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Turkmenistan goes crazy for horse holiday

Wearing a blue caftan and shaggy sheepskin hat, Turkmenistan's president looked every part the accomplished horse-riding tribesman as he effortlessly cantered on his jewel-adorned stallion before cheering crowds. The crowning touch came when a white dove gracefully landed on his right shoulder.

Turkmenistan, a mainly Muslim and energy-rich Central Asian nation of 5 million people, holds its slim and graceful Akhal-Teke horse breed in hallowed regard, a cultural trait enthusiastically embraced by President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov.

Over the weekend, the country was whipped up into a frenzy of equine-mania that featured a grand horse show and, more soberly, an academic conference.

Festivities culminated Sunday with opening of the four new lavish race tracks. Broadcasts of opening ceremonies in cities across Turkmenistan were shown on a giant screen in the capital, after which Berdymukhamedov delivered an address beamed to the new hippodromes.

The horses have always been popular in the former Soviet nation, but the pitch and scale of enthusiasm is something new.

Shortly after Turkmenistan gained independence, late eccentric President Saparmurat Niyazov banned the export of Akhal-Teke horses in an effort to preserve the breed, although many still found their way to Russia and the West.

Berdymukhamedov, 53, who came to power after Niyazov's death in late 2006, has not reversed that ban, but instead has taken a different tack in attempting to amplify the horse's cultural status.

By performing before hundreds of cheering and flag-waving spectators at the presidential equestrian complex before a prize-giving ceremony Saturday, Berdymukhamedov once again cemented his well-worn action man credentials.

And as state media helpfully noted, the landing of the dove on his shoulder is "an ancient symbolic omen of a blessing from above."

Horses similar to the Akhal-Teke have been used by Central Asian peoples for thousands of years and are believed to have been ridden by the armies of Alexander the Great. The purity of the breed has long been a source of pride among the nomadic tribes that occupied the desert lands now covered by Turkmenistan.

Including a fifth new race track set to open later this year, the government has plowed more than $300 million into creating sumptuous racing venues.

On Saturday, cars were handed out as gifts at the third annual horse show, dubbed a beauty contest, in which the animals were evaluated for elegance and purebred qualities, as well as fineness of movement and ability to obey a variety of instructions.

International experts from countries including the U.S., France, China and Russia gathered Friday in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, for a scientific conference devoted to discussing the latest efforts to develop the breed.

On a less ambitious scale, Berdymukhamedov this year ordered a series of competitions in which contestants had to weave and sculpt the most skillful likenesses of Turkmen horses.

According to the state-run Turkmen Atlary equine association, the country boasts around 3,000 Akhal-Teke horses, of which 500 are owned by the president.

Berdymukhamedov is not normally distinguished by a florid turn of phrase, but breathless enthusiasm filters through clearly in an epigraph penned by him in a newly issued book about the Akhal-Teke called "The Flight of the Heavenly Horses."

"We shall not allow attention toward our horses to falter by one iota, for they are our pride and glory, the source of our inspiration," he wrote.

Ovlyaguly Sheripov, a prominent Akhal-Teke breeder and the owner of Saturday's horse show winner, said Turkmen horses could in the future be auctioned off to international buyers.

"That said, the best stock will always remain in Turkmenistan," Sheripov said.