| Updated at: 0325 PST, Monday, April 25, 2011|
ASHGABAT: The president of Turkmenistan on Sunday hosted a beauty contest for horses and showed off his own horsemanship skills in a bid to promote the isolated Central Asian state as a global equine centre.
Turkmenistan prides itself on being home to over half of the world's 3,000 Akhal-Teke horses, a breed highly prized for their stamina, beauty and athleticism, and the animal features on its national emblem.
It has declared the last Sunday in April each year to be a national "Day of the Turkmen Racehorse" with competitions, races, and a contest in Ashgabat to find the most beautiful of all Akhal-Teke horses.
The competition is the brainchild of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who is seeking to very cautiously ease the country out of the isolation of his eccentric predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov who died in 2006.
The lucky winner Sunday from a shortlist of 10 elite beasts was a dark stallion named Khanbegler who impressed the jury by showing "beautiful characteristics for the production of offspring."
Meanwhile, its owner, Ovlyaguli Sheripov from Ashgabat won a new Toyota Land Cruiser with the inscription "a present from the respected president of Turkmemistan."
Berdymukhamedov had himself sought to show that the Turkmen affinity with horses also runs through his blood, mounting a magnificent grey Akhal-Teke steed, dressed in Turkmen national costume.
He galloped round several circuits of the presidential hippodrome in Ashgabat, impressing the crowd of several thousands with his control of the horse.
In a final coup-de-theatre, Berdymukhamedov stretched one of his arms out high into the air as a white dove appeared out of nowhere and landed on his shoulder.
An employee at the presidential stable, who asked not to be named, said that the president was a huge lover of horses who comes to ride himself "during his rare hours of leisure."
The desert and steppe nation of five million people traces its love of horses back to the great empires a millennium ago, where it occupied a pivotal point on the fabled Silk Road.
Berdymukhamedov said that after Soviet rule, independent Turkmenistan was now able to revive its folk traditions.
"I, as president of Turkmenistan and head of the international association of Akhal-Teke horses believe that we will preserve the Akhal-Teke and bring it international glory." (AFP)