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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

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.

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