Tatiana Nikolaevna Riabova Interview
Tatiana Nikolaevna Riabova has worked with the Akhal-Teke horses and been the Chief Registrar of the Akhal-Teke General Studbook for over thirty years. She regularly tours Akhal-Teke studfarms in Russia, Central Asia, Europe and US, to evaluate young stock and assess the trends in Akhal-Teke breeding worldwide.
MM: Tatiana Nikolaevna, please tell me about yourself. Where were you born, where did you grown up, how did the love of horses come about?
ТR: Well, to tell you about myself… I was born in a small villagе, in the remote Russian countryside, in the astrological Year of Horse. I am from a farming family. Horses were always around me, from early childhood. That’s a short answer to your first question.
MM: I have heard you used to used to ride, that you were into dressage – is this true?
ТR: When my family moved from the countryside to the city, we went to live literally next door to a riding school. Now I see deep meaning, even God’s will, in what must have been a mere coincidence. Needless to say, I spent all my free time at that riding school. After I left school, there was no other career for me other than to enroll at the agricultural college. I became an animal scientist. Once graduated, I worked as a Director of the North-Kazakhstan Hippodrome (and deputised as groom and jockey when we were short of staff!), then I had a job as a Team Leader at the “Sunrise”dairy horse farm in the Kuban region, then decided to do postgraduate studies at the Institute of Horsebreeding, and completed my PhD on the aspects of development of the nervous system in the Thoroughbred race horse.
I began to ride seriously while still at my dear old riding school, then continued riding while at the Institute of Horsebreeding. I trained in show-jumping, eventing and dressage. Was awarded the Equestrian Sports Masters Diploma. I had worked with all kinds of breeds: Trakehners, English Thoroughbreds, Budennyi, Don and, of course, Akhal-Teke.
ММ: How did it come about that you became the Chief Registrar of the Akhal-Teke General Studbook? Were you aiming for it or did it just happen? Who were your teachers? Who gave you the “understanding” of the breed?
ТR: One day the Director of our Institute, Yuri Nikolaevich Barmintsev, called me to his office and asked me if I would like to take on the Akhal-Teke breed, which, up until that time, had not been managed by the Institute. I spent two months in hard deliberations, wondering what to do, as it meant having to make a break with the breed I knew well and loved, and get involved in something unknown. Friends helped me make up my mind and from January 1st 1973 I became “the Akhal-Teke lady”. Now I think this was a divine predicament (it isn’t by accident that Mr Babaev decided to add me to the pantheon of saints, there had to be something to justify and explain that!).
I began to read all the available literature on the breed, there wasn’t a lot of it, I am afraid, and set off for Turkmenistan, to learn about my “terra incognita”. Had I not met there a wonderful person and an expert, passionately in love with these animals, Maria Danilovna Cherkezova, I don’t know how the rest of my life would have turned out. She too was born in the astrological Year of the Horse, only twenty years earlier, and it felt as if we were being carried through life on the same wave, true soulmates we were. After that, I learned from the horses themselves, also took a lot from V.P. Shamborant, though I wouldn’t call him my mentor, rather an opponent in the debate.
ММ: Do you see the Akhal-Teke as a universal or an Eastern breed? I don’t mean its geographical spread, rather its “spirit”. How is this spirit perceived in different countries – similarly or in a completely different way?
ТR: Amongst all the world equestrian breeds, the Akhal-Teke occupies a special place. It isn’t just a breed – it is a living monument of antiquity, and all those who have devoted their lives to it, or have only had incidental contact with it, must remember this. This breed must be preserved with all its special characteristics, yet must not be set in stone, it should evolve, and be perfected, and adjust to the demands of the modern market, but only within the tradition of purebreeding, by preserving its unique genetic pool. This is the essense of our work. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the uniqueness of this breed, not everyone can appreciate its huge potential, some cannot comprehend its spirit and appreciate its intellect.
ММ: Have you ever owned a Teke? Or are they all “yours”?
ТR: Of course, they are all mine, but I got to know most closely those which I rode: Gurgen and Khalif. They are the fragments of my own heart. There was also a filly – Flamingo – given to me by L.Babaev and Sh.Galimov, most probably with certain selfish considerations in mind. She was not pure, she had Agat in her pedigree whom we do not consider a purebred, but they wanted to get him accepted as pure. I never rode her, as she was pony-size (147cm), and with my body mass I couldn’t afford to strain her. But my graduate students rode her, and quite successfully. She is in the Czech Republic now.
ММ: Let us touch a few controversial subjects: the Studbook. Until recently, there was only one, compiled centrally and published in Russia. Not so long ago, in France, they created their own system, with your support: they will do their own testing, their own registration and then will pass the records to VNIIK. I heard that in Switzerland they are trying to create a similar system of registration for their local population. Yet, in other countries, the registration is haphazard. And I heard that in Turkmenistan they compiled their own studbook and now work independently. So where are we all going? Whose example are we meant to follow? What is the ideal registration method for the Akhal-Teke in the 21st century?
ТR: There is still only one General Studbook. All the published volumes of this studbook have been compiled by the Russian experts and were printed in Moscow, with one exception of volume III published in Tashkent [in 1941]. In Turkmenistan, since the break-up of USSR, there has not been a single publication. Volume 9 was brought out in a slimmed-down version, 10 years after the publication of the actual Volume 9 of the General Studbook, with all horses not born in Turkmenistan removed from it. They also decided to change the numbering of horses which is very confusing for the users. Moreover, these newborn “authors” didn’t even bother to record the breeding results for the mares over those ten years. I view this as a banal act of robbery.
We have a cooperation agreement with horsebreeding authorities in France (Pompadour), we are successfully working with the Czech Association. We would like to cooperate with all the countries where Akhal-Teke horses are being bred.
First of all, a centralised system of registration in this ancient and not-so-prolific-in-numbers breed is essential, if the breed is to be preserved for future generations. Secondly, when records are centralised, experts have a full picture of the state of the breed, and having all the information in one place helps experts to formulate strategic goals for future breed development. Finally, it is a question of prestige to have your horse inscribed in the General Studbook. Each location, however, can publish its own registers in which all categories of animals are included, for example, geldings.
There is a Directive on Breed Registration and the General Studbook, issued by the Institute of Horsebreeding and approved by the relevant departments of the Ministry of Agriculture of the Russian Federation. All people need to do is put the principles outlined in this Directive into practice. The Directive is published on our website.
A long time ago, when USSR still existed, we, the “Teke people”, decided to found an Association, to unite us in our efforts to preserve, improve and promote the breed. It was named AATK – the Association of Akhal-Teke Breeders. This was in Tbilisi. The work of this organisation was not done in vain: we organised in-hand demonstrations of youngstock at race courses, where Akhal-Teke races were held, the geographical distribution of the breed widened and this led to the creation of the International association MAAK (The International Association of Akhal-Teke Breeders). However, one has to note that since then, the responsibility for organising the youngstock demonstrations and meetings has been resting upon the shoulders of the staff of the Instritute of Horsebreeding (in Ryazan) and the Museum of Horsebreeding (in Moscow). The members of AATK seem to like to criticise us but are less keen on helping. As a role of MAAK, we had envisaged the consolidation of efforts to promote the breed worldwide, the widening of scope of their usage, the creation of a single source of information about the population of Akhal-Teke horses in different countries, both their numbers and quality. The idea was that national association will get created and work with MAAK, which would make the registration work easier, would aid the efficiency and timeliness of the publication of our documentation, including the Studbook and registers. But this isn’t happening. Nowadays, almost every owner of Akhal-Teke wants to “manage” the situation, there is a lack of agreement between owners in almost every country, and this greatly complicates the communication between people and the management of the breed.
Many people probably see me as some sort of dictator who imposes her will on everyone else. Perhaps these people have never come across true dictators in their lives. When we had military horsebreeding farms, and the Chief Horsebreeding Authority at the Ministry of Agriculture, then all directives on selection, combination of breeding couples, the use of sires, the usage of non-breeding population were obeyed. Nowadays, nobody demands compliance. You can sell any horse you like, to whom you like, for whatever price you like, you can select your breeding stock according to your own judgement, use stallions which satisfy your own taste and financial criteria, you can performance-test or not, as the case may be, bring horses to the Meetings or not, organise any shows you like. Where is the dictatorship here? Our in-hand demonstrations at the meetings are part of our selective breeding work, they are conducted according to an approved Directive. We have to comply with approved Directives, otherwise, anarchy will reign and the breed cannot be preserved.
MM: What is your view, how should MAAK realistically evolve now? Many people accuse MAAK of various things but I rarely hear any practical suggestions. Do we need it at all? If we do, what do we need it for?
TR: Whether or not we need MAAK and how its work should be organised… I would like to hear the opinion of its critics, want to know how ?they* envisage the work of MAAK.
MM: Is it true that VNIIK doesn’t like it when someone tries to export a horse with a valuable pedigree outside CIS?
TR: Where did this idea come from, that VNIIK likes or doesn’t like something? Give me an example when VNIIK tried to prevent a sale of a single horse. I, as an expert, may regret that a very interesting example of the breed, is being sold but the Institute have never refused a permission to export any horse. One could sindicate a particular horse, i.e. to buy it out from the seller for the asking price, that’s what they do at the British Jockey Club, but we do not have the money to do this.
MM: You must have see hundreds, if not thousands of Akhal-Teke during your career. Do you ever get to the point of saturation? Or are there still times when you get fired up with excitement at the sight of the latest rising star?
ТR: Yes, a lot of horses have passed before my eyes in 35 years, yet I always cannot wait until I go travelling every year around the studfarms, where I can see the new foals, the rising youngstock and evaluate what the maturing stock looks like. It’s always a celebration for me.
MM: Please describe a couple of te most memorable moments in your long “Teke” career, and perhaps a couple of sad ones too.
TR: There have been lots of good and bad moments, it’s difficult for me to choose anything that’s most essential…
MM: Some breeders, both in Russia and in the West, deplore the lack of application for the Akhal-Teke horses in the modern equestrian world. Do you agree that utilitarian usage of Teke in our times is no simple matter?
ТR: The lack of use for the Akhal-Teke horses is our own responsibility, the result of how we ourselves use it, how we promote and popularise the breed. In Russia, the main problem is the lack of skill: the riders’ hands and the trainers’ brains. We lack both. The Akhal-Teke horse does not suit the broadly accepted training methods and approaches, it needs to be understood. When one talks to the people who work with these horses, they invariably mention that they are quick learners, good-natured (unless someone tries to stab them in the ribs with a dung fork, or shouts abuse at them); people note their loyalty and many other qualities. There is a huge potential hidden in these horses, this potential has to be uncovered and utilised. And to utilise it – one has to evaluate this potential and breed selectively, so that these qualities are enhanced within the framework of purebreeding. One of the avenues in utilising this potential is the production of sports horses by crossing the Akhal-Teke with other breeds, especially with Western-European sportshorses. This approach has been tried at the Tashkent Studfarm and produced very good results. When we started to promote the breed outside CIS, we really hoped that Western European and American owners will be able to introduce the breed into all kinds of equestrian activities (classical disciplines, endurance) but so far, this has not happened. Perhaps, because Western riders have not found “the key” which can untap the Akhal-Teke potential, perhaps we don’t have enough information about the use of Akhal-Teke in the West.
MM: What tendencies in the modern Akhal-Teke breeding make you happy and what upsets you? Both in Russia and in the West…
ТR: What makes me happy… I am happy that the breed has passed the turning point and is no longer threatened with extinction; that the perception of the breed has evolved in the minds of many people who are now able to appreciate its unique significance, the part it has played in the history of horsebreeding, as the first purebred horse in the world. What upsets me is that many people are still not able to see this, and that Turkmenistan has dropped out of the realm of the breed development. It also upsets me that some of my colleagues no longer understand me, that their own interests have overshadowed their concern for the destiny of the breed as a whole. It’s bizarre to hear the deliberations of the plumber about animal science which has existed for several centuries, that selective line breeding (used in horsebreeding, as well as other animal and poultry breeding) is pseudo science, despite the fact that this method has existed and worked well for several centuries. “Too bad when boots are made by bakers”. [a suitable English equivalent of this pithy Russian folk proverb is yet to be found! - MM]
ММ: Could you please make a wish aloud, please….
ТR: I dream of new Absents and new Pentili’s, and a whole army of new outstanding Akhal-Teke horses emerging, and with them, the sensitive hands and the generous hearts who will lead them onto the big competition circuit. I want to see professionalism in everything around me.