When Francesca Kelly took her first trip to India—for a luxury horse safari in 1995—a friend told her, “You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it.” A49-year-old woman with a slightly square jaw that hints at a streak of stubbornness and impatience, Kelly is not the sort you would expect to fall in love with the haphazard life of India. But fall she did, first for an exotic and desperate Indian horse, the Marwari, and then for its sprawling desert home.
“The Marwari had this incredible, otherworldly presence which said, ‘Yes, I’m here by God’s will. But I don’t belong to anybody,’ ” Kelly told me in New Delhi. “There are very few horses in the world that have that. It’s [their] combination of beauty and wildness of spirit that is very alluring; especially in this present day, when it’s such a rare thing.”
In 1995, the year Kelly bought her first Marwari with the intention of bringing it to the United States, the horse was on a long list of threatened breeds illegal to export. Three years earlier, India had signed a global biodiversity pact and declared its indigenous livestock part of the country’s “national wealth.” With Indian scientists then estimating that only 500 or 600 Marwaris remained untainted by crossbreeding, the odds against getting the Indian government to reverse its position looked insurmountable.
Many people would have given up. Not Kelly. Born in Washington, D.C., she grew up the stepdaughter of Sir Harold Beeley, the United Kingdom’s ambassador in Cairo from 1961 to 1964 and again from 1967 to 1969, and spent much of her childhood there, where her fondest memories were of midnight gallops in the sands surrounding the family’s desert retreat, a large Bedouin tent filled with colorful hangings and rugs. Nearly three decades later, looking into the eyes of Shanti, her untamed Marwari mare, was like looking into that past. She wasn’t about to give that up. But first she would have to go toe-to-toe with some pretty tough opponents—among them, the Indian government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her battle lasted five years. By the end, she’d not only won—bringing six Marwari horses home with her to Massachusetts in 2000—she’d launched a remarkable drive to preserve one of the world’s oldest horse breeds.
“The view was that there were too few [Marwaris] to export them,” says Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod, better known as Bonnie, a descendant of Indian nobles. It was he who led that first, influential horse safari and is now Kelly’s partner in a business based on breeding and exporting the horse. “But instead of instituting some kind of rehabilitation program, basically the government had sought to freeze the situation, because it was the easiest thing to do,” he adds.
The danger was that ignorance and indiscriminate breeding would lead to the demise of the Marwari as a distinct breed, an all-too-common trend. Worldwide, livestock breeds—made obsolete by tractors and tanks or replaced by “super breeds” of industrialized agriculture, such as the white turkey mass-produced on factory farms in North America and Europe—are disappearing faster even than wild species. Half the livestock breeds that existed in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century are already extinct, and almost half the remainder are at risk or endangered, according to a 1997 report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
Most recognized horse breeds are protected by pedigrees that trace the lineages of the “pure” animals back for generations. Registered Thoroughbreds, for instance, are linked by pedigree to one of three Arabian stallions (the Byerly Turk, the Godolphin Barb and the Darley Arabian) brought to England from the Middle East around the turn of the 18th century. Some registries use breed standards to define animals suited to produce pedigreed offspring. But in the case of the Marwari, there were no records, no studbooks and no codified breed standards. Worse, considerable interbreeding had already taken place. Without a useful, agreed-upon description of the Marwari and the introduction of a registration system, the breed would remain highly vulnerable.
To be sure, the Marwari has a storied past. Ahot-blooded desert horse with a thick, arched neck, long-lashed eyes and flaring nostrils, the horse was bred for battle by the Rathores, a clan of fierce warriors belonging to India’s Rajput, or princely, caste of rulers. The prince who founded the ruling dynasty of Marwar (“region of death”) came circa 1212 with an army of only 200 animals. But after 11 generations and many battles, the clan ruled a kingdom three times as large as Belgium, conquering most of what is now the state of Rajasthan in northwest India. Proud to a fault and honoring a glorious death above all, these martial Hindus bred into the Marwari its temperament—passionate, showy and quick-tempered, but capable also of terrific bravery. They also bred into the Marwari its most distinctive physical characteristic: ears that curve inward to a sharp point, meeting to form a near perfect arch at the tips. Aficionados compare their shape to the lyre and even to the scorpion’s arched stinger. But, twisting to points so sharp they seem an affectation, the Marwari’s ears resemble nothing so much as the Rajputs’ own trademark handlebar mustaches, turned upright and set on their thick, bushy ends.
The Hindu Rajputs resisted India’s Muslim conquerors for hundreds of years before accepting Mogul control in the 16th century. In that era of almost constant war, the Rajputs employed a legion of bards to chronicle their exploits—in songs of great horses as well as great men—tales so bloody they make the Greeks and Trojans of the Iliad look like Quakers.
One story glorifies the horse of Amar Singh, a Rajput who was asked by a Mogul minister to pay a penalty for missing a court meeting. “The only wealth I possess is in my scabbard,” the Rajput retorted. “Come take your penalty if you will!” When the minister reprimanded him, Singh cut him off in mid-sentence—at the neck—and attacked the emperor Shah Jehan, builder of the Taj Mahal. After soldiers cornered Singh on the 70-foot-high ramparts of the Agra Fort, the Rajput spurred his fearless horse over the wall. The animal died in the fall, but Singh somehow made it to his walled mansion before soldiers caught up with him. Today, a statue of the horse stands beside the fort, a few miles from the Taj.