Travel Diaries

Rajasthan On Horseback

By Annie Shaw

Crossing the street in India is a metaphor for life there — it seems impossible, but if you choose your moment and move purposefully, accepting risk but believing in the basic goodness of your fellow human, you will get to the other side.

All photography by Ignacio Alvar-Thomas for Horse India.

On my second visit to India, I discovered more about Indian horses and the spectacle known as the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan. Hoping to combine the two experiences, I connected with Horse India, which arranges private expeditions that trek the Thar Desert and include a leopard safari and stops in the jeweled cities of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur. We collected several horse bits from barn friends to donate along the way (see sidebar), got our vaccines in order, mapped the route online and thought, “Wait, that must be wrong — it’s a huge distance …”

Our ride leader, the inimitable Dr. Rao Ajeet Singh, is a doctor of Hindi literature and a champion of Marwari horses and the legacy of breeding them that his father started. He wore a leopard-print shirt, pink turban, aviators and a spectacularly curled mustache

Relentlessly good-humored, he led us from Udaipur to Jodhpur, then on to Jaipur and Pushkar — more than 125 miles of riding — with-out once breaking a sweat. That was despite the several angry bulls that needed chasing away, a handful of heat-stressed riders, and a couple dozen cooks, grooms, tent hands and horses to keep in line. British logistics heroine Caro-line Mooney brought up the ride’s rear guard and cheerfully translated our every need into action, or, as she put it, “I like making memories for people and sharing with them the unique experiences and adventures one has when riding through the varied Rajasthan landscape.”

The Marwari horse, historically a warrior’s mount, is illegal to export, with only about 50 outside India. A symbol of loyalty and power in Rajasthan, they are defined by curling ears, a spicy temperament, a lithe physique and huge endurance. Some have a natural gait called the “raval,” but ours mostly walked, trotted and cantered. And there was a lot of cantering — with nearly 20 miles a day to cover and temperatures in the 90s, any “breeze of passage” attained by a brisk gallop was grabbed by horse and human alike.

Mooney described the breed as having a unique spirit. “They are loyal and unflinching; if I were to go into battle and face arrows coming at me I would want to be on a Marwari! They are ready to take on any challenge, or equally they are happy to be calm.”

Singh agreed. “They are also bulletproof, which is essential in the chaos of India!” No longer a revered warhorse of the ancient Rajput clans, the Marwari is adapting to new roles admirably. From polo to endurance, tentpegging to marriage ceremonies, the breed is putting its strengths to good use. Singh’s use of them for safaris is typical of this. “The safaris provide food for my horses and gives them a purpose and a future.”

Each day we rode for a few hours, being greeted by anyone we met with a wave and a cheerful “ram ram!” We then stopped in the heat of the day for lunch with a local farmer. Cool drinks of nimbu pani (lemonade) and shade revived us as much as the kids who were keen to befriend us and share in the glory of horses and the intrigue of foreign travelers. Shy at first, the local ladies quickly took the women riders into their confidence; the international language of rolling our eyes at men’s exploits prevailed.

Back in the saddle, we had a couple more hours of riding through acacia flats and up dunes, and over massive granite boulder formations dotted with huge cacti and the occasional leopard. We traversed lush farmland alongside chinkara gazelles and huge nilgai antelope, crocodile-infested lakes, temples, and villagers herding buffalo or camels.

Every night we camped in a new place, far off the beaten track, our camp hands having gone ahead to set up the spacious tents, prepare excellent curries, and ensure a supply of gin and tonic and some tribal musicians to serenade us by the fire. We slept the way you do when you’re exhausted and were usually woken predawn by the call to prayer drifting from the nearest hamlet. Creeping up a perfect sand dune to watch desert foxes hunting breakfast as the sun edges over the horizon, cup of scalding chai in hand, is a peaceful magic.

Each day brought a new experience, our muscles ached less, and our manual dexterity (pleating saris, tying turbans, filming using one hand while gallop-ing) improved. By the time we got to the riotous camel fair at Pushkar — all snake charmers, camel jewelry and dramatic haggling — we’d fully embraced the lifestyle, with a side of dust, sweat and the giddy swagger of accomplishment. We got measured for tailored elephant ear jodhpurs in Jodhpur, wore saris in Jaipur, turbans in the Thar Desert and hennaed hands in Pushkar, and we’d fallen in love with our Marwari horses along the way. We needed a shower. We were utterly, completely and thoroughly swept away by India.

Be a bit better:

You can bring along snaffle bits to donate to local horsemen, replacing crude and painful Indian bits with kinder ones. More: friendssofmarwari.org.uk/bit-donation-scheme

Don’t forget:

Don’t forget: Seat savers for the saddles. Chapstick with SPF. Electrolyte powder packets. A solar phone and battery charger.

Getting there:

How to get there: Fly to Mumbai, then Udaipur, where you’ll be picked up. Depart Jaipur for Delhi at ride’s end.

Also:

Stay an extra day in Delhi to see the Taj Mahal at Agra

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