In 2008 I began working on a story about India’s fieriest and most regal breed of horse, the Marwari in the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan. I was shooting at a stud farm near Dundlod Fort in the early morning, trying to get some nice shots of the scene with the sun coming through the dust as the trainer lunged the Marwari stallion, Dilsher, in deep loamy soil. Little did I know I was about to capture something far more dramatic..
The above sequence of photos shows an incident that occurred 22 minutes into the lunging session. During the session Om Prakash seemed to have trouble keeping Dilsher on the move, – he actively seemed to resist doing the exercise which I put down to ‘stroppy laziness’, after all I reasoned, I would quickly get bored and angry if continually forced run in circles in deep soil! Indeed there were several stand-offs when Dilsher refused to co-operate and a battle of wills ensued culminating in the application of the whip to get him to resume. It was during a final stand-off that Om Prakash approached Dilsher to calm him down and then (to my untrained eye) Dilsher appeared to deliberately knock Om Prakash down and trample him. Looking on from a distance, horrified, I reflexively held the shutter of my Nikon D2X down for the 2 seconds that it took to rattle off these 5 frames. Then I rushed forward expecting Om Prakash to be seriously injured or worse, dead. To my amazement and relief he rose gingerly from the ground in a shower of dust, still grimly holding the lunging line. After carefully dusting himself off he reeled the skittish stallion in, re-established control and tight lipped with pain led him quietly and slowly back to the stables. I preceded them hoping to get the attention of another stable hand who could take over from Om Prakash but to no avail. Once back at the stables Om Prakash was quickly rushed to a nearby hospital for a thorough examination while I waited anxiously, feeling somehow to blame and sure serious internal injuries would now come to light. But happily, much to my relief he was discharged with nothing more than extensive bruising, it seemed little short of miraculous.
When contemplating this piece for the blog I happened to mention it to my horsey sister who rubbished my anthropomorphic conclusion that the stallion had been fed up of the tough exercise and attacked the man to get out of it. ‘Horses don’t get angry like that’ she said, ‘there will be another reason’. She then referred a much larger edit of pictures (covering 20 or so minutes of the exercise) to horse behavioural expert Sarah Fisher who said ‘ There is always a reason that accidents happen and the majority of horse owners and handlers don’t understand the link between posture and behaviour. There is no way the horse had an issue with the person – just the situation – otherwise he wouldn’t have walked so calmly back with the man’, and she went on to add ‘if the horse wanted to attack the handler he would and could have done and the handler in all probability would be dead’. On the causes of the accident Ms Fisher opined ‘It would appear to me to be a question of discomfort, confusion and some basic errors that triggered it.’ She identified various possible contributory factors to the stallion’s discomfort like the loose footing, the choice of a Pelham bit, an ill-fitting bridle, and on some occasions the lunge line being clipped to the wrong side of the bridle for the way the horse was working. ‘Pain causes a horse to run blind and when the head is up as it is in the frames where he makes contact with the handler the horse cannot see anything that may be immediately in front of him’ she said. But she also acknowledged that it was impossible to be sure of the exact cause of the mishap as I’d not shot any frames for 45 seconds immediately preceding the accident and so she did not have a full picture. Whatever the cause I’m just happy the result was not tragedy for man or beast.
The Rathores, traditional rulers of the Marwar region of western India, were the first to breed the Marwari horse in the 12th century, crossing native Indian ponies with Arabian horses and possibly with some Mongolian stock. They espoused a strict breeding programme that promoted purity and hardiness. Used throughout history as a cavalry horse by the people of the Marwar region, the Marwari was noted for its loyalty and bravery in battle. The Rathores believed that the Marwari horse could only leave a battlefield under one of three conditions – victory, death, or carrying a wounded master to safety. Yet despite once being revered as divine beings above the status of their riders the breed deteriorated badly in the 1930s as a result of persecution by the British who refused to use ‘native breeds’ preferring instead to import less well suited animals. The knock-on effect of this was poor management of the Marwari’s which resulted in a reduction of the breeding stock and this only began to recover with the formation of the Indigenous Horse Society of India in 1999. The Marwari is a perfectly adapted desert horse. The coat is fine and silky to keep them cool, they have exceptionally hard hooves to deal with the rocky terrain and they can travel great distances on scant water. To cope with sandstorms they have developed long eyelashes and perhaps their most easily recognisable feature – their unique lyre shaped ears which can rotate 180 degrees individually or together.
My first encounter with the horses was at Dundlod Fort where I met the delightful hereditary owner, Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod (‘Bonnie’), founding Secretary General of the Indigenous Horse Society of India. In 1982 when the producers of The Far Pavilions came to Dundlod they hired Bonnie as a coordinator and afterwards he bought a dozen of the best horses that were used in the film and turned the family fort into a Heritage Hotel as a base for Sheikhawati’s first horse safaris. Later he established the Marwari Bloodlines stud with his partner Francesca Kelly to promote the breed that was dangerously close to dying out. Bonnie’s society is dedicated to the preservation and international recognition of the indigenous horses of India and to define the ideal characteristics of the Marwari in particular it has produced a ‘Breed Standards’ book for it.
The restrictions imposed by the policies of the Indian government on exports of its primary indigenous breeds, including the Marwari, is a great obstacle in popularising and breeding this horse overseas. Another damper on the health of the Marwari is that India falls short of the EU’s acceptable disease-free zone standards, which makes export of the horse to countries like the USA impossible. Making the best of this situation and working on getting the Marwari better health and constitutional policies, both Dundlod and Kelly are taking the Marwari to the grounds of Windsor Castle, England for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant in May 2012. It seems the Marwari’s star is rising again.
Method: all natural light with the exception of the portrait of Bonnie on one of the balconies of Dundlod Fort. This I shot using a Nikon SB800 Speedlight attached to my monopod and flown outside the fort by an assistant and connected to my D3 camera with an SC29 Flash Extension cord. This gave nice catchlights in his eyes. The portrait of Bonnie on his horse in the magazine was also lit with fill flash via a similar method.