Disappearing Horses of Karabakh

Disappearing Horses of Karabakh
Dilbaz (top) and Karabakh horse at the Baku hippodrome.

Azerbaijanis breeders are struggling to keep alive a centuries-old horse
rearing tradition.

By Kamil Piriev and Samira Husseinova in Lenberan (CRS No. 222, 11-Mar-04)

The green pastures of this village 360 kilometres west of Baku used to be
home to cattle and sheep. Now a group of stables and barns dominates the
landscape and herds of Karabakh horses graze across it, guarded by a
herdsman and a dog.

The village of Lenberan has been transformed by the arrival here of the
staff of what used to be the stud farm of Aghdam, the Azerbaijani city now
occupied by the Armenians and located on the other side of the Nagorny
Karabakh ceasefire line.

The famous Karabakh horses have suffered from the conflict, too. There are
now just 130 of them, compared with some 400 twenty years ago.

Azerbaijan’s first stud farm was built near Aghdam in 1949 to rear the
valuable Karabakh breed of horse. The farm was hard hit by the 1991-94
conflict. The remaining horses were evacuated to Baku before Armenian troops
captured Aghdam in 1993.

It was only four years later that a proper new farm was built for the horses
at Lenberan. However both the location and the farm leave much to be
desired. The lowland climate is not ideal for the horses, and the farm is
rather cramped.

“Karabakh horses were bred in the mountains for centuries,” farm manager
Maarif Husseinov told IWPR. “That is why, apart from their beauty, these
horses are valued for their endurance and ability to travel narrow mountain
paths. Lenberan is not good for them. The climate is too humid and the grass
is different here.”

The beautiful golden-brown Karabakh horse, believed to be of very ancient
pedigree, is of medium height with a small head and strong muscles. Over
many centuries the Muslim khans of the Karabakh highlands took great pride
in breeding them.

Traditionally the breed has been prized for its hardiness and its loyalty to
its owners. Because of its size and temperament it has always been popular
with woman riders. Its fame persisted into modern times and in 1956, Queen
Elizabeth of Britain received a Karabakh stallion named Zaman as a gift from
the Soviet government, along with an Akhal Tekke horse from Turkmenistan.

There are some 65,000 horses in Azerbaijan, but only about 1,000 of them are
thoroughbred. As well as the relocated Aghdam stud farm, there are two farms
at Agstafa and one at Sheki which breed the grey Dilbaz, another famous
Azerbaijani breed.

But all the stud farms have fallen on hard times, because although they are
officially run by the state, in reality they were left to fend for
themselves years ago. Selling just a few horses a year, they can barely
afford to buy food for the horses and pay their employees.

This worries the experts. “Unless conditions improve, the Karabakh and
Dilbaz may lose their pedigree status and become diluted in a few years,”
warned Handam Rajabli, deputy director of the pedigree breeding department
at the agriculture ministry.

“Professional horse breeding in Azerbaijan suffers most from the lack of
customer interest in our local breeds,” complained Rajabli. “Many private
customers these days prefer the English thoroughbred and the Turkmen Akkal
Tekke to the Karabakh and Dilbaz.”

Azerbaijan’s racing and breeding industries continue to suffer from a
presidential ban on betting on horses that followed a big casino scandal in
Baku five years ago. As a result racing lost popularity and racecourses and
stud farms lost revenues. To maintain the Baku racecourse complex, the
management has had to lease part of the premises to private businesses.

Another major problem is the continuing export ban on Azerbaijani horses
because of their failure to meet international identification standards. As
an exportable commodity, horses need to come with all the necessary
vaccinations properly documented, which is not the case with Azerbaijan’s

This year, the agriculture ministry came up with a plan to improve breeding
conditions for thoroughbred Azerbaijani horses and asked the government to
foot the bill. The plan calls for around 400,000 dollars to be allocated to
the horse breeding industry and the ban on horserace betting to be lifted.
The government is still considering its response.

But some enthusiasts think there is no time to be lost. Yashar Guluzade, an
entrepreneur, has been breeding the Karabakh for seven years. On the 50
hectares of land he owns outside Baku, he keeps 28 Karabakh horses and two

Yashar owes his love of horses to his father Alihussein, but never dreamed
of owning his own stable. Then in 1997 he saw Senat, a young Karabakh stud
horse, at the Baku racecourse and was so impressed by its beauty that he
decided to buy it. After that he became so fascinated with local breeds that
he travelled from village to village in search of pedigree animals.

Guluzade, 39, is worried that the Karabakh and Dilbaz horses may be on the
road to extinction. “I’m an amateur, but even I can see how the thoroughbred
population has been dwindling year by year,” he said. “Unless the government
and real experts take action, the purity of these breeds will not last much

Experts at the ministry, while conceding that action must be taken, are more
optimistic about the future. “I find it alarming that the government does
not provide enough cash to stud farms and line breeders,” said Rajabli. “But
to talk about thoroughbred Karabakh and Dilbaz being close to extinction
would be premature. These breeds have survived for centuries; they cannot
just vanish into thin air.”

Kamil Piriev reports for Radio France Internationale and Samira Husseinova
is a freelance journalist; both are based in Baku.

To see photographs of two horses look at the web version of this story on
our Caucasus website,