We have had an incredible couple of days meeting Marwari horses; the ancient and beautiful indigenous breed of Rajasthan, easily recognized by their ears, which are curved towards each other so much that they often touch at the tops. Apologies for the quality of the photos below. They are stills from the video camera, we have some stunning pis but they will have to wait until we get to the next city to download to CD.
After a dedicated research stint we made a link with Durga and Davendra Singh, cousins, local aristos, descendants of Maharajas, and big time breeders and traders of the Marwari. Both men are horse lovers through and through, and by chance there was a lift going to their main stables and country home – 3 hours away from Jaipur. So, we seized the chance and packed up quick, and accepted the kind invitation to stay for 3 days in the desert town of Nawalgarh.
I really didn’t know what to expect, and I was literally speechless (a rare moment!) when we pulled up at the palace forecourt. It was a gigantic yellow stone building, with formal gardens, and best of all, reassuring horsey noises coming from just beyond the sparkling swimming pool.
At first I don’t think Davendra quite knew what to make of me. He was sunglass wearing, Jeep driving, and with an air of elagant, casual confidence that I felt I somehow lacked as I wrestled with my broken umbrella and then stooped to tie my shoelace, whilst counterbalancing my giant backpack and trying to think of intelligent sounding horsey questions. The first couple didn’t go too well. After hearing that the horses have to eat a seasonal variety of foods, I asked “And do you find the diet affects the temperament?” He paused, and looked seriously at me from above his sunglasses, “The story with that is that you English are making it too complicated. You look at things in too much detail because you just want something new to say. Horses behave like horses. “He held my gaze for a little too long before laughing it off. Well, if he wasn’t going to be up for a bit of (apparently English-style) horse gossip then I was going to have to re think my approach! But, within an hour Davendra had introduced me to his herd and showed me how to recognize a good Marwari. By lunchtime he had begun to enthusiastically share horsey anecdotes and tips, and by evening we had really hit it off and rode Marwari horse after Marwari horse until it was so dark we couldn’t see what color horse we were riding next.
The Marwari breed is incredibly old and beautiful, something like an Anglo Arab to look at, other than the distinctive ears, and astoundingly comfortable to ride. I was especially honored to be allowed to ride Albella, Davendra’s top stallion – and I was most impressed with his impeccable manners.
Davendra keeps a real menagerie of animals, and went to great lengths to introduce us to all of his favorites, including Daisy the Sheep and Sky the bulldog and an ancient camel they use to carry the horse dung – even the Jersey cow didn’t look out of place. And of course all his favorite horses, and there are many, like all of us, Davendra collects more than he sells –a most he has had around 100 horses at his place, though now there are probably 40-50. To my delight he was incredibly passionate about his horses welfare, making sure they all have adequate turn out, rest and feed. He has even built them a lake in their paddock so they can wade in and keep cool. Most impressive of all is the bit donation scheme that he is involved in. In India, what might look like a simple iron snaffle from the outside is often crafted into razor sharp ledges and spikes inside the horse’s mouth, or filed into what I can only describe as a meat tenderizer. The bit scheme encourages horsemen at horse fairs across India to swap these cruel bits for donated snaffles, most of which come from England. They manage to replace around 1000 rough bits for good ones a year; I’ll get my thinking cap on on this one when we get home because I’m sure we can help the cause in some way.
Amongst other things, Davendra shared with me his talent for naming horses and his knowledge of old Indian herbal remedies. The horse’s names all have beautiful meanings, like “Loved by The Emporer’ “That which is closest to my heart” “Body of a flower” or “Miss Flamboyant”. I’m afraid I’ve ‘gone native’, and so Jim, if you’re reading this, I would forthwith like Harvey to be known only as “Lovely little spot for a picnic by a river and with just a little breeze.”
I might well be following Davendra’s advice to try fenugreek to keep the flies away, and Hannah wondered whether his miracle cure of milk and castor oil for colic works both as a lubricant and to neutralize stomach acid. However, I won’t be taking on his worming program – homemade dose made from molasses, chili peppers and kerosene!!
Under saddle, Davendra insists all his riders leave the horse’s heads alone and allow them to move freely forward, in big loose sweeping movements around the school and a trot or canter with very little control of the pace down the reins at all. Of course we all already know how important it is to allow a young horse to move forward without restriction, but seeing his boys doing such a good job of it worked as a good reminder. I also liked his exercise of settling a young horse by facing them to a wall and waiting until they can stand patiently and relax before moving off – he makes sure all his horses can do this before they are allowed to carry tourists on safari rides because it helps them to become ‘settled’. Incidentally, this is the term he uses for breaking; ‘settling’ – a lovely way of putting it I think!
Overall though, I was astounded that you can travel half way around the world and find so many similarities. The techniques employed here are largely similar to those found on most successful breeding and dealing yards of a similar size, there was the same proportion of farrier issues, face pulling, nipping and napping. And while I was initially impressed when I heard they ‘have no problems with behavior whatsoever’ I soon learned this is simply a matter of perspective. On the one hand, Davendra accepts that horses are horses and doesn’t expect perfect behavior all the time from every horse. In fact they have a joke here about a horse trader who is asked to find a horse for a buyer that wont kick, bite, run off and will never disobey. He asks the buyer to sit on a wall. The buyer waits and waits and asks “where is my horse?” The trader says “The wall is your perfect horse!” Also, it’s easy to overlook the odd handling problem when there are staff to do everything – most of the leading, handling, and even rough riding is done by Davendra’s ‘boys’.
And BOY can those boys ride!! We are having trouble finding an internet connection that can cope with our video footage – but when we do look out for the amazing seat these guys have. This was the second time I have been green with envy at Davendra’s place (the first was hearing that a set of shoes here costs 64 rupees – that’s about 80 PENCE!) I think the incredible seat might come from so much riding bareback – something that I must do more of when I get home. I know it isn’t ideal for every horse and for long periods of time, because it doesn’t spread the rider’s weight over the horses back, but I can certainly see the benefits it makes to the riders balance. (Vacancy opening in spring for a fat cob that fancies entertaining my bareback practice- high withered horses need not apply!)
So, after 2 days of learning all we could from Davendra, we were invited to stay with his cousin, affectionately known as ‘Bonnie’. Bonnie was a tall guy, with a magnificent moustache, quite in keeping with the Maharaja theme, and a contagious laugh which often erupted from the depths of his belly to the tips of his ears. He is renowned for the noble work he does as the head of the Indigenous Horse society of India, lobbying with the government over welfare points, protecting the breed and raising its profile. To be honest we thought we had peaked in terms of accommodation experience at the palace, but with bonnie we stayed in an actual FORT. Literally a desert castle. Picture a castle, double the size, make it more deserty – crumbling yellow sand stone walls and flaking paint, add some homemade décor, hand painted walls and carved archways every 5 meters, sloping passageways big enough for servants to lug a sedan chair up (which, incidentally sat out in the courtyard!), a few rooms crammed full of dusty trophies and 4 Labrador dogs … THAT is where we were staying.
During a tour of Bonnie’s facilities I my ears pricked up when I heard of their biggest problem – a 7yo mare called Mahek (which means sweet scent), who had so far evaded being settled and would not tolerate a rider. The following morning I offered to work with her, and Bonnie sent me with a translator, Diggy, himself a keen polo player from America, and also sent some of the ‘boys’ to watch. At first Mahek would not let me anywhere near her left hand side, and, having seen how well one of the boys sat on a spinning napping horse bareback, I knew that if she was throwing them off it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t really fancy my chances, or fancy exploring Indian healthcare in the desert, but I thought if I could at least get her happy to be touched all over then maybe they would be impressed enough to continue her training in the manner I suggested.
However, Mahek turned out to be a very quick learner, she was only ticklish, scared and had been a little rushed, and with plenty of time and lots of releases of pressure, I was able to ride her gently about the pen after around an hour and a half of training. I think the boys were impressed – they got their phones out to film when I got on – but was this because they wanted to record the session to learn from or were they hoping for a ‘You’ve been framed’ moment?! They did ask Diggy to translate a few questions and ask how they should continue so here’s hoping Mahek continues to get the steady training she deserves. Hannah did a fantastic job of filming the whole thing despite the heat, so as soon as the internet perks up – perhaps in one of the bigger cities, we will download the whole thing for the geeks and a couple of clips for those who want a nice round up of our desert adventure!
This morning we completed our string of good luck by visiting Durga Singh in Jaipur. He had invited us to tea and to view a rare treasure, a family heirloom. It was a 250 year old manuscript, an encyclopedia of horsemanship, passed from father to son. Each family kept a unique version, since the remedies contained local ingredients, so this was a genuine on of a kind artifact. My heart skipped a beat as he unfolded the silk and revealed the leather bound volume, about as thick as four dictionaries, and full of heavy, hand written pages and miniature paintings. It was truly an honor to see, particularly since it is normally kept locked away in a weather proof vault, and was bought out especially for our visit. We were even allowed to photograph a few pages. Now – prick your ears opportunity seekers – Davendra is looking for volunteers to carefully photograph every single page, and another person to translate it to English. Finally, he is looking for a publisher so that the secrets of ancient Indian horsemanship can be unlocked and shared… I have never wanted to speak Hindi more, or become the curator of an equine museum in my life! It all felt very Da Vinci Code wondering what truths were hidden within the ancient symbols!
Anyone else with a sense of adventure I’d thoroughly recommend looking up the safaris that Davendra and Durga run (www.royalridingholidays.com) – you ride on the majestic Marwari horse, camp in luxury camps (they even take a masseuse round with them) and travel deep into the rural parts of India and to huge horse fairs. Let me know if you’re thinking of it, I might even be tempted to join you (And Hannah too, who I have to say made me incredibly proud by managing on one of Davendra’s ‘best mares’. Best, it seems, means honest but very forward going. They name them once they are ridden here and she was called ‘double barrel’ – should have been a warning, but at least my faith in Han’s riding has rocketed!). I couldn’t have hoped to meet 3 more interesting and hospitable men…I can hardly believe we are only 2 weeks into our trip and have already had such luck!
So, the moral of the story I suppose is to keep your ears pricked for the next opportunity, which is exactly what Hannah and I will be doing as we continue on our adventure across India. Having spoken to so many people about horses out here, it feels a little like sifting through the sand, waiting for the odd piece of treasure that turns out to be real horsemanship gold.
Interesting tack notes: the saddle pads Davendra uses look much like Cavellos- heavy, firm pads rather than soft blankets. Most youngsters are ridden in just the pad and surcingle before carrying a real saddle. Saddles are either English (old fashioned, straight tree, hunting style seat) Cavalry saddles (little like Australian stock saddle) or French style (more dressagy with big knee rolls). The Cavalry saddles seem to fit the best.
Most riding horses out here have some white scaring from old saddle damage, but few have muscle atrophy – the backs are very well rounded. Sadly the same cannot be said for the Tonga (driving) horses, whose tack and condition varies hugely between the small villages and big cities – with the latter being much harsher conditions.