The Lighter Side: Across Rajasthan by war horse
Adam Cruise takes an unexpected gallop across the plains of Rajasthan
'THE Marwari is a very spirited horse." These were the heavy accented words of the expedition leader, forefinger raised to emphasise his point.
He was a throwback to 19th-century colonial India, in khaki military uniform and epaulettes, and a luxuriant black handlebar moustache waxed at the tips. His words drew a guffaw from the assembled group of riders, a hardened bunch of South Africans, who had "done" dozens of riding expeditions in places like the Okavango Delta and the Maasai Mara, outriding a menagerie of wild beasts astride tough Boerperde. We had ridden gaucho-style across Patagonia's plains and crossed the Andes on fast, powerfully built Argentine specimens that would make most polo horses look like schoolgirls' ponies.
Presented thus with these scrawny, diminutive Marwari horses, a rare breed with comically inwardly turned ears, we snorted in disbelief. There was no way these wiry little animals would be able to carry the weight of a burly South African for two weeks, eight hours a day, over the hot, arid recesses of Rajasthan. Some of the party even mumbled something about animal cruelty.
We were to leave from Jodhpur - a name most synonymous with horse and rider - and then ride hard from one ornate palace or grandiose hunting lodge to another all the way to Udaipur, the Venice of the East. Since Rajasthan is flat, the riding promised to be fast.
Within minutes of our setting out, we discovered our leader was correct. Simply put, the spirited charger of Rajasthan has two speeds. Top gear was reserved for the leader's yelled command "trotting", a word that must mean something different here: as we prepared to post up and down to a gentle gait, the little horses tore off at a full gallop.
From then on, we had absolutely no control over the speed or direction of our mounts. No matter how hard we reined in, the feisty nags upped the tempo to a full charge, responding to some ancient instinct to tear into the ranks of the enemy.
The fastest of the horses was also the smallest and, time after time, this pocket mare would rocket steadily past the lead horse and disappear in a cloud of dust over the rise. Much later, we would finally catch up to the wide-eyed rider still clinging desperately to her horse's mane as it nonchalantly grazed on a tuft of grass.
The other speed in the repertoire was a continuous, bone-crunching, muscle-contorting, teeth-rattling jig called a rewhal, similar to the ambling two-beat pace or fox-trot, only uneven and uncomfortable.
All day, for eight hours, these devilish horses would do the rewhal, with us bouncing about on their hard backs, praying for the colonel to shout "Trotting!"
"The British couldn't ride these horses," said the colonel at the end of the first day as we hobbled stiffly to our rooms. I wondered how I was going to survive another 13 days.
Matters worsened when, on the third day, I caught a dose of Delhi Belly after foolishly accepting a couple of cubes of ice in my glass of gin and tonic. There was no warning. I was bouncing away on my steed, jaw set, teeth clenched and trying hard to wave politely back at a cluster of children when Hoohah! I lost my lunch of curried lentils down my horse's flanks. "That will teach him," I thought.
The rest of the journey was a woozy blur. I could not appreciate the architectural splendour of Rajasthan palaces, much less the rich landscape and its diverse people. I considered trading my jodhpurs for something more sedate, like a motocross bike. India had taught us Africans, and the British before - and possibly Alexander the Great too - that when it comes to war horses, the grand champions are these little cross-eared breeds and their riders bred from the Mewar Kingdom in Rajasthan.
When asked about the adventure back home, I raise my index finger in the air and, in my best accent, say, "Very spirited."
© Adam Cruise