an artistic alternative to traditional breed shows.
MM: Your name is well-known the “Teke world”. Tell me how it started – your infatuation with the Akhal-Teke breed and with horses in general. Does it run in the family or is it entirely your own? Tell me about your childhood in the Caucasus.
LB: The infatuation began in 1971, I was thirteen years old and took part in the festival of Young Soviet Pioneers at the Central Square of Makhachkala (Dagestan). On this day Shamborant who had just moved the horses from the Tersk stud to Dagestan, organised an equestrian parade in traditional dress. Amongst the horses which took part in this parade – the best horses in the breed – was the famous Yulduz. When these horses entered the bathed-in-sunshine square, the sun was eclipsed by their beauty. You couldn’t take your eyes off them, especially from Yulduz. They were an epitomy of beauty and power. After that day, I could hardly wait for the school year to end and ran off to the Makhachkala hippodrome. Ever since, I have never left the stables.
My childhood was spent on the shores of the Caspian Sea. I used to go off to the seaside with friends in the early morning and didn’t come back till late at night. My childhood was all about the beach, swimming into the mind-boggling expanse of the waves, football and riding. And, of course, about great friendships.
MM: Do you ride - or did you use to ride? If so, what kind of sport were you interested in?
LB: The main interest, from childhood, was, certainly, racing. We revered the names of the great Teke racing legends, their wins on the track were subject of endless discussions. The best among the best for us were Opal (by Fakir-Pelvan) and Ovgan. This horse did not know how to come second – in it lived “the great winning spirit”. But I didn’t see a future for myself as a professional jockey, so when I got heavier, I started to ride in classical disciplines – show-jumping, eventing - but wasn’t particularly successful in any of them, so I only rode while I was still a student. Once I graduated, I gave up serious riding.
MM: Could you say a few words about Shamborant?
LB: It’s difficult to say something about Shamborant in “a few words”, but if I have to limited myself to just a few, I can say that Shamborant had been swept off his feet by the Akhal-Teke horse, he considered it the best breed of horse in every respect, sacrificed everything - all conceivable human treasures - for it. For the sake of the Akhal-Teke, he marched on, without diversions, even if he had to walk over people.
MM: Tell me about your studfarm – how did it come about? And, by the way, what does the word ShaEl mean?
LB: It happened in 1991, after Perestroika, when Sharip Galimov and I met up again. We had known each other since 1971. After a short discussion we decided to set up our own breeding enterprise, to bring to fruition our own ideas and realise our own vision of the Akhal-Teke horse. On the 11th of November 1991, we leased our first 15 mares. We took the incomparable Yasman (Garem-Yalma), who belonged to Shamborant, as our first stud stallion. Of all the Akhal-Teke horses we had ever seen, and according to Shamborant’s own ascertion that he too had never seen one like him in all his life, there was no other horse that equalled Yasman in the combination of all his qualities.
We called our new studfarm “Akhal-Teke Ekspo”. In the autumn of 1994, just before the first Chechen war broke out, we were able to transfer our stud from the Caucasus to the more peaceful Vladimir region in Central Russia. After the death of Shamborant on May 9th 1996, we renamed it after Shamborant using an acronym “shaEl”.
“shaEl” has many meanings. “SH” is the first letter in the surname “Shamborant” in Russian spelling. “Sha” is the name of God in the ancient Iranian culture, “El” is one of the names of God in the Semitic tradition. On a more prosaic level, “Sha” is for Sharip and “El” is for Leonid.
MM: Now a question on a sad subject: the death of Sharip. Tell me about him and his role in your joint venture. Did you ever disagree on a professional level or was it – as it seemed to outside observers – a unique partnership of two like-minded people whose talents uniquely complimented each other?
LB: As I had already mentioned, we had known each other since 1971. Sharip was a pupil and a closest ally of Shamborant. He stood by him through the difficult and the joyful times. For Sharip, the Akhal-Teke horse had no secrets – he had a deep intuitive understanding of its nature. I would have never gone into horse breeding without Sharip, just as, conversely, I could never see myself working in this field with anyone other than Sharip. The whole paradox is that now this is precisely what I am having to do.
There shouldn’t be any disagreements when there is a clear division of responsibilities, when important decisions are taken jointly and when colleagues have sufficient intellect to give in to each other but also have powers of persuasion. All of it he and I had.
MM: Among your contributions to the Akhal-Teke breed is the completely new format of presenting an Akhal-Teke horse to the public. How did you come up with this idea? What is the rationale behind it and how is it perceived in equestrian circles?
LB: My specialism is marketing and I reject outright the format of shows adopted by the All-Russia Institute of Horse Breeding [VNIIK]. I see the same faces at all their meetings. Most of the time, it is breeders, their fanatical followers, their friends and relations. The best that a winner of these meetings can hope for is a write-up in the annual publication “Akhal-Teke Inform” of whose 1000 published copies half ends up in a waste-paper basket. Its distribution is extremely narrow. I am unable to change anything within our Association [MAAK] where everything is controlled under Riabova’s dictatorship. It’s difficult to fight against the image of a saint. Therefore I decided to organise an alternative competition where I can fulfill my own vision of where Akhal-Teke fits in within the equestrian market. I see the Akhal-Teke as a product.
How is my show perceived in the equestrian circles? I don’t really care how they perceive it. The main thing is that we attract spectators who pay to see our product and who are our clients. What do they think of us in the equestrian circles? You can judge for yourself – major studfarms participate in my show and all the significant press representatives come to it, both from the specialist and the general-interest publications.
MM: Some people in the West accuse the breeders in Russia and CIS of the tendency to breed a “show animal” whose application in modern sports will become more and more limited. This accusation is often summed up by the phrase “lawn ornament”. Can you respond to such accusation?
LB: To be honest, I never heard any such accusations against our horses coming from visitors or clients who have visited our studfarm. The accusers need to come and see the horses for themselves. They can also see the photographs of our horses on our site www.shael-teke.com. I also don’t like the majority of the horses I see at shows. But that’s natural. It would be strange if I liked them all, rather than liking, as I do, just a select few. What’s preventing Western buyers from quitting the bargain-chasing game and buying instead the horses of their taste and using them in sport? For example, I cannot understand why there is no Akhal-Teke racing in the West. The Akhal-Teke is, first and foremost, a racehorse – this is where its main value lies. Why are the same accusations not levelled at the English Thoroghbred or the Arab? Why does the West want to evaluate an Akhal-Teke using warmblood criteria? When I watch the races, the last thing that comes to my mind is a “lawn ornament”. I see instantly-recognisable, powerful, strong-boned, speedy horses with elastic, productive movements. People in the West can come and see these horses on the racetrack and at my show. On the whole, the use of purebred horses in equestrian sports is rare and I can’t understand why Akhal-Teke are the ones who are being reproached for the lack of it.
MM: What is your view on what sport is the most suitable for the Akhal-Teke?
LB: Horses used in every discipline must possess the qualities required by each discipline. There is a number of utilitarian horse breeds which are specifically developed to display such qualities. The specialism of the purebred horse, including the Akhal-Teke, is racing – a universal test of a whole complex of qualities. At the same time, the Akhal-Teke horse is capable of showing impressive aptitude for other disciplines. But there is no special selection for them. I have to re-iterate – these are purebred horses whose breeding must not be approached with cross-bred criteria. If you see a horse with particular talent, by all means, use it in the relevant discipline! If it doesn’t have a particular talent, the word “Akhal-Teke” isn’t going to run or jump by itself.
MM: Who is your ideal buyer? – or do you not care who you sell to? Let’s say, if you were to name a couple of horses you have for sale right now – describe to me in what context you would like to see them with their new owner.
LB: I have never met an “ideal” buyer. In general, people buy horses with superb ability but are not too bothered about untapping their potential. They either put talentless riders on them or take their own bottom for a ride. Of those which I am selling at the moment? For example, Makka. Expressive, powerful, ample bone, fantastic movements. In my opinion, dressage is crying out for him. Or take Aidemir – I think he could do well in three-day eventing.
MM: Sometimes people criticise you about Shaar, that you put him up for auction but had no intention of selling him. Why do you love him so much? Is he ridden at the moment? Bulygina broke him in – she told me he liked to play up under saddle – is that true? What do people at the stud think about him? Do they admire him like you do or is he only your favourite?
LB: Shaar has excellent type, he is very expressive and lively. He is incredibly intelligent, sometimes he behaves like a human. It was interesting that when I set the price for him at one million Euro, people came up to me and said: “You are not REALLY going to sell him, are you?”. People didn’t think it was possible to sell such a horse. Of course, it was a publicity stunt on my part – my understanding of the consumer tastes. I have never heard any concrete criticism about this event, so I am not sure if I understand what I am being accused of here.
I have to say that I don’t “personally” love any particular horse. I love our studfarm as a whole, not any particular individuals. Well, maybe I have special feelings for some old, loyal broodmares. I have to admit, I have never asked if my colleagues have any special preferences. I don’t think they do – I think they too like everyone in equal measure, I don’t think it can be otherwise. So, no, I don’t have a favourite.
MM: Let’s talk about the breed and about its future development: is Akhal-Teke breeding – a selection science or an art?
LB: On my site, I have published an article about the development of the breed: http://www.shael-teke.com/web/shael.nsf/Articles/55D3101F090C446185257216004FB4BC
I see three main directions in the development of the breed, without, at the same time, rejecting the use of the purebred Akhal-Teke in other ways. The three directions are:
2) “Luxury goods”’ market;
3) The improver of cross-bred horses.
Is it a science or an art? I don’t believe in zootechnology. Selection science is a complex of empirical observations and conclusions. It can’t discover anything new, and thank goodness for that. We have a bag of dice but we don’t know which side the dice will fall. That’s selection science for you. Without a doubt, Akhal-Teke breeding is an art.
MM: The horses bred at your studfarm, in my view, are recognisable. The style of “ShaEl”, to my eye, differs from the style of Stavropol stud. Do you agree? If so, can you describe in words what you are aiming to get out of your breeding stock?
LB: This sounds like a compliment and a reproach at the same time. In my eyes, the best horses of Stavropol stud – are perfection itself. Of course, it would be nice if our horses were recognisable by their good qualities but it’s difficult to talk about fundamentally different views on breeding between us and Stavropol. I would love to have a number of Stavropol horses in my breeding stock. I don’t know if Mr Klimuk shares the same feelings in reverse. What do we want to get from our breeding? First and foremost, a noble, elegant riding horse. At the same time, we want to breed a horse which wins in the show-ring, on the racetrack and jumps well too. I have to say that sometimes we succeed: for example, Gasyr, Makka, Kaitag and some others.
MM: Please name the most significant, in your view, sires of the last ten years.
LB: Probably Murgab (Gaigisyz-Millet). He stands out and after him there is another group: Orlan, Gayaz, Polot. Then there is the younger category – Yazaidym, Shaar, Gasyr and others which will become the sires of the next decade.
MM: In a recent article on your site you have talked about the creation of the new bloodlines in the breed. Can you please explain the rationale for this?
LB: The rationale is the reaction to the willful policy of VNIIK, which ignores the opinions of the breeders on the subject of selection. The representatives of VNIIK are involved in lobbying to promote their own commercial activities under the pretext of promotion of rare (which usually means “dispensible”) bloolines. So now all my horses have become the representatives of the rare bloodlines because these lines are only available at our studfarm. Therefore, with this move, I am demonstrating that breeding according to bloodlines is a pseudo-science, as is all zootechnology.
MM: The creation of the new bloodlines by you, as is your opposition to grading of the Akhal-Teke population, challenge VNIIK regulations. Your “quarrels” with them have appeared in the press on more than one occasion. Where do you see the future? How would you like to see the administration of the breed working?
LB: I simply want that our ancient purebred horse would stop being treated like a crossbred. I want to eradicate the desire to regulate, issue licenses, prohibit. These measures are not compatible with the concept of purebreeding. I would like to see transparency and democratic principles in the administration of the breed. I only want to be able to influence the rules and regulations to the legitimate extent of my proportional vote in relation to the votes of the rest of Akhal-Teke breeders. I shall humbly accept the will of the majority, even if I disagree with their views. But as an investor in the breed, I ought to, at least, have a right to a voice.
MM: Turkmenistan is the homeland of the Akhal-Teke. What can be done about the problems of the last few years – lack of registration, limited contacts with the breeders out there? Can we talk about a “de-facto migration” of the breed out of Turkmenistan?
LB: Yes, one can conclude that the breed has completed a migration beyond the borders of its historical homeland. There is nothing we can do about these problems. They are the problems of Turkmen breeders themselves who might still - just about - be able to save some breeding records. The trouble is that there are very few Turkmen breeders who understand the danger. This is where it would be useful if the West was to speak out.
MM: Akhal-Teke abroad – can you say anything positive at all?
LB; Unfortunately, I cannot say anything positive about the Akhal-Teke breeding in the West. Nobody has achieved much in sport, breeding has no points of refernece and is done according to the principle: “My horse is best”. In my view, nothing has been achieved.
The main deficiency is that there is no Akhal-Teke racing in Europe. I will say something positive when a Western-bred Teke is used in a Russian breeding programme. But this has never happened. Then, at least, help someone to “make it” in sport. But this has also never happened.
MM: Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
LB: On a veranda, drinking tea and eating pancakes, and watching foals in the field.
MM: You know, in England we have a radio programme called Desert Island Disks, it’s been broadcast since the Second World War every week on Radio 4. A person is invited to choose 10 records to take to exile plus one book and one luxury. If you were sent away to an island, what would you take (doesn’t have to be records, can be anything) and what would you do with your time?
LB: I have no love of objects. The predicament of Robinson Crusoe is not an option for me. If I knew there was a likelihood of being rescued, I would just try to survive. If the exile was under the condition of no return, then I would probably jump in the sea and swim for as long as there was any life left in me.