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Warning: In Turkmenistan, Don't Change A Horse's Name -- Ever

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on an Akhal-teke horse.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on an Akhal-teke horse.

The Turkmen president likes to tightly control things in his country. So perhaps it should be no surprise that Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has issued a decree governing virtually every aspect of the life of Turkmenistan's national symbol -- the purebred Akhal-Teke horse.

The new order makes it illegal to change an Akhal-Teke horse's name during its lifetime. The name of each horse must remain as recorded at birth in the studbook, or genealogical record, kept for the breed by the government.

For example, Kerwen (Caravan) cannot be renamed Melegush (Orange Bird) just because the owner changes his mind and decides he likes the new name better.

Under the November 21 decree, every Akhal-Teke horse must get a proper burial -- or at least, it must be buried in an area designated by local authorities and in the presence of an official, who will register the death. What kind of area is to be designated is not immediately clear.

An Akhal-Teke horse

Currently, there are no special interment grounds for horses and owners bury their animals far from populated areas without notifying authorities their horse has died. A small ceremony is common, with the owner and his friends covering the dead animal's head with a fabric like a funeral shroud before lowering it into a deep pit.

The stated purpose of the new law is to protect the pedigree of thoroughbred Akhal-Teke horses by tightening regulations around breeding and record-keeping. It also aims to develop and promote equestrian sports in Turkmenistan, including international competitions, in order to highlight the Akhal-Teke as a national treasure.

But if Berdymukhammedov's new ruling appears intended to protect and promote the Akhal-Teke breed, it also reflects the president's latest effort to associate himself with the nationally beloved horse as he builds his own personality cult.

Last year, he unveiled a massive golden statue of himself astride an Akhal-Teke in downtown Ashgabat, the capital, and took on the title of "People's Horse Breeder." He has written a book titled Akhal-Teke: Our Pride and Glory and state scribes have penned some 40 poems lauding his favorite personal horse, Ak Khan (White King).

In this poem, Berdymukhammedov is referred to as Arkadag, or Protector, a title he has taken for himself:

"It's a celebration of earth and sky today, my Arkadag is riding on his white horse.
Let God award him what he wishes, my Arkadag is riding on his white horse."

All that is in addition to Berdymukhammedov periodically riding in public races in which he is guaranteed to take first prize, since no jockey dares to overtake him. The president is generally considered a good horseman but took a tremendous fall in 2013 during a race in the capital's hippodrome when his horse Berkarar tripped immediately after crossing the finish line.

The name Berkarar, which means "stability," is drawn from Berdymukhammedov's frequent public pronouncements that the period of his rule is "the felicitous era of a stable state." In Turkmenistan, it is illegal to watch the video that shows his fall.

Berdymukhammedov has been president since he took over after the death in 2006 of Saparmurat Niyazov, an eccentric autocrat who used the slogan Golden Age to describe his own rule.

The president's intense interest in equestrian sports is part of a wider political strategy that began under Niyazov of promoting sports of all kinds to draw public attention away from Turkmenistan's domestic problems and to raise Ashgabat's international standing. The efforts often come at the expense of ordinary citizens as the government demolishes neighborhoods to make way for new sports complexes or to beautify the capital ahead of major international competitions.

Turkmen have venerated the Akhal-Teke for millennia thanks to its beauty, speed, and stamina, and view it as a unique expression of their origins as steppe horsemen. The breed is believed to have arisen when the Central Asian climate began drying out some 12,000 years ago and the originally squat, stocky horses of the region adapted to the new conditions by developing slim frames, longer legs for running swiftly across the arid plains, and a high tolerance for scarcity of food and water.

(Read: 'Torture By Hunger': Horse Breeder Describes Desperate Days In Turkmen Prison)

Once domesticated, the breed was further developed by nomads selecting for tall, fast horses. The Akhal-Teke was one of many similar breeds which collectively became famous as the "war horses" of Central Asia. They were eagerly sought after by neighbors, including the Chinese Empire as mounts for its cavalry.

Just how respected the Akhal-Teke is in Turkmenistan can be judged by its frequent mention in traditional songs and the fact it appears in the state coat of arms. The eating of horsemeat of any kind in Turkmenistan has long been taboo.