IN THE HEART of Central Asia, the sunbaked Karakum Desert stretches across Turkmenistan. For centuries, the nomadic Turkmen who inhabited these desiccated plains trekked long distances on horseback in search of water.
Historically a key to survival and loyal companion, horses came to symbolize tribal power and status. According to a Turkmen Proverb, "Water is a Turkmen's life, a horse is his wings, and a carpet is his soul."
Post-World War II, the industrial revolution connected the once-desolate Karakum with oil, railroads, and highways, but the horse has remained a central force in Turkmen culture.
A man performs a trick with an Akhal Teke horse during a performance for international audience at the Ashgabat convention center. Training animals to perform tricks for entertainment has received widespread backlash from animal activists in recent years.
High profile trick riders pose on their horses before a performance at the Ashgabat convention center.
Shortly after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmen Horse Day was declared a national holiday, "Our horses are the decoration of any festivities, they are the wings of our people and its national pride," Former President Saparmurat Niyazov said in an address to the country’s horse breeders. "Your work is best evidence of the great importance that independent neutral Turkmenistan attaches to horse-breeding and of how we care about Akhal Teke horse breed, of how we love our heavenly horses.”
Niyazov’s golden stallion, Yanardag, now decorates Turkmenistan’s coat of arms and a monument in the capital of Ashgabat.
In February 2011, current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov expanded these annual celebrations with the proclamation that every April, the prized breed of Akhal Teke horses would take part in a beauty contest.
Self-proclaimed the "People's Horse Breeder," Berdimuhamedov has since passed a series of unusual laws. In 2015, he issued a presidential decree banning Turkmens from changing an Akhal Teke’s name after birth, and requires their owners to give them proper burials in the presence of a government official.
Lead Image: A handler waits for his horse to stop rolling at an Akhal Teke breeding facility in the outskirts of Ashgabat. PHOTOGRAPH BY JEN OSBORNE, REDUX