Saving the Raja's Horse | Science | Smithsonian

Saving the Raja's Horse

British horsewoman Francesca Kelly brings India's fiery Marwari to the United States in hopes of reviving the breed

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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.

Another legend sings the praises of Chetak, a gray stallion that sacrificed his life for Maharana Pratap—the last Rajput to succumb to the Moguls—in the 1576 battle of Haldighati. By rearing and drumming his hooves on the forehead of the war elephant of the imperial commander, Chetak allowed his master to kill the elephant’s driver, blunting the Mogul advance. Only the arrival of reinforcements on the field rallied the Mogul troops. The story goes that even with one of his hind legs hacked off above the hoof, Chetak carried Rana Pratap away to safety. More than 400 years later, the stallion’s name lives on not only in countless racers and carthorses, but in a line of Chetak motor scooters produced by India’s Bajaj Auto Ltd.

In modern times, however, the Rajputs’ glorification of their mounts nearly proved the Marwari’s undoing. Because the rulers had long ago created a parallel caste system for horses and barred anyone but their noble kinsmen from owning or riding the prized animals, the breed became a hated symbol of feudalism and India’s oppressive social divisions. In 1956, nine years after winning independence from the British, the nation’s socialist government abolished feudal tenures and deprived the Rajput noblemen of their estates. Thousands of horses were shot, castrated or turned over to peasants to use as draft animals. And indigenous horse husbandry fell, for the most part, to rural farmers.

The seeds of the Marwari’s potential salvation were sown in the 1980s, when India’s tourist industry began to take off. Two-thirds of Rajasthan is little more than sand dunes, but the colorful costumes and religious festivals of the state’s diverse peoples have made it a top destination for visiting foreigners. Chief among the beneficiaries have been the Rajputs. Pioneers in “heritage tourism,” former maharajahs, thakurs (lords) and jagirdars (vassals) rebounded from their reversal of fortunes by turning ancestral Rajput forts, palaces and walled mansions into museums or hotels. And with their renewed prosperity, some resumed interest in an ancient pastime: the breeding of horses.

But when Kelly and her husband, James, came to India for the first time for their horse safari, in 1995, the effort to conserve—as opposed to just breeding—the Marwari horse had yet to start. The breeders of indigenous horses—a fractious lot, like many horse breeders everywhere—had no collective strategy for preserving the breed. Meanwhile, the only step the Indian government had taken to conserve the Marwari was banning their exportation.

The ban drew on sound logic. With the Marwari gene pool already depleted, sending stock overseas seemed foolish, even potentially disastrous. Despite a few exceptions, such as the Akhal Teke horses of Russia and the Caspian horses of Iran, most rare breeds have failed to prosper outside their original homes. Moreover, according to veterinarian Donald E. Bixby of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, transplanting breeds adapted to one climate and environment to a new habitat can itself alter their genetic makeup. “I’ve seen these plans come along fairly frequently,” says Bixby, “and I’ve seen them fail fairly frequently.”

When Kelly found out that her mare and two other Marwaris she had purchased wouldn’t be coming home with her, she was devastated. But after a day or so, she set her jaw and decided that she wanted to be involved with these horses, even if that involvement might be confined to India. “The fact that the breed wasn’t really being taken care of, either through ignorance or lack of money or appropriate breeding practices, pushed me into finding out as much about them as possible,” she says.

Knowledge led to resolve. “I saw these horses, all pegged out like slaves, tied at the head and at the back, nose in the manger, no room to breathe,” she recalls. “Nobody was going to ride them. They were the saddest specimens of crossbreeds that you will ever see.” She and her partner, Dundlod, pledged to do something about it. “The future of this horse is outside as well as inside India,” she decided.

To blunt the objection that shipping Kelly’s handful of Marwaris to the United States would deplete the gene pool, Kelly and Dundlod started breeding top-quality horses in Rajasthan. In 1999, they joined others in founding the Indigenous Horse Society of India, the only national body of its kind, to work with the government on conservation-related programs, raise awareness about the Marwari and encourage breeders to adopt more modern methods. By 2000, the pair had won the 100-kilometer endurance race at the national equestrian games, convinced the Equestrian Federation of India to sanction the first national show for indigenous horses and produced a coffee-table book—Marwari: Legend of the Indian Horse—that remains the most complete study of the breed in English. Along the way, Kelly traveled to so many auctions and horse festivals in remote towns across the Punjab and Rajasthan that the Mirasi caste of horse traders began calling her ghorawalli: the horsewoman.

By interesting India’s equestrian community in the horse through shows, competitions and exhibitions, Kelly and Dundlod influenced the market and breeding practices. But even more significant was their effort to conjure up a studbook. Without bothering to trace the breed’s foundation sire, which, if possible at all, would have involved years of poring over documents and interviewing horse traders, they began registering those prime Marwari specimens whose immediate sires and dams could be identified. When, in 1997, they finally convinced the government to lift the ban on exports, prices began to jump.

By early 2002, when I first met Kelly and Dundlod, India seemed to have almost as many Marwari breeder associations as it did Marwari horses. Already, several of the associations claimed to have plans to develop breed standards and introduce studbooks of their own. But the conservationists were trying to save an animal that they had yet to identify. Which of the existing animals represented the purest specimens? For Kelly, who hoped to interest a major U.S. breeder in promoting the Marwari in the United States, it was vital that everybody work from the same manual and, one day, set stock in the same pedigree. But the other Marwari breeders were reluctant to cede control over the registration and valuation of their own horses—especially to a group led by a foreign woman and a lesser noble who wasn’t even from Marwar. One association, the Marwar Horse Society, had begun organizing the first national breed standards conference in the city of Jodhpur to make the next step in forming a coalition—and to stake its own claim to lead it. Kelly and Dundlod therefore set out for Jodhpur in October 2002.

The capital of marwar since 1459 and the city from which the riding pants (and short boots) adopted by the British in the 19th century take their name, Jodhpur seemed the natural center for the movement to save the Marwari horse. But shortly after the breed standards conference began, with a Hindu blessing and a series of redundant speeches by politicians, it began to unravel. One speaker after another made rambling set-piece presentations on topics of questionable relevance, whether the army’s mule breeding program or shoeing practices.

Kelly, who’d turned up in trim jodhpur pants and tall riding boots, her hair wound and secured in a knot behind her head, was slowly losing her cool. Poised stiffly in her seat, she looked like a spring slowly being twisted tighter and tighter until the metal is about to snap. Every so often, she exhaled sharply and whispered a cutting aside. But, she told me, she’d resolved not to explode.

“We are getting nowhere!” Dundlod finally stood to interrupt, during the tenth description of the Marwari’s ears. “Every breeder has his ideas about the breed characteristics, but without discussing them, we’ll never come to a consensus.”

The third day of the conference started on a sour note, as the breeders took up a proposed draft of the new breed standards. The first sentence read: “It is difficult to exactly trace the origin of the true Marwari horse with precision, but undoubtedly it has connections with the Arab and may have mixed with the Turkmenian breed and the horses of invading armies.”

The first casualty was “undoubtedly.” Then the link to the Arabian and Turkmenian horses came under attack. The argument developed with nationalist fervor, with Hindi-speaking breeders shouting that the Marwari could not be a Muslim horse. Eventually, after much haggling, the group settled on a statement that was by then indisputable: “It is difficult to trace the origin of the true Marwari horse.”

The animal proved equally difficult to describe. An attempt that began, “The head is refined [and] relatively long, with a medium muzzle and shallow, firm mouth,” was boiled down after a heated argument to, “The head is long.” “But you have to say more than that,” objected M. P. Yadav, director of the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, “or it doesn’t mean anything!” Each adjective, whether “refined,” “long,” “straight,” “broad,” “large,” “well-developed” or “well-set,” and whether applied to the head, face, ears, chest, hindquarters or tail, brought the group no closer to any consensus on an ideal, theoretical horse. By the time the three-day meeting ended, it had generated a useless description that, but for something about curved ears, might have suited any horse.

Later, Kelly said grimly, “We’re going to continue with creating our own breed standard.” Over the next several months, she and Dundlod and experts from the Indigenous Horse Society defined their own breed standards and subsequently translated them into Hindi. Registration with the society is now compulsory for anyone who wants to export horses or compete in the national indigenous horse show, and the National Research Centre on Equines in Hisar, India, and most other veterinary departments have accepted and agreed to disseminate Kelly and Dundlod’s breed standards.

A month after the Jodhpur conference, I met Dundlod again at the annual horse and camel fair held in Pushkar, Rajasthan, one of the Hindu religion’s most important pilgrimage sites. Each year for Kartik Poornima, a festival marking the full moon of the Hindu month of Kartik, more than 100,000 pilgrims come to the holy lake in the center of Pushkar to wash away their sins and make offerings at one of the 400 temples surrounding it. The same week, thousands of farmers and herdsmen, some of whom traveled on foot from up to 100 miles away, set up camp outside town, forming a huge outdoor livestock bazaar and the country’s largest gathering of horse breeders. These men had been excluded from the decision-making process at the conference. But because they bred the largest number of Marwari horses—earning their livings by providing prize horses for Hindu marriage ceremonies—no group was more important to the preservation effort.

Hundreds of white tents were spread out over the plain below. Camels drew carts at an easy lope over the dunes, and everywhere, I counted the bright turbans of the villagers who had brought animals to sell. The camps with the best horses were at the top of the hill near a Ferris wheel. At the bottom of the slope, the ranks of the camels began. Farther from town, and more rustic still, were the cattle and buffalo and the villagers who’d driven them here from countless miles away. Many of the horses and cattle were gaunt, their skeletons clearly visible beneath the skin. This was the third year in a row that the rains had not come to Rajasthan. Only the camels were thriving.

“There are no good horses this year,” Dundlod said when I found his camp opposite the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation’s tent village. “They’re asking me to take [second-rate animals] as safari horses for whatever price, because they can’t afford to keep them.”

For the next three days, a diverse assemblage of breeders drifted into the Dundlod camp offering horses. They did seem eager to sell, but it was also clear they were savvy salesmen, for which Kelly and Dundlod were surely at least partly responsible.

“I used to pick up horses for my rides say for about 20,000, 30,000 rupees [$450 -$700],” Dundlod said. “There was no emphasis on the breeding really. . . . Everything has changed. Seven years back, if I had to go and buy a horse and somebody said, ‘You pay a lakh of rupees’ [100,000 rupees, or about $2,300], I’d have said, ‘Oh my God, you’re crazy!’ But today I’m paying a lakh and a half, two lakhs.”

Those higher prices, in large part, reflect Kelly’s decision four years ago to ask $50,000 for Dilraj, her stallion in the United States—a fraction of the $150,000 routinely asked for top competition horses from established bloodlines, but a stupendous sum to India’s rustic breeders. News of the price, first published on her Marwari Bloodlines Web site (www.horsemarwari.com), spread rapidly. After Kelly and Dundlod exported their first horses in 2000, the price of top Marwaris within India has jumped from around $500-$600 to $3,000-$4,000. Dunlod and Kelly argue that the higher prices, combined with the government’s decision to lift the export ban, have given domestic breeders a strong incentive not only to take better care of their horses but also to document and preserve bloodlines to further increase the breed’s value.

Others remain unconvinced. According to Bixby, of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the export market “seldom, maybe never” encourages local breeders. For Kelly to succeed, he says, she would need a few dozen animals with several stallions, a supportive breeder network and regular exchange with the larger population to prevent her animals from becoming genetically isolated from the original breed. “I can’t imagine an active interchange of genetics between the United States and India,” says Bixby, concluding, “I don’t think it’s a very strong project from a conservation standpoint.” Another skeptic is Satyendra Singh Chawra, a Rajput breeder sympathetic to Dundlod and Kelly’s general aims but convinced the time is not yet ripe for exports. “We are pathetically low on quality stock,” he says. “In fact, you can count on your fingers the really good specimens of this breed.” He continues: “One of the strongest arguments in favor of exports is that they have revived a lot of our dying handicrafts, but there’s a big difference between handicrafts and horses. There may be a demand [overseas]. But we at the moment do not have adequate stocks to meet that demand.”

i got a firsthand look at just how difficult the international trade in exotic horses can be when I visited Kelly’s stable on the island of Chappaquiddick, off the coast of Massachusetts and not far from the EastBeach bridge made infamous by Teddy Kennedy in 1969. She and her husband, James, a multinational business consultant born in Montclair, New Jersey, visited the island many times since their marriage 14 years ago, but didn’t move there from London until 2000, when James decided to cut back on his work to focus on writing a book about how men with Type Apersonalities make the transition into retirement. “The big reason that we’re on the island is these horses,” Kelly told me on my first visit in December 2002. “Because they couldn’t go to England, we started building a horse farm here and it all sort of fell into place.” Abiting wind blew out of the northeast, and from the Kellys’ barn overlooking CapePogue, the pewter waters of the bay looked distinctly uninviting. I had no trouble imagining the shock that Kelly’s first six Marwari horses must have experienced during their first winter here in 2000, far from the Rajasthani desert.

During another visit two years later, Kelly’s second shipment of horses was slated to arrive, but she was still juggling flight schedules with the availability of slots at U.S. quarantine centers. (Her horses were to fly Korean Air the long way around the world, because the European Union barred Indian horses from even touching down to refuel due to fears about the spread of contagious animal diseases.) Kelly was showing me her prize stallion Dilraj when her stable manager, Jennifer Blais, rushed out to us with a cordless phone. “Joe Santorelli!” she said. “He has space in L.A.” Kelly took the receiver and, after hearing when the California quarantine center would be available, asked the importer to hold a place there until she could again talk with Korean Air. When she hung up, she said, “Apparently a lot of Americans like to import horses to give away as Christmas presents.”

Logistics for her first shipment of Marwari horses, in 2000, had been even more complicated. From door to door, including veterinary fees, transport charges and quarantine space, the shipment had cost her more than $10,000 a horse, even with shipping the six animals in sets of three, the capacity of the airline’s shipping pallet. Although all of her horses had been certified as healthy before leaving India, when they reached America one mare tested positive for piroplasmosis, a tick-borne infection that damages red blood cells. The mare was not allowed past customs. Once the U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian rejected Kelly’s horse, no other country would accept it, either. For ten weeks, Kelly had fought to keep the veterinarian from euthanizing the mare, buying time by raising the specter of an international incident. Eventually, the vet steered her to Dr. Ralph Knowles, an expert on piro, who arranged for treatment in Venezuela, a reprieve that cost Marwari Bloodlines another $15,000. Today, Shyamla is doing beautifully in Chappaquiddick, pregnant with her second foal.

“If you go to India, you’re going to buy your horses for three or four thousand dollars if you buy a good one,” says Kelly. “And then, try to get it out. The Indigenous Horse Society [will help], but you can go around and see a hundred horses and maybe one of them will be clear of piro. That’s the rub. Then you’ve got to ship it, and [even] if you only want to ship one horse to the United States, you’ll still have to spend thirty thousand dollars.”

Kelly has worked aggressively to promote the Marwari in the United States, taking out advertisements in breeder directories, cooperating with Bob Langrish, a top equine photographer, to shoot the horses for use in advertisements and breed encyclopedias, and drawing crowds at national horse fairs with exhibitions of tent pegging, a Rajera skill in which galloping riders attempt to spear a four-inch wooden block. She’s even tried her hand at equine performance art in a slick theatrical production called Ride, in which a troupe of classically trained dancers shares the ring with one of Kelly’s half-wild Marwari mares. Basing her estimate on information she’s gathered from breeders of Spanish Andalusians—another rare breed that has become increasingly popular in America—Kelly says spreading the word about the Marwari in this country will take at least another five years.

“My goal now is to find someone who is already set up as a major breeder, who has the passion and the funds to really put the Marwari on the map in America,” she told me in Chappaquiddick. “I’ve had multiple offers for individual horses, but I’ve resisted because that wouldn’t serve the breed.” As of spring 2004, her second shipment of horses was still waiting in India, after a strike by workers at John F. Kennedy airport in New York delayed her import plans until it was too late for one pregnant mare to travel. Setting up a viable gene pool in the United States to avoid inbreeding will require a major investment by a major breeder. Until that happens, Kelly has vowed not to scatter her horses or sell them to owners who aren’t interested in breeding them. Her biggest fear about offering her stallion Dilraj for sale is that someone interested in the horse’s “novelty value” might get fed up with the Marwari’s spirited temper and geld him. (So far, no suitable buyer has met her price.)

Kelly goes to India about three times a year now, and in early 2004, at the National Indigenous Horse Show (in Jaipur), she saw an encouraging sight: middle-class breeders, as well as royals and tribal horse traders, coming from all over Rajasthan to participate. She plans to sell her property in Chappaquiddick, mostly because it’s too isolated to be a useful headquarters. She’s looking for a place in California.

The obstacles she faces in establishing the Marwari in the United States are daunting. Previous examples of successful transplantation of new breeds such as the Andalusian, were well established long before they were introduced to America. “I don’t really have a master plan,” Kelly told me. “If you feel strongly about something, if you have these dreams, you’ve just got to work toward manifesting them. And I know it will happen, because I always hold out for things that I want, and, eventually, it falls into place.”

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