Marwari Horse

  • HEIGHT: 14.2–15.2 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: India
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: An extremely rare breed with a bold, arrogant presence and scimitar-shaped, hooked ears; some individuals are gaited
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Endurance riding, spirited pleasure riding, dressage

There have been horses in India for a very long time. Excavations in Gujarat, in northwestern India, have found bones and other evidence indicating that domestic horses lived in the Indus Valley civilization by 2500 BCE.

The state of Rajasthan, in northwestern India, lies not far from the Khyber Pass in Pakistan, which for many centuries was the gateway for invaders to enter South Asia, such as the Huns, Arabs, Afghans, Turks, Mughals, and others. In Rajasthan and throughout northern and central India live a group of people known as Rajputs, descended from the Huns or from tribes that entered India with Hun invaders. The Rajputs are believed to be the descendants of the ancient warrior caste, the kshatriyas. The majority of Rajputs are Hindu, but some are Sikh. Known for their fierce loyalty (especially to their faith), their deadly determination and skill in war, and their adherence to traditions, Rajput warriors would fight until the last man and a Rajput widow would throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.

The Rajputs’ horses were such an integral part of their lives, wars, art, celebrations, and traditions that it is almost impossible to separate them meaningfully. In northern India, from the end of the seventh century on, breeding warhorses was a necessity. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Rajputs repelled an Arab invasion. The Arabs did not attempt invasion again for two hundred years, largely because of the reputation of the Rajput warriors and their horses.

One Rajput clan, the Rathores, ruled Marwar, a territory that included vast grasslands supporting huge herds of livestock. Charans, nomadic breeders of cattle and horses, managed the livestock. Eventually the Charans sought the leadership and protection of the Rathores, providing in return large numbers of the very best horses. They also recorded the deeds of the Rathores in song, poetry, and prose.

Warhorse par Excellence

During the Middle Ages, warhorse breeding and training were major endeavors; at one point the Rathores fielded a cavalry of 50,000. They schooled their horses to be supremely responsive during hand-to-hand combat, to pirouette at any speed, to extend the gallop like racehorses, and to collect on their haunches. According to Francesca Kelly, in Marwari, the horses “were trained to be fluent in many complex maneuvers, echoes of which are to be seen in Europe’s classical riding schools.”

The Rathores were driven from their own kingdom in the twelfth century, resettling in the desert of Maru Pradesh, a name that translates to the “land of death.” There, the rugged desert-bred Marwari, well adapted to the extreme conditions, became superb, unspeakably brave warhorses for the Rathores. The accepted belief was that there were only three ways a Marwari horse could leave a battlefield: in victory with his master, by carrying his wounded master to safety, or by death.

The hooked ears that are a hallmark of this extremely rare breed often touch at the tips, forming a perfect arch.

An impostor. Although the ears and expression are typical of the Marwari, the breed association specifically excludes this color. It is believed to show outcrossing to Thoroughbreds.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, a sage named Shalihotra wrote a highly detailed manuscript on horses that was beautifully and lavishly illustrated. A study of the origins, characteristics, and care of the horse, the book is an exhaustive reference work documenting breeds, their geographical origins, and their castes as well as both favorable and unfavorable markings and whorls. Of the horses the author documented, the Rajput warhorse was most elite.

Most of the Rajput states lost their independence to the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century and then regained it in the eighteenth century. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, under pressure from the Maratha Empire, they asked for protection from the British. As a result, fifteen Rajput states became princely states under the British Raj. After India became independent in 1947, Rajputana was renamed Rajasthan, and became an Indian state in 1950.

Decline and Recovery

During the British administration, the great glory of the centuries-old Marwari faded almost to nothing and the breed became imperiled. Preferring horses they knew, British officers initially imported Thoroughbreds, but those failed to thrive in Indian conditions. Later they brought in boatloads of tough, cheap Australian Walers (the name comes from New South Wales). When in 1950 the British enacted the jagirdari, or land-owning abolition act, they deprived Indian noblemen of the means to support their many animals; consequently, thousands of Marwari were shot, castrated, or sold off to become beasts of burden. Scattered far and wide and subjected to extensive, indiscriminate crossbreeding, the breed was nearly wiped out.

Even after this extreme low point in the 1950s, however, a tiny spark of interest remained. The states of Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat began to implement projects to protect and upgrade their indigenous breeds. Progress advanced when researchers found some good horses on tiny farms, landed gentry began their own breeding programs, and wealthy former rulers took an interest in the breed’s salvation and began promoting it. Additionally, tourism and riding safaris greatly boosted the revival of the Rajput culture, which included the Marwari.

In 1995 Francesca Kelly, the stepdaughter of a British ambassador to Cairo, saw some Marwari horses and immediately became enchanted with them. Remembering her own childhood midnight gallops across the desert, she set out do whatever she could to learn about the horses, to help save the breed in India, and ultimately to import some of the extremely rare horses into the United States. At the time, the estimated number of purebred Marwari in all of India was five hundred to six hundred horses. Kelly’s herculean efforts to import horses were ultimately successful, and there are now ten Marwari in the United States.

Kelly has also worked closely with those trying to save the breed in India, where there is now a breed association and a written breed standard for the first time in history. Among horse owners and participants at horse fairs in rural India, however, there is less emphasis on the breed standard than on selection of horses based on traditional beliefs about auspicious colors and placement of whorls.

Desert-Bred

Marwaris are extremely sturdy horses well designed for the desert. The unique and most obvious characteristic of the breed is its inwardly hooked, lyre-shaped ears. On some horses the ears touch and form a perfect arch when pricked. “To ride a Marwari,” writes Kelly, “is to realize new levels of joy. It is to view the path ahead through a pair of perfectly curved ears, a gateway to the heart of India’s spiritual and ceremonial heritage.” Marwaris are known to have exceptionally acute hearing, which allowed warhorses to hear and avoid impending danger. They have thin fine skin that helps to radiate heat. Their extremely long eyelashes protect their eyes from sandstorms.

The Marwari’s body is compact with a slightly more upright shoulder than in many breeds. According to the Marwari Horse Breeders Association in India, this is an adaptation for readily extricating their legs from deep sand. The legs are quite long, believed to be an adaptation for keeping the body away from the hot desert floor. The horses seem to float when they move, an adaptation to movement in sand. They are also said to possess an exceptional ability to find their way home. There are many stories of Marwari carrying back riders who became lost in the desert.

Breed Characteristics

According to the Marwari Breed Standard, the breed is defined by its personality and vigor, handsome forthright presence, arrogant bearing in the stallions, and doe-eyed beauty in the mares.

Conformation

The Marwari’s head conveys indefinable Oriental presence and should be expressive with a high forehead; large, sparkling, prominent eyes; and a straight or slightly Roman but chiseled and clean profile, with well-defined and rounded jaws. The nostrils are large and gently flared, set over firm lips and an even bite. The ears should be of medium length and shapely, curving and curling inward at their points in the scimitar or lyre shape typical of the breed. The ears are somewhat longer in mares. The throat-latch is deep to allow proper flexion and normal respiration at all times. The neck is proudly carried, neither thickset nor narrow but arched, well-muscled, and tapering, and joins an extremely well-angulated shoulder of good breadth. Additionally, the neck should be set high enough to allow the proper head position well above the lines of the withers to display the “Marwari look.”

The withers are well defined and in proportion to the angulation of the shoulder. The chest is not particularly broad but should be well developed. The body should be compact and rounded with a medium to short back and close coupling, well-sprung ribs, and deep loins. The croup is long and well muscled, with the tail attached high and curved gracefully. Viewed from the rear, the croup should be well rounded.

BORN TO DANCE

Within the breed, a strain of horses known as the Natchni was considered to be “born to dance.” Horses from these lines were selected to learn complex and difficult leaping and prancing movements and perform them to music, decked in silver, bells, and jewels, at weddings and other ceremonies. Dancing horses are still in demand in the countryside in India.

In ceremonies in India, horses are displayed with colorful trappings.

The extreme angulation of the shoulders places the front legs farther forward on the body than on most breeds. The front legs should be straight, with flat bone, good length of forearm, and short, strong, slender cannons. The pasterns are of sufficient length to provide a light, flexible, springy step.

The conformation of the rear legs is extremely important. The stifle should be placed well forward and low in the flank area. Lack of proper smooth flexion of hock and stifle is not tolerated. The thighs and gaskins should be muscular and full, with the gaskin longer than the cannon.

Gait

The Marwari breed is often gaited, with many individuals performing the gait known as the aphcal or revaal, an amble. When exhibited, this gait must not include paddling, winging, or landing on the heels. The breed standard does not require that a Marwari horse perform the aphcal; nevertheless, horses that do not do so naturally are often forced to do it with training devices.

BREED ASSOCIATION FACTS AND FIGURES

Current breed statistics are difficult to obtain. According to Smithsonian magazine, there were 500 to 600 horses in India in 1995. If half of those horses were female, and half of those females had viable foals each year, about 150 foals may have been added per year since then.

According to Francesca Kelly, in 2005:

• There are nine Marwari in the United States, of which eight live with her.

• Her horses comprise three stallions, four mares, and a filly. Three foals are due in 2006.

• These are the only Marwari outside of India.

Whether or not the horse is performing the aphcal, all gaits are described as floating and should be performed with great style, collection, and lightness of motion. The horses must show purpose and intent to travel forward without undue restraint or use of aids. The Marwari should be able to achieve a full gallop from a standing start and stop very quickly on command. He should be able to reverse with ease and at all times display the bold and fearless presence of the breed.

Colors

According to the breed standard, albinos are bred in India specifically for religious use, but otherwise are not accepted as Marwaris. Chestnut is considered a sign of crossbreeding with non-Oriental imports and is not accepted for breeding or showing. A nukra, or cremello, may be accepted if it is of exceptional type and conformation.

The distinctive, metallic, bright bay is highly desirable. All other solid colors, as well as piebald (black-and-white pinto) and skewbald (brown-and-white pinto), are accepted. White blazes and white on the lower legs are common.

According to traditional beliefs, gray is the most auspicious color, and these horses are the most expensive in India. Colored or piebald horses are the second most favored. Black is considered a highly unfortunate color, the symbol of darkness and death. A blaze and four white socks are considered most favorable. A whorl below the eye is unfavorable, but long whorls down the neck or at the base of the neck are good luck. Whorls on the fetlock bring victory.