Animal stories



Daya and I had walked down the road to buy some rope. It was a pot-holed, dirt road, with small cement houses built randomly, the waste water issuing from holes at the bases of the homes and draining into the street, for the colony had not yet been developed.

Soon we reached the main road, which was tarred, and on the road we saw a Tonga cart attached to a very thin horse. There were two men seated on the Tonga. They were whipping the horse with a heavy stick, because the horse had run the Tonga into a culvert. The horse had his ears pressed backwards, his tail between his legs, and he was flinching as the whip sunk into his flanks.

After the horse had pulled the Tonga from the culvert and was traveling down the road, his eye wild with fright, I ran towards him, and standing in front of him, seized his bridle, thus bringing him to a halt. To this day I do not know what caused me to do this, for my own will seemed to be over-ridden by some other, greater will which operated my body and determined its actions.

The horse stood, his head pressed against my body. He was exhausted. I felt the warm, sweating forehead and nose, leaning against my own chest and stomach, perhaps in exhaustion and solace. The corners of his mouth were rubbed and covered in blood, because the bit was one of the rough types with jagged cutting edges commonly used in Rajasthan. He was emaciated and his ribs protruded. There were welts on his flanks.

‘Why are you doing this to him?’ I asked in Hindi.

‘He is being trained,’ the owner replied. ‘He is naughty. ‘

‘Why is he so thin?’

‘If he is thin, he will be weak and he will learn more easily.’

I was standing, holding the horse, and I did not at all know what to do next, or how I could possibly help deliver the animal from a future life of suffering. I was a stupid, irrational woman who had intervened in an ancient process which had taken place for hundreds of years, and the two owners who sat on the Tonga were as perplexed as I was as to the strange predicament in which we all found ourselves.

‘We have a halter at our shelter,’ I said to the owner. ‘You’re not taking this horse anywhere unless this bit’s removed. You’re to use a halter unti021l his mouth is healed.’

The owner had a plump, dark face, and wore a dirty striped shirt. Perhaps it was his son who sat beside him, much younger, stiffly silent, with thin shoulders and bumpy knees.

Daya, who was the manager of the shelter, went and phoned one of our staff from a nearby PCO. In those days there were no mobile phones. After a short wait, the halter arrived, being triumphantly carried by Rajendra. It was a simple rope halter. We slipped it over the horse’s head. He flinched backwards. The halter did not seem strong enough to hold him. I could not allow him to go back into the traffic wearing only a halter when he was not fully broken.

By now the horse and I had been standing closely together for more than fifteen minutes, in the midst of a growing crowd, and I felt I entered communion with him. The outside world became silent. Strangely, he emitted two long whinnies, as if in acknowledgement of our meeting on some other level, a field of mind more intense and intimate even than his head, pressed against my stomach.

I simply did not know what to do. I could not bear the thought of sending this horse back to his owner for future ‘training.’ At that moment the harassed owner threw up his hands and said he would sell us the horse for Rs15,000. Eventually he agreed to reduce the price to Rs.11,000.

It was a triumphant moment. When the harness was removed, I could see that no only was his mouth rubbed and bleeding, but that his tail was also raw and covered in blood from friction against the cart he was pulling. In addition, two very heavy wooden blocks, through which the cart harness passed, pressed into his shoulders. His fetlocks bore wounds which seemed to be the result of tethering, and there was a healing wound on his back, perhaps caused by friction from the saddle. There was a raw wound behind his ears where the bridle rubbed, and numerous scars on his hips and down his flank, perhaps the result of previous abuse.

I wondered whether the owner would just buy another horse and put it through the same procedure, but he said he would buy a horse which was already broken. Strategically and logically it was irrational to buy this horse. To buy the horse was to fail to address the problem at its source – that of bringing about a new understanding in the economic and ethical benefits of good horse management.

But the rational arguments which presented themselves somehow could not address the single most pressing question, which kept repeating itself in my mind: ‘This horse has crossed your path. It stands before you.’

So that was how I bought the horse. His name was Badal, which means ‘Cloud’ in Hindi. We put him in an enclosed area at the back of the shelter, which today has become the cattery. In those days it was an open area surrounded by four brick walls.

At first Badal was fed and rested. Gradually he grew plumper and the wounds dried, and peeled, He was a chestnut horse, with one blue eye and one brown eye. He had the long, curling ears of the Rajasthani Marwari breed. There was a white blaze on his face which extended to his nostrils. His nostrils flared widely and his face was slightly dished like that of an Arab. The nostrils were pink and very soft. You could stroke the nostrils and his eye would go all sooky. He had developed his own particular expression when being fondled. It was one of drooping, succumbing to pleasure, and a kind of gooey horsy happiness. This expression was intensified by a slightly protruding lower jaw which added to his goofy demeanor.

As Badal grew more healthy, his neck thickened and arched, his tangled mane, now brushed and combed, hung over his shining chestnut coat. His body was now very handsome. Due to his newly found strength, he was developing into a young stallion, fiercely proud, and, true to his Marwari kind, loyal to only a few chosen masters.

Once, when I was a child, my sister and I had owned a pony. She was an old mare called Merrylegs, and we had needed to urge her greatly in order to extract a canter. We had crawled under her stomach and encircled her neck with our arms, and slid from her rump, and lain under her tail, and she stood, quietly and lovingly, and suffered whatever we wished to do to her.

But Badal was not of the same kind as this. He was prancing now, and snorting. I was surprised to see that, when Rajendra and Ramdayal came into the enclosure to feed him, he raced at them, teeth barred, front hooves lashing, and they had to run up the wall to escape him while we all stood laughing.

It was obvious that Badal was now ready to be ridden. I did not know if he had ever been broken to the saddle. All I knew was that Badal was always gentle in my presence. There was a great love between us. I did not fear him.

I called a friend called Govind Singh and he looked at Badal and said he was a fine horse, and he was a lucky horse, because he had four white socks, and whoever owned him would think that they had good luck because of the presence of the horse.

I drove into town with Balu, who worked at our shelter, and who was in charge of the ABC programme. The jeep rattled copiously, and had windows which did not wind up, and a gear stick which needed to be directed by an arm with multi-faceted skills. The seat was worn and various springs protruded through the frayed vinyl. The dashboard was covered in dust, and, behind the smeared glass, the needles of the instruments trembled uselessly, shifting from position to position according to the bumps in the road. In those days there were very few cars on the roads. A camel cart towered above our vehicle at the lights. There were no police, and most vehicles did not even seem to notice that the lights were red. Along the road there were groups of dogs lying on a rubbish pile, and there was a boy driving a flock of goats, and there were the white bullocks with their wooden carts, plodding slowly, and there were many Tongas being drawn by ponies and horses. The city was blessed by the presence of many animals.

We drove through Bikaneri Gate and down the Chowra Rasta. There were four or five shops in the Old City which all sold saddlery and harness equipment. We chose a smooth bit, a light leather saddle, a saddle-cloth, and soft, adjustable bridle. The saddle-maker was sitting cross-legged on a mat on the floor. His legs were so flexible his knees touched the ground. When I sat cross-legged my knees always stuck upwards. He asked us to drink tea, and a small boy brought four dirty glasses in a wire tray, each half-filled with sweet, spiced milky tea. When we had all negotiated a satisfactory price we drove back to the shelter with Badal’s new gear.

The next morning I went into Badal’s enclosure and put on the bridle. He allowed me to place the bit between his teeth and then lift the bridle over his ears. Then I fastened the saddle. He did not seem to be concerned about this new addition. I used a small box to mount him, although he was not a big horse. I was alone with him and it was the early morning and I was slightly nervous.

‘Come Badal,’ I said, gently squeezing his sides with my heels. He seemed to understand everything. I felt a great thrill as his fine body moved beneath me, a great unity of the horseness of all equines, blended with the ridingness of all humans, a centaur, a continuing history of the fleetness of hooves and manes in wind, and stirrups with urging heels and I, and Badal, were part of this continuum of equine relationship.

I rode him up the sandy path, with trees on either side, towards the entrance of the shelter. But when we came to the front gate Badal decided he did not wish to proceed any further and he stopped. He stood stubbornly, while I vigorously nudged my heels into his ribs. This however proved of no avail. Badal had determined that he would not proceed beyond the gate. The gate was of painted iron, flanked by two large columns, it was a wide gate, and a cement driveway led from it onto the road. I did not know what it was about the gate which was frightening Badal.

So I said to him, ‘Badal, I have a small stick in my hand, and I could use it on your rump, but I have made a promise to you that I will never beat you, and so it is for you to decide if you are going to co-operate.’

And then I stopped kicking him, and jiggling in the saddle, and I just sat still, and he took some tentative steps out the gate, and that is how we started to learn together.

My friend Maryland had sent me a book from Australia called ‘The Manual of Horsemanship’, of the British Horse Society and The Pony Club. In this book it explained how to teach the first lessons of dressage. It explained aids for the canter on a named leg, and ‘to increase pace to walk or trot.’

Every morning, at about 6am, when it was only just growing light, Balu and I led Badal down the dry dirt road which ran between the newly purchased plots, marked out with brick or stone walls. This land had once belonged to the Maharaja of Jaipur but now had been resumed by the Government. Most of the area surrounding the shelter was fields of dry grass and burr, and there was an open park with a wall around the perimeter which was an ideal place to lunge and ride a horse.

One day, a visitor went into Badal’s enclosure and Badal bit him on the shoulder. We decided that Badal would need to be castrated. We called a vet, and he did the needful, but unfortunately the operation was incomplete, and, additionally became infected. It was Daya who gave Badal a full anaesthetic and corrected the mistakes. Following that, every day, Badal obediently lay down on Daya’s command, even though he knew the procedure would be painful, whilst Daya cleaned the wound until it was healed.

Perhaps my happiest moments with Badal were when I rode him out beyond Mansarowar along the sandy tracks which ran between the cultivated fields and small villages. Birds rose from the brush fences, and partridges and mongoose crossed our path. There was no traffic, and only silence, and the sound of Badal’s hooves swishing in the sand. Sometimes he would start as a camel cart came round a bend towards us, the wooden platform creaking and banging as it bounced, empty, over the rough track. So a song came to my head, which I called, ‘Badal’s Song’ and I used to sing it to him, as a soothing gesture.

We ride through fields,
Your strength beneath,
I sing to you,
Our hearts are one.
The mongoose runs,
The small birds sing,

Together joined,

Our hearts are one.

But there were difficulties in Badal’s life. For most of the day, when he was not being ridden, he had to stand tethered under a tree. Although he was interested in everything that happened, and although lots of people talked to him as they walked past, it was boring for a fine young horse. He was growing rather fat.

I had met one of the royal people of Udaipur who kept many Marwari horses in excellent condition. They were used for taking Westerners trekking through Rajasthan, to remote and beautiful temples and shrines and villages of mud houses, and straw roofs. I sent him a photo of Badal and asked him if he would like to have Badal. He said he would take him, and so it was necessary to organise the best means of transportation for the twelve hour journey to Udaipur, for in those days the roads were full of holes and ruts, and the journey was slow.

There were no horse floats in Rajasthan, so we hired an open truck, and padded the sides with sacking, and the floor with straw. Balu agreed to travel in the truck with Badal. Balu wept when he saw the truck. He loved Badal and he did not want to part with him. To this day I have a photograph of Balu, young, swarthy, smiling, with short Rajasthani moustache, and Badal, with his sooky grin, glancing sideways towards Balu, the two seemingly united in some silent understanding.

Badal perhaps knew that he was going to leave. He absolutely refused to mount the ramp which led to the truck. He reared, and he pigrooted and he walked backwards, but he would not advance up the ramp. Finally, all the staff together put ropes round his rump, and pulled him, kicking, into the truck. It was sad to see, but we all knew that it was for his own sake, because he would have a good life, with other horses, in open country, with plenty of exercise.

So finally, when Badal was loaded, and Balu stood beside him, and the truck started, we stood, and watched the horse vanish in dust down the road, and everything seemed empty because he had gone, and he was not standing underneath the tree, which just had some of his dung, where once he had been.

The next morning, at about 5am, we heard a truck stopping outside the front gate. In those days there were hardly any trucks, so we came out to look. There was Balu, thin and tired, and he was leading Badal from the truck. Badal staggered and swayed, but he was Marwari, and tough, so he did not fall. As Balu led him down to the back of the shelter, and tethered him under his tree, and gave him rangka and water, we asked him, ‘Why has Badal come back.’

He explained that Maharaja Singh had not wanted a horse with a blue eye as it would bring bad luck to the royal stable. He had not even allowed Balu or Badal to unload and to rest. He bad the truck should turn around and immediately begin the long journey back to Jaipur, for bad luck in the royal stable could not be risked.

And all of us rejoiced that Badal was still with us, and Balu wept, and the ending was good.

Then it happened that an Englishman called Mark Braham came to Help in Suffering and saw Badal. ‘I was riding in the Himalayas for three months,’ he said, ‘But I could never find a good horse,’ he said. He was a thin, wiry man with a grey stubble and high cheekbones. He seemed to have issued forth from a Himalayan village, and not at all from a Western nation.

‘You must have been a very good rider,’ I said, ‘To go alone into the Himalayas on horseback’.

‘I worked with horses in my youth,’ he said.’ Now I’m a social and educational researcher, living in Switzerland, but spending most of my non-working time trekking alone with a horse and simple camping equipment, mostly in Himachal Pradesh.’

I asked him if he would like to ride Badal, and he did so, and Badal arched and pranced under the commands of Mark and was beautiful.

Then I said to Mark, ‘Would you like to take Badal to the Himalayas?’ and he said that he would do so, and he would be careful.

So Mark began a long trek from Jaipur through northern Rajasthan, across Haryana and Punjab to Himachal Pradesh and over the hills to Ki Monastery in Spitti, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving the sacred Kalachakra initiation in August.

In one of his emails he wrote ‘In some ways the idea is ridiculous, for it’s a long journey, and riding day after day across the plain before reaching the foothills of the Himalayas has been exhausting. But, this has given time for horse and rider to strengthen their muscles, lose some excess fat, and then readjust to the heights. Also, it will be a very interesting experience to see how well a Marwari horse from the plains acclimatizes and handles himself along high mountain tracks. The trip, the encounters, the land and people, and living with Badal for weeks on end, might also help me finish a book that I have been putting together about my previous Kalachakra Treks’.

Some months later Mark returned from the trek, with Badal in a truck, and Mark explained how Badal had not known what a stream was, and how he had baulked at crossing the creek, and how it had to be explained to him that it was not something fearful, and Badal had understood everything, and grown proud and fit.

After Mark left, I tried to ride Badal, but he bolted, and I fell onto the road, which had now been paved. I became afraid of riding Badal and Badal was tied in the shelter for many months, and he missed Mark and Mark also wanted to see him again, and so he returned to Jaipur, and again he took Badal by truck to Delhi, and from there he rode Badal towards Spitti.

It happened that one morning Mark phoned me. His voice was distant and echoing, with stops and starts. He said, ‘I have some bad news. Badal has died.’

At first I thought it was the phone line. Badal could not die. He was a Marwari horse, and he was strong, and intelligent and loyal. But Mark explained that, after they had passed through Manali and reached the Rotang Pass, it was very cold and there was no food for Badal that night. Mark decided to feed Badal some cow pellets. Within half an hour Badal had developed severe colic. Within a few hours, he groaned and died. His body was buried under the snows of Rotang Pass. There were great mountains and it seemed as though they floated on trays in the clouds.

I went to Rotang Pass to see the body of Badal. The dogs had disturbed the soil and the rocks and moss, and there were bones and pieces of flesh and the hair of Badal, my horse.

When I returned to the shelter, I painted a stone with an image of Badal, and I wrote on the stone, ‘To Badal, forever Free’, and I placed the stone under the tree where Badal had been tethered. He had come from the desert but died in the snow.


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