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Saving the Raja's Horse

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

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.)

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