Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Disappearing Horses of Karabakh

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

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

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 horses.

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 Dilbaz.

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 longer."

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,