Marwari, India's fighting horse, by Tristan Rutherford
Faune, June 2019
Legend states that seven Arabian horses were shipwrecked off India’s western coast. These hot-blooded stallions galloped through the local bloodline in the State of Marwar. Further DNA trotted south from the Turkoman steppe, adding greyhound sleekness to an emerging form. The bastard hybrid grew fierce and impetuous. Its offspring rose high of head and hard of hoof. Bowed backs matched the rolling topography of the Rajasthan hills. By the 12th century, they were bred by the local Rajput cavalry as fighting horses.
Fight they did. When battling elephants, Marwari horses were known to rear up on hind legs, offering riders opportunity to spear combatants sitting atop the howdah. Their loyalty was legendary. Unlike other breeds the Marwari steed was steadfast to one master, monequinamous to coin a term, with the unswerving duty of a lovestruck zealot. Indeed the Rajput warriors of Marwar believed their horses would only leave the battlefield on three conditions: victory, death or carrying a wounded rider to safety.
Like most mixed breeds the Marwari’s beauty was spellbinding. Their Central Asian heritage gifted their coats a metallic sheen. Other hereditary throwbacks include a mutation on the gene DMRT3. This allowed advanced left–right alternation of limbs as well as coordinated activation of flexor and extensor muscles. In short, the Marwari horse could ‘amble’ as elegantly as a Viennese Lipizzaner with three out of four legs on the ground. This graceful gait, known as the revaal, carried riders comfortably across the Indian plains. Surely the Marwari horse’s most endearing accoutrement were their curved ears. These touch at the tips to shape a love heart, while auricles could rotate 180º like a lyre looking for a player.
India’s British rulers were not looking for such equine traits. Loyalty, aesthetics, warm blood and hot tempers had no place in the Raj cavalry. The Marwari horse’s revolving ears were mocked as a native throwback.
Instead the British imported Australian Walers by the thousand. These mounts were bred as packhorses by bushrangers and jackaroos to carry 100kg packs: routinely a saddle, a bedroll and an Enfield .303 plus 90 rounds of ammunition. The Waler’s nature paired docility with endurance, considered by the Empire as an efficient mix. Polo ponies were also sailed in. One impetuous subaltern named Winston Churchill bought his own stud. Some Maharajas kept the Marwari horse as a picturesque plaything alongside toy trains, bejewelled weaponry and golden rosewater sprinklers. Other Indian princes became as indolent as a memsahib after a midday tiffin of boiled beef. By the millennium’s close only a few thousand Marwari horses remained.
Only a fool would write the Marwari off. The fighting breed is as tenacious as a Jodhpuri rickshaw walla; although its status as an Indian cultural icon is what saved the stock. In 1998 the All India Marwari Horse Society was formed to preserve a breed central to the subcontinent’s history. They introduced breeding seminars. Plus an all-important Stud Book to keep the hybrid away from another foreign invasion. Marwari horses now trot from the stables of Rohet Garh in Rajasthan to track Blackbuck antelopes and dusky forts. It’s a scene as timeless as the breed itself.
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