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No Horsing Around: Turkmenistan Gets Serious About Equine Holiday

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov astride one of his trusty steeds.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov astride one of his trusty steeds.
The Central Asian country of Turkmenistan is getting set for its annual Horse Day celebrations, which traditionally take place on the last Sunday of April.

Established in the early years of the state's independence, this national holiday is a gala equestrian festival that rejoices in the unique status of the horse in Turkmen culture.

In particular, the native Akhal-Teke breed has pride of place in the country and is highly valued for its ability to cover long distances in the desert with little water.

Such is the iconic nature of the elegant Akhal-Teke that the country's authoritarian founder, Saparmurat Niyazov, once even described them as "the wings of our people and its national pride."

Until his death in 2006, he regularly gave these horses as gifts to world leaders.

Niyazov's equally authoritarian successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is an equally keen horseman and his equestrian prowess is very much part of the personality cult that typifies his leadership.

Besides the recent unveiling of a statue showing the Turkmen leader astride one of his trusty steeds, Berdymukhammedov has also written a book on horse racing, which he kindly bestows on foreign dignitaries and is available in all bookshops in Turkmenistan.

He has also burnished his reputation by showing off his horse-riding skills in front of a packed hippodrome in the capital, Ashgabat.

WATCH: Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov puts his horse through its paces.

Given Berdymukhammedov's passion for the ponies, it seems he is intent on making sure everyone takes part in the fun on Horse Day.

According to Chronicles of Turkmenistan, government officials have been ordered to attend horse races that have been organized as part of the festivities.

Apparently, high-school students have also been told that they are expected to spend the entire national holiday at the races.

And just in case any Turkmen might underestimate the importance of Horse Day, reports that the state newspaper "Neutralny Turkmenistan" has spent the past few days publishing heartfelt poems extolling the virtues of the country's equine beasts and its "preeminent jockey" -- Berdymukhammedov, who is often referred to by his self-coined nickname, "Arkadag" or "The Protector."

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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