Sunday, November 22, 2015

Riding an Akhal-Teke Horse

The horse is very popular in Turkmen culture. So much so, there's a horse on the national crest and there is a ministry of horses. There is one breed in particular, the Akhal-Teke, that is considered to be the horse of Turkmen. My older daughter is well into her horse phase right now, so of course I wanted to ride one to share the experience.
How to look dramatic in a photo: Mount a horse.
I contacted a few folks that I thought might know someone who could get me out on a ranch or on the trail. I was put in touch with Gulya, who coordinated my trip out to Katya's Horse Farm in Gökdepe. Historical sidenote: The Battle of Geok Tepe (Gökdepe in Russian) was a significant battle between the Russians and the Turkmen back in the day of the cavalry.

Anyways, what I thought would be a simple out-and-back trip to the farm turned out to be quite an enjoyable afternoon of sight-seeing near the Iranian border and some errand-running with Gulya, her son, and the driver...


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Katya's Horse Farm
Before we got out of the city, we made a quick stop at a restaurant or something to get some bread, carrots, and bones for the dogs at the farm. We then followed the highway out of Ashgabat with cloud-capped mountains on our left. Before we reached the Hippodrome/Ashgabat Zoo, we got stuck in a wedding party caravan of more than a dozen cars. They formed a rolling blockade across the 3-lane road, hazard lights flashing while colorful scarves waved out of the doors and windows that held them. After we got off that road, we passed several "free-range" cows wandering as they grazed. We passed a stream where several guys had driven their cars into the brown water in order to make washing them easier. I guess that's better than getting a ticket for a dirty car, right?
The farm
We arrived at the farm where some of Gulya's co-workers from Kazakhstan were waiting for us. I was the only one riding, they just wanted to see the horses. Before we reach the stables, we stopped by a donkey at the main gate to feed it some bread and carrots, and one of the farm dogs ate a carrot. I don't know if I've ever seen a dog eat a carrot before.
There were a few horses outside, and several more in the stables. The dogs were the size of small horses and very friendly. I think it was mentioned that there are ten or eleven horses at the farm. The stables had that familiar stable smell, and it was just cold enough that the breath of the horses came out like little clouds.
Katya and her helper put on the saddle my horse, and it occurred to me that it was an English saddle. There are several differences between Western and English riding styles, and I'm only familiar with the Western style. So, today will be my first lesson on the English riding style.
Katya, who mostly speaks Russian, very quickly determined from how I was trying to control the horse that I was familiar with the Western style, as she shouted (in a hearty Russian accent) as I went by "Ah, Cowboy!" I spent the rest of the hour learning to use both hands on the reins to make the  horse walk, trot, and stop as the instructors gave me commands in Russian. That included not only control inputs like "kick","stop", but also "stand", "sit", and "sit up straight" along with other posture/form corrections. Every time she said "Again!" I felt like a Russian ballerina.
There were a few moments there where I nearly lost my balance (which is much more important with the English style), which was simultaneously quite exhilarating and slightly scary. I could tell that during the trot I was right at the edge of my control envelope, and said a silent prayer that the horse didn't decide to go any faster. But I never fell off. At the end of the hour, I was doing well enough that Katya invited me to come back later in the week to go trail riding. Which was a bit flattering (ie, I don't suck so bad that I need more lessons), but also a bit daunting: I was pretty exhausted after only an hour of fairly easy riding.
I chalk up my exhaustion to the fact that nearly every muscle in my body was actively engaged for an hour and I really haven't taking in enough calories this trip (But OMG, the carbs!). My hips are sore, my knees are chafed from holding on with my knees, and I can only imagine how much more damage I'd do to myself on a trail ride. Fortunately, I fly out on Wednesday, so I really don't have the time to go, but I know I'd go if I had the time.
 As Katya put the horse away, I watched Gulya's son play with the farm cat as we talked with her co-workers about how much the Turkmen love horses. They basically see them as members of their family, which is unusual relative to neighboring nations.
One of the Kazakhs told me that his company had held a feast with horse sausages and the Turkmen only at the side dishes. But he went on to clarify that in horse meat in Kazakhstan only comes from a certain breed of horse, much like Koreans with dogs (Nureongi), or rabbits in the Western diet. We also discussed the Kazakh game of kokpar, in which horse-mounted players attempt to drag a goat or calf carcass toward a goal. He also said that many times after the game they eat the goat/calf, because by time the game ends the meat is so tenderized that it only takes about 20 minutes to warm up and then it melts in your mouth. And I suppose the players built up a hearty appetite.
The driver loaded up some of the milk from the farm into the back of the car and we began our way back to my hotel, but we took a route through the mountains that was quite scenic. We talked about my trip to the Darvaza crater yesterday, and Gulya said that nighttime is a very dangerous time to drive that road because the camels sleep on the pavement. Just like the kangaroos in the Outback.

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Scenic Drive: Kopet-Dag Mountains 
We took the scenic way home on a road that followed the valleys of the Kopet-Dag mountains. This area has gone back and forth under Persian control for centuries. The history of this area is absolutely fascinating, not only for the Persian Empire stuff, but also the The Great Game between England and Russian. That's one class I wish they offered when I was in college.
 As you can tell from the photos, the clouds were really low today. in some cases, my photos look like I just erased the top half, but trust me, there are mountains there.
I was trying to place where the high cliffs reminded me of, and I think the best answer I have right now is the drive from Sparta to Kalamata in Greece.
Somewhere along the way, the driver waved at a guard in a booth on our right. He joked that it was for the border with Iran. I looked it up when I got back to the hotel, and it actually led to Firjuza (and there is no road to Iran across this section of mountains).
We left the mountains and we rejoined the highway we had drive out on in the morning. Not long after that, we pulled over and Gulya bought us all some fresh road-side grapes. I had no idea they could grow grapes here, and these were fresh (literally right off the vine behind the roadside stall). I got dropped off at my hotel right around 2:30 pm. Not a bad way to fill 4 hours on a Sunday, was it?

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