The First Natural Horsemanship Program in India

When Charlotte moved to India, she rescued a Marwari horse that would catapult her life onto a newfound path. She would go on to introduce bitless riding at competitions and educate people about horse welfare in India.

Author: Charlotte Kingsman

The Marwari Mare that Started Our Journey

Every day on our way to the stables we used to see a young-looking, black mare hobbled to a tree. The tree was next to a brick factory where dozens of mules and donkeys pulled carts full of bricks. My husband, at the wheel, would slow down the car for us to get a better look as we tried to assess her condition. She was considered a royal breed by tradition. Historically the Marwari are faithful steeds carrying warriors to war, which is why she was spared hard labour. She wasn’t starved, which was a relief, but she had mange all over her mane and tail. The most worrying part was that she was tied up all day long.

The Rescue Begins

This went on for months until, one day, we got a call from our vet. He had been called by the owner of the black mare after she was savagely bitten by dogs. The owner, who didn’t want to pay for the vet costs, said he’d give the mare to the first person to ask. We rushed in, fearing that she might otherwise join her equine cousins and be made to pull brick carts.

Rey, as she would come to be known, inspired by the Star Wars character who defied all odds, joined our stables.

A horse standing in front of a tree next to the road
Rey the day we took her away from that tree. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

A Little History on the Marwari Horse Breed

I have been obsessed with the Marwari breed ever since I first saw one in the Indian state of Gujarat almost a decade ago. I had been travelling with my mother. We’re both fervent horse lovers, but neither of us had ever heard of this breed. We were amazed to discover its beautiful, curly ears. As I researched more, I discovered that the Marwaris’ origins are rather unclear.

Many have argued that it descends from the Arabian and Mongol horses, but recent DNA would suggest that it may actually come from a much older breed indigenous to India. This ancestral horse would also be the original line of the Arabian, as well as other regional breeds such as the Akal-Teke, Sindhi, Kathiawari, Mongolian and Turkeman breeds. If true, this would make the Marwari one of the oldest known breeds of horses. The Indian government has implemented a ban on exporting them, however, arguing that it would be the best way to keep the line pure. This is why we had never come across them before.

Marwari horse running in round pen
Marwari are very expressive horses, which is why they get a reputation as being difficult. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Not for Everyone

Interestingly, Indians tend to be split in terms of how they view Marwari horses. This split also reflects cultural and economic differences in the country. Horses have, for the most part, been associated with the wealthy and royal lineages. Generally speaking, the families involved with the army tend to be more Anglicised. They see the Marwari as a difficult, rather “useless breed.” They much prefer thoroughbreds for their polo matches, or imported warmbloods to go to jumping competitions.

The upkeep and breeding of Marwari have mainly been in the hands of old families in the west of the country, and notably in Rajashtan – where the state of Marwar is located. They are kept as status symbols for their beauty, as well as ceremonial purposes, such as weddings.

Changing the Culture

Because of their link to tradition, many Marwari horses are kept in what, many would consider cruel conditions. For example, they are often hobbled all day long, sometimes hobbled on all four legs. The Marwari horses are also taught to ‘dance’ from a very young age, usually soon after they turn one year old. They are also used in “rewal,” an unnatural gait that has been known to damage their legs and back. The use of thorn bits is quite frequent too. Many times, however, the horse owners are not aware of the harm that these methods cause to their horses.

a very strong type of bit with sharp thorns
A type of thorn bit, unfortunately a common sighting amongst horse bits in India.
Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Indian Animal Lovers

The owner of that black mare we rescued, Rey, considers himself an animal lover. He has been visiting us over the months to see how his horse is doing. I initially found it extremely difficult to accept his presence, but my husband, who is Indian, explained that we couldn’t afford to alienate people. This experience really opened my eyes to the reality in India, and the task at hand. I couldn’t shut him out if I wanted to help improve equine welfare standards. By speaking with Rey’s ex-owner I discovered that, indeed, he did love animals. He just did not know what was good for his horse. For example, he suggested we continued using the thorn bit he had been using on her. “She stops really well with it, you’ll see,” he said with a smile.

Marwari horse with bitless bridle
Rey in her bitless bridle. Photo Credits: Charlotte

Going Bitless

We’ve actually put Rey on a bitless bridle. When we first started working with her it was clear that she had never been taught to yield to pressure. This explains why he felt he needed such a strong bit. She now goes out on hacks in a halter. Over the years, we’ve learned that Marwari horses pick up new things very fast, especially when they realize there’s something in it for them.

Horse laying down in its stable relaxing
Rey having a snooze in her stables. Photo Credit: Charlotte

Animal Welfare in India

Animal wellbeing has always been at the heart of what my husband and I believe in. Before we left our corporate jobs to start India’s first natural horsemanship centre two years ago, we already had a number of adopted cats and dogs.

The turning point for us was our time spent at Monty Roberts’ training centre in California. There, we learned first hand methods in natural horsemanship. We also learned that to make change effective, one had to adapt to the realities on the ground. This is extremely important in India. We also learned that change has to happen from within. We believe that educating the new generation is what will make the difference in the long run. Not only for Marwaris but for all horses.

Women on Marwari horse holding an adopted puppy
Me and our adopted pup on top of Luciana

Starting a Natural Horsemanship Program in India

We initially set up our stables as part of a bigger equestrian complex until we realised that we needed our independence and got our own farm. As a two-year-old organisation, we are still very new but we are discovering that things are changing fast in India and that many people are looking to learn. Our program conducts natural horsemanship training at our farm and have been working on introducing gentler starting methods for racehorses. Thanks to social media we have also been able to create a network of like-minded people and equestrian experts all over the country. This has been an extraordinary experience. We also work with several NGOs that specialize in animal welfare, and are involved in some grass root projects that focus on improving the conditions of working horses.

Grey Marwari horse in majestic pose
Luciana, Marwari Queen. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Following My Dreams

Ten years after seeing my first Marwari horse, I am also working on my dream of organising ‘kind safari’ with our Marwaris. The idea is that they should all be bitless and barefoot and I’m so happy to say that we are almost there! Marwaris are considered by many to be very difficult to train because they can be a little high-strung and quite forward going but showing them without a bit is convincing many that it is possible. It also enables me to take people on these extraordinary horses who are so brave and loyal.

Woman riding Marwari horse in roundpin without saddle and bridle
Riding at Liberty on our mare Luciana. Photo Credits: Delhi School of Photography

I consider myself an “Equestrian Adventuress” not because I live in India but because horses have taken me, as well as my husband, on an extraordinary journey. Before we opened our own centre we spent over a year working in different equestrian business’ around the world, from a polo estancia in Argentina to a safari business in Mozambique. The people we met along the way – many of whom have since become mentors – taught us the keys to managing a horse business. When people ask me how they, too, can start their horse business, I always suggest to first get as much first-hand experience in other organisations. For us, volunteering has opened many doors.

Sharing our Love of the Marwari Horse with Others

We have also started a corporate leadership program to help people build confidence with the help of horses, and we have done a few sessions with children with mental and physical disabilities. All these ideas are extremely novel concepts in India and we hope to show that horses are so much more than just things that can be ridden.

All our horses are young, between 5-6 years old. We will take our time but eventually, on top of taking them on safaris, we would like to show them in all disciplines. I recently took another one of our rescued Marwari mares to a beginner’s jumping competition. The audience, as well as other participants, were extremely surprised to see a horse compete without a bit. I heard on several occasions, “And it’s a Marwari, can you imagine?”

Horse and rider at a jumping competition with bitless bridle
Luciana and I at the jumping competition, riding without a bit.
Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Marwari Horse ears at a natural horsemanship program in India Pinterest post
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