Maria Marquise interviews Leonid Babaev

MM: You and I met in 2004 at the Swedish Akhal-Teke breed show. What do you remember from this event? What was your general impression of it? Were there any horses that have stuck in your memory or, perhaps, ones you didn’t like?


LB: This was 15 years ago, it feels like another lifetime now. This was at the height of the conflict with Tatiana Riabova which arose in response to her authoritarian style of breed management. The Swedish show was our challenge to her, it was the first show without her participation, there was hope that there are people who are prepared to take on responsibility for breed management and the future of the breed. This illusion and а hope that things may change is what I remember from the Swedish show. I also remember the enthusiasm of the participants, there were relatively few of them, from Sweden and Norway, but we were young and wanted to see change. I also remember the medieval restaurant in Stockholm.


As far as the horses were concerned, I can’t say I remember anything out of the ordinary. Their level, compared to what I was used to seeing at Stavropol and in Dagestan was lower, and the judging criteria were taken from the VNIIK format. Today, I am no longer prepared to take part in such events, in any capacity. Today, my most important criterion in judging a horse is the quality of the movements. Any “show” ought to be a spectacle with a plot and an element of intrigue, it is important that it lives up to the name “show” – the word which many of my colleagues dislike and want to avoid.



MM: I have been translating your articles for many years. I think I can see the evolution of your thinking regarding the purpose of breeding Akhal-Teke horses, your changing views on the market, and on the goals that breeders set for themselves. Could you please describe, how you yourself see this? Or do you feel that your view of the modern Akhal-Teke breeding had been formed a long time ago and has not changed much since?


LB: I think you are right, my views *have* evolved. Sometimes I read my old articles and wonder why I wrote such trash and how naïve I was then. I think the evolution of my views can be summed up as my departure from the self-sufficient small world of the Akhal-Teke breed with all its narrowly-specialised breed-specific “quirks” into the wider, highly-competitive world of performance horses. The abandonment of the comfort of the inner circle. This evolution is both my conflict with myself and with the Akhal-Teke community.



MM: Let’s talk about the actual horses: who is your favourite broodmare of all times?


LB: I don’t think I can answer this question. “Favourite” presupposes something finite, an arrival at a final destination which, once reached, makes you happy and comfortable. For a professional, such thinking is wrought with the danger of stagnation, to progress, one has to constantly step outside one’s comfort zone - love for a particular horse sucks you into complacency. Each subsequent generation must supersede the previous one, devalue it. My view is that in horse breeding there is no place for personal allegiances. Our clients often want to buy a foal while it is still with its mother, hoping that young foals will cost less money. But this is not the case, new foals represent the new generation, they are the future of both a stud farm and the breed in general; they are the fruits of our new investments, both material and intellectual and, by definition, they are always more expensive than horses of preceding generations. If this is not the case, it isn’t horse breeding, and my colleagues who see their future product cheaper than their existing ones are not real horse breeders.


MM: Has there been a broodmare for whom you had big plans but whose stud career didn’t succeed for whatever reason?


LB: Yes, certainly. The most striking example is Gandja (Gaisan-Damdja). Gandja was amazing but her career at the stud just didn’t happen. It’s also possible that my own judgment of certain horses has evolved, and what seemed valuable in the past appears in a different light today. Madar Shael was a mare for whom I never found the right sire, she had an amazing type and great movements but her offspring did not impress me, so I sold her. There are broodmares at the stud today whose potential I have not been able to realize.



MM: Out of the horses you have sold over the years, are there some who have made you regret the sale?


LB: I would say, probably more “no”, than “yes”. The stud needs to sell to survive and we should be selling good horses so that, wherever they end up, they promote good breeding selection. For example, Rursi Shael left excellent daughters at our stud, was then sold to another stud where she has produced equally good offspring, if not even better than here.


MM: Do you regard Makka a representative of Gayaz line or is he unique and remains outside any lineage?


LB: You know my views on breeding lines, they are all nominal and it’s not useful to pay excessive attention to them. I see Makka as, first and foremost, the son of his mother Melana (Omar-Mushmula). He is, of course, also a descendant of his grandmother Pampa (Glazok-Pariza). I have a great respect for Makka – he is truly talented, it’s a matter of great regret that his health has not allowed him to develop his sports career. His son Mazkhar out of Hava Shael is key to my further breeding plans. In my opinion, he is an outstanding stallion. Makka has also left us good daughters: Heleney Shael (out of Heva Shael), Hamishi Shael (out of Hamis Shael), Ayman Shael (out of Aylet Shael).


MM: Which ones of his qualities do you value the most and how stable is his ability to pass them to his offspring?


LB: I think it’s his energy and the quality of paces. His children are always recognizable by their special elasticity. They do not necessarily possess the most elegant type, sometimes they look a little plain but they are all well put together, have good bone and outstanding movements.


MM: Please list some Shael horses whom you considered to have a great breeding potential but were forced to change your mind? Please explain why you came to such a conclusion.


LB: The main example I can think of is Oyun Shael. From the day he was born he stood apart from the rest, possessing exceptional presence and beauty. He had every promise to become a top-level horse. But, unfortunately, the energetic temperament, which scares ordinary amateur riders and which is so highly sought-after by professional riders, was missing. I am hoping that some of his children will inherit the desired temperament from their dams and will make it at the top level. Before that, I had similar hopes for Sere II (Iakyr-Aykhanum) whom I parted with for the same reason.


MM: Which stallion living today would you like to use at your stud? Even if it’s only a theoretical wish and isn’t possible to put it into practice?


LB: I wanted to use Damir, grandson of Melesur and son of Dargi from PKF Geli but, unfortunately, he died. I would like to take a look at his sons. I am interested in the breeding career of Dor Sakar (Gazanch-Merver) from Stavropol, his first crop of foals looks very interesting. There is a good colt this year by Gazomet (Maydan-Gaza), also at Stavropol. Pamel Kan by Melesur, the sire of Sapar Kan who stands at Dacor is of interest too but, on the whole, the choice is small.


MM: What about the stallions who are no longer alive? Which one would you have included in your selective breeding today?

LB: Yasman, Melesur, Omar, Posman (grey), Derbent, Yulduz – these are the stallions I have actually known and seen live.


MM: Let’s talk about the market for the last 30 years. How has it changed, in your opinion?


LB: The breed has completely moved away from the riding-horse market sector and fully entered the exotic sector. I am saddened by this fact but many people don’t share my sadness. I see in this tendency a demise of the breed, a step into nowhere.


MM: Sales to China: do you regard these as

- commercial luck?

- financial necessity?

- the inevitable result of the global economy?
- out of all the horses sold to China with no return ticket, is there one or two which you wish could be made available for the Russian breeders’ genetic pool to use?


LB: It’s simply the state of play and a factor that has trapped the breed into the exotic market sector and is now causing harm to the breed and hampers its development, taking it away from the fair-play competition with the modern sports horse breeds. Many of my colleagues consider the Chinese sales a matter of good fortune, precisely because they are focused on breeding for exotic traits desired by the Chinese market. I see this as a mistake and a short-term strategy. I am also concerned that such selection will put a nail in the coffin of utilitarian qualities of the Akhal-Teke horses. And I already see this in the horses exhibited today – many of them are a product of modern Chinese-market-orientated selection.


I am not mourning the horses sold to China from the point of view of their selection-breeding value, I regret their fate which has no prospect of any further development. In China an Akhal-Teke horse is a status symbol, an object to satisfy vanity. It’s “criminal” to sell to China Akhal-Teke horses with performance potential. It means a departure from creativity of selective breeding, both our own and that of the breeders of former generations, into obscurity. I always try to judge my own efforts against the dignified legacy left to us by Shamborant and feel this benchmark must not be lowered.



MM: Let’s talk about the geography of the Akhal-Teke breeding. Is the epicentre still in Russia? Or are there other important landmarks on the Akhal-Teke breeding map?


LB: For as long as Stavropol Stud exists and while A.Klimuk is at the head of breeding selection there, this will remain the case. I see my Akhal-Teke breeding map without borders but with individual people as landmarks. Epicenter of the Akhal-Teke breeding is anywhere where significant breeders are at work and around whom the Akhal-Teke world and its geography are spinning. Neither Russian State nor any other country made a fiscal contribution to breed development. Moreover, any state interference in the matters of horse breeding is something I consider harmful. Turkmenistan is a stark example of this, precisely because its horse breeding government body has put barriers between it and the international breed management [by refusing to cooperate with the General Studbook and its registration rules]. The Akhal-Teke breed belongs to the whole world and should exist without regard for geographical borders and local regulations imposed by those who have but a vague idea of this breed. So there are no geographic epicenters, only personal epicenters.

MM: Can you name the best Akhal-Teke stallion in Europe?


LB: I am not familiar with the European Akhal-Teke breeding sufficiently to answer your question. I have never been invited to Europe to assess the quality of the horse population. I don’t feel like going there as a tourist – I have enough hassle in my life without it. There is, nevertheless, a handful of horses who, in themselves, are quite good: Otman Shael, Oyun Shael, both are the sons of Garant, and the son of Gazyr, Hyzyr Shael. But to judge the European AT population in a detailed and professional way is not something I can do, I just don’t know enough horses closely. The photos and videos that I have seen to date do not impress me to the point that I would want to use a European stallion in my selection.



MM: What about the best European mare?

LB: For the same reason as above, it is difficult for me to judge the broodmares though recently I was most impressed by Savanna by Sayvan, and was very surprised that a mare of such quality was sold by the stud where she was born. Savanna could be a jewel in the crown of a most refined herd. But the absence of top-quality stallions in Europe makes it difficult for a broodmare to realize her true potential. Still, I would name Savanna as the best broodmare.



MM: Does the breed still need breed championships in the format in which they have been conducted in the last 30 years? In sports horse breeds there are young horse evaluations and Keurungs for stallions – and that’s it, the rest is sports performance. Whereas the Akhal-Tekes are being shown in-hand into their old age. Who needs this and why?


LB: I would give you a concise answer: I don’t need them and haven’t taken part in them for quite a while. I want exhibitions as a “shop window”, shows with a plot and an element of intrigue. If this is missing, I don’t need any shows either in the VNIIK or in the European sports horse format. Breeders do not need the expertise of a Keurung panel to evaluate the product of their selection, they are observing the horses they have bred from day one, assessing the result and comparing it with the evaluation by the experts they regularly invite to their stud for this purpose. They then make decisions based on the observations made at different developmental stages, pertaining to the horse’s potential for breeding and for sport. A breeder needs a showcase, an opportunity to market his or her wares to potential buyers. If organisers of a breed show cannot provide such showcase then a breeder doesn’t need them, whether these events are called keurung or whatever.


MM: You chose selection for dressage in your breeding program. What is your current plan to allow you to realize your bold ambitions? Even purely from the theoretical point of view (even if it seems unattainable right now) what do you need to implement your plan?


LB: I select not just for dressage but for jumping ability too. I just think that the physical attributes of the Akhal-Teke horses make dressage more attainable for them, plus we have a historic precedent in dressage in our breed. My plan is simple enough – to breed horses with quality gaits which are required for dressage and jumping: tall, compact, sharp, energetic and, of course, with a recognizable AT type. What do I need to achieve this goal? There is a host of conditions. We need to break the negative image created by breeding for the exotic market, rebuff the myth of exoticism and exclusive characteristics of these horses, for example, the “one-owner horse” myth. All these exotic concepts are being promoted and developed by the breed fanatics and this ideology just goes to fuel their own inadequacy syndrome. We need more positive examples of utilitarian use of our horses in sport, and these examples must not be exceptions to the rule. All this requires considerable investment. We need a stable economic and political climate in the world, in which people can plan their work and develop their ambitions with horses, and not just be needing to survive. We are being shaken up all the time and thrown from one extreme to another. And we simply need some luck when a wealthy investor with spare cash can decide to invest in Akhal-Teke horses and not in churches, yachts, and palaces when a head of national government can decide to support financially breed development and promotion instead of commissioning golden statues of the Akhal-Teke horses. Sadly, this is all in the realm of a dream. In the meantime, the fans of the Akhal-Teke breed sing praises to the golden statues. So all I have left is to carry on with my work and travel my own route.


MM: Let’s talk honestly: in the 30 years of breeding selection in the post-Soviet space the sports achievements of the Akhal-Teke horses are still very modest, even if we take into account the overall numbers of the global population and the achievements of KSK Uspensky. What are the reasons of this fiasco?


LB: I pretty much answered this question already. These 30 years have not been smooth sailing for our stud, it’s been a period of establishing our principles after being forced relocate away from a conflict zone [Shael stud had moved from Daghestan to Central Russia in 1994, during the Russian war against the Chechen separatists], the challenge of setting up in a new place, and a host of economic crises, starting with Perestroika and ending with the recent isolation of Russia. And yes, we have managed to survive even under these difficult conditions. Judging by the views expressed by leading experts from the world of equestrian sport, we have managed to improve the quality of the horses to the level where they are competitive against some of the best sports horse breeds. I wouldn’t call it a fiasco, it’s a road we’ve traveled – a bumpy, difficult road but we are moving, at least for the time being. When I look back, I don’t feel ashamed: every opportunity that presented itself to us has been used to its maximum potential.


MM: Аbsent: does his fame benefit the breed or has the opposite effect?


LB: I have to admit, I find this question absurd. For sure it is beneficial, how can it be anything else? He is the baseline, the foundation that proves that our efforts are not in vain, that achievement at the highest level was possible once and therefore there is nothing to stop us to rise to the same level again.

MM: You live in a city. You dont go to the stud every day, probably not even every week. Is this an inconvenience? Would you have liked to be playing a more prominent role in the daily management of your stud farm?


LB: It would be nice but it is what it is. On the other hand, this situation allows me to keep a fresh view of the horses, perceptions don’t become blurred by every day drudgery, which is inevitable when you see them every day. And besides, modern communication overcome lack of geographical proximity.


MM: Do you never feel like saddling up and going for a ride?


LB: No. For a long time now, I have prefered to observe my horses rather than to ride them.


MM: Let’s talk about Leonid Babaev as a person: in public (at least, in virtual space) you often force people to roll their eyes. Are you the same in your everyday life or is this only your public persona?


LB: I don’t think I am any different in everyday life, I am always the same person and do not perform scripted roles. To be honest with you, I find it difficult to understand what it is in me that makes people roll their eyes, what it is that rubs them the wrong way. I always detect when people are being two-faced people and playing games, I sense arrogance and always call out pretense and put the culprits in their place. I already mentioned that the breed is moving towards the exotic sector. Exotic animals often attract exotic people and when there are lots of them around, a normal person with their clear view of the situation begins to look abnormal against the general trend and evokes rejection. I prefer to see myself as a litmus paper of normality by how other people relate to me. I am of the age when I am no longer climbing a career ladder and have to pretend to be something that I am not, I can afford to speak out and say what I think.


MM: In the last couple of years, your open conflict with Tito Pontecorvo has unfolded on Facebook pages. Do you have some principal objections to Mr. Pontecorvo as a person or, perhaps, as a breeder? What was the point of letting the scandal be played out in public?


LB: Not a couple of years, it’s been going on longer than that! I tolerated the arrogance and abuse from Tito for a very long time, since the mid-1990s onwards. There had been some truly absurd incidents that just beggared belief, such as when he accused me of poisoning a horse. I tried not to cross paths with this individual but he constantly provoked me, made snide remarks at Akhal-Teke meetings using most pathetic pretexts. Despite this, I tried to keep my distance and resist provocation.


During the height of my disagreements with VNIIK in 2007 when the blood samples of my horses were submitted for registration and then discarded willy-nilly, I terminated all connection with VNIIK and stopped registering horses there. I am a firm believer that the only horse that can be called “Akhal-Teke” is the horse registered in the General Studbook. Whether I like this or not, the Studbook today is owned by VNIIK, and therefore, if my horses are not registered there, they do not have a right to be called “Akhal-Teke horses”.


So at that point, I made a public statement that I am creating a new brand, a breed which is managed according to the purebred principles and represents a continuation of the Akhal-Teke breed but has adopted a different approach for the purpose of registration. I named this breed Shael Teke. It was something I was forced to do, to present my horses to the outside world, and it was the only way to continue my work as a breeder outside the jurisdiction of VNIIK. A similar situation exists in Turkmenistan where the cooperation with VNIIK has been curtailed while aspiring to preserve the brand. The only difference with my horses is that they are being bred according to the accepted principles of pure breeding whereas in Turkmenistan this is not the case.


This situation stirred up Tito and prompted him to write a disgusting article in which he accused me of megalomania and other mortal sins, blamed me for excessive pride, assault on sacred values and all sorts of crimes. This article is available on his website and every word in it is revolting and pure lie. That article was the last straw for me – I publicly accused him of spreading lies and hypocrisy.

Besides, his sycophancy in Turkmenistan where he has goes to show his support for the policies that are destroying the breed, makes him complicit in the crimes that are being committed there against the Akhal-Teke horses.

In terms of professional breeding, he is a nobody as a breeder and his attempts to present himself as an expert, his articles and his claims of extensive experience are laughable. Unfortunately, the newcomers to the breed believe him and I consider it my duty to debunk the myth of his greatness. Professional breeders don’t give him or his opinions the time of day. In Russia, few remember who he is or was.


MM: The row with Tito Pontecorvo has set many members of the global Akhal-Teke community against you. Do you not feel that this has impacted your work? Don’t you think that such public display of negativity has had an adverse effect on your career as a breeder? Don’t such demonstrative actions scare off potential buyers?


LB: I don’t perceive any particular animosity from people towards myself. Well, maybe some hopeless cases of Tito’s fans like Dasha Cole or suchlike. The breeder’s reputation is influenced by the quality of the horses he produces. Unfortunately, the exotic-market clients are not interested in quality, what matters to them are some mystical and decorative traits and the last thing that’s going to influence them is the match Leonid vs Tito. If a client “is” interested in quality, then private rows between breeders are of least importance to him. Such client will always look at the horse. I am offering for sale horses, not myself.


MM: Who in the Akhal-Teke world do you consider to be your allies and who are your adversaries?


LB: A provocative question! My allies are all those who pursue a concrete goal and try to achieve it in a focused way. But the goal has to be functional, not decorative, it must, I repeat, be functional. Therefore, all those who do not pursue a goal to produce a functional horse for riding I consider to be my adversaries and call them multipliers. Multipliers do not understand the basic principles of horse breeding and devalue the breed by their activities. Unfortunately, there are lots of them about and the current breed management makes it all too easy for such people to exist. Beside breeders, breed promoters, trainers, riders are all my allies – they put time and effort, talent and money into the horses to achieve their goals. I don’t really see the need to create a black and white lists, it’s better simply to write some people off.



MM: In the interview, I did with you 15 years ago you said that you see yourself in your old age as sitting on a veranda, drinking tea with fruit compote and watching frolicking foals. Has your vision of the future changed since then or is it still the same image?


LB: I must have been young and naïve when I said this. A breeder has no time to age, time is running by and is spent constantly worrying about how to ensure the stud farm survival in the turbulent political and economic conditions which have challenged us in the last 10 years. Also, the benchmark rises all the time, the demands placed on sports horses become more and more stringent, and the competition from sports horse breeding is growing exponentially. We must try and meet these conditions with our own trump card, which will make the clients come to us and not to go elsewhere. There is simply no time to get old. I can only ask Messrs Alzeheimer and Parkinson to delay their time of arrival.

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