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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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.”


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