My 500km Bareback Ride Across Rajasthan

One morning in 2015 Charlotte woke up with an idea: Why not try something new in India from “the lake city” Udaipur to the holy city of Pushkar? What about riding a beautiful Marwari horse for 500km bareback across Rajasthan? That sounds just about adventurous enough! Did Charlotte have the time of her life or the worst chafing ever seen by mankind? Just continue reading…

Author: Charlotte Kingsman

The Birth of an Idea

That morning in December 2015 I woke with a new game plan. It was early, the sun was just beginning to shine and the heat hadn’t kicked in. The birds chirped and the dogs rummaged around on their first round of the day.

Today was the day we would set out on our big Rajasthani horseback journey, leaving the green and hilly city of Udaipur to head towards the desert holy city of Pushkar 500km further which was about to host one of the country’s biggest horse and camel fairs.

I had already been on that exact same journey a few years prior, with the same guide, Dinesh, and the same horses. Some people may find it strange that I should choose to do such an extensive trip twice instead of exploring a new area. But I liked the idea of knowing where I was going. I was excited about seeing once more the beautiful sights and picturesque landscapes and I loved the idea of knowing the team I was going to be with.

As I stared at the fan, still lying in bed, I turned towards my husband Manjeev who was still asleep.

“I have an idea,” I said.

Pause.

“Oh no, what is it this time?” he asked.

“I was thinking of doing the trip without a saddle, bareback,” I said tentatively.

“The WHOLE trip?” he asked, only half surprised.

“Yes, of course, the whole trip.”

By then, his eyes were open. He sat up.

Bareback Horse Riding Across Rajasthan

“You could at least have waited for me to have my chai (tea) before throwing ideas like this around,” he said as he sat up.

He argued that it would make my whole journey more painful than it needed to be. Additionally, he argued that I wouldn’t be able to have saddle bags to carry my water and camera. He also said it was bad for the horse’s back.

“The thing is, though,” he said with a grin, “I know you’ve already made your mind up. Let’s go and talk to Dinesh to see how we can make this work.”

Dinesh, the ranch owner, with his Dutch wife Francine, have been good friends for years. Having managed a guesthouse for backpackers in the old city of Udaipur in addition to his organic farm stay in the countryside, eccentric guests and their eccentric requests was nothing new.

“Sure,” he said.

My husband was disappointed. It was too easy.

An hour later we were ready to go. We’d had a hearty breakfast (a mistake we would repeatedly make – and invariably regret – during the safari). When I went to see my horse, a one-eye wonderful black Marwari mare called Tara (“star” in Hindi), I saw she had a saddle on. I immediately complained to Dinesh.

“It’s better if you start off at least with the saddle. Otherwise you might be in so much pain it will affect the rest of your trip. You should take it easy,” he said with a smile, the kind of smile you would expect when talking a child out of a stupid idea.

“Taking it easy isn’t part of her vocabulary I’m afraid,” Manjeev chirped in. They laughed.

We set off, with me in a saddle and sulk on my face.

Stubbornness Paid Off

Udaipur and its surroundings are extremely scenic. The lake city, as it is called, is surrounded by the ancient Aravalli mountains that are lush green. To leave the area, we rode along several lakes, up and down hills and through rocky but green paths. The combination of the deep blue sky, the blue lake, the red earth and the dark green vegetation are unique.

But I wasn’t paying attention. Instead, I proceeded to ruin everyone else’s time to tell them that, really, I shouldn’t be made to have a saddle. It took an hour for Dinesh to give in, under the helpless gaze of my husband.

Finally, less than 5km from our starting point I was sitting on the soft, rounded back of Tara. Finally, I shut up and soaked in the scenery. I felt I was in touch with my horse – I could feel her every move. I felt I was connected with the world and ready to absorb all it had to offer. 

Connecting With the Horse

We stayed on a walk as the area was quite rocky and not suited for trots or canters. The slow pace was ideal to see everything around us, including the wild antelopes. The electric blue kingfisher birds would dive into the lake. After lunch, I switched horses to relieve her spine. This time I was on Badam (“almond” in Hindi), another black Marwari mare who was even more round. Her coat was so shiny that I was worried about sliding to the side. To top it all, she was a little nervous and spooked at the wind in the trees. But being in direct contact with her skin made it easier to read her and anticipate what was going on. Soon, we were able to settle in a calm pace.

riding bareback on Sapna
On Sapna. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

In the evening we camped near a dried-up lake. I didn’t feel too sore, to the disappointment of my husband. As everyone was relaxing around a nice cup of masala chai (spiced tea) someone spotted something moving near our feet. It was a viper and could have bitten us but luckily, we were all fine. I slept like a log.

The next day I hopped on Sapna (“dream” in Hindi), a gorgeous paint mare. Initially, she felt much less comfortable because of the way her spine stuck out. Soon, however, I realized that the pace of her walk made her much more comfortable than the other two mares.

The Day of the Accident

As we continued our slow journey across villages, I focused on how my body felt after a full day of bareback riding. I was a little sore and the sweat and rubbing had started a small rash on my inner thigh. I remembered an article I had read from the famous horse trainer Stacy Westfall saying that riding bareback gives you a much better insight into the effort a horse puts into whatever you are asking him to do. When she was asked whether it was a good or a bad thing to ride bareback, she answered that the bareback rider often mirrored his/her mount in terms of energy and would tend to tire at the same time. In any case, I wouldn’t be caught dead complaining!

All this was going through my head when I was brought back to reality by a scream. As I turned to look back, I saw Manjeev and another rider coming at full canter before they crashed into me. Manjeev was thrown off and landed into a huge cactus on the side of the road. As I found out later, the other rider had decided to canter to catch up the distance that had emerged between our horses. He did so without warning and on the tarmac. Manjeev’s horse took off too and they just about managed to gain control by riding into us.

A man wearing a torn shirt after a horse riding accident
Manjeev after the accident. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Always Wear a Helmet

Manjeev had thorns all over his left arm and on his stomach. His T-shirt was torn into pieces. He also had a huge thorn lodged into his helmet. I shuddered to think what would have happened had he not been wearing a helmet. (By the way, I continued riding without a helmet, stubborn me).

Luckily, apart from all the scratches he didn’t hurt himself too much. Considering the traffic on Indian roads things could have been really, really bad. He got back on his horse. That day we covered a little over 50km. The stamina of these horses amazed me. They arrived at camp with almost as much energy as they had left in the morning. We camped on a river bed, surrounded with curious children and buffaloes enjoying a dip in the water.

Settling into Safari Life

The feeling of waking up near the river was almost – almost – enough to make me forget the pain I was feeling! The skin on my bum was going through a tough time! I casually asked Manjeev to pass me the coconut oil. He smiled. We rode 30 km in the morning and stopped for a break in a village. Absolutely everyone came out to see us as we sat near the temple. They stood there, watching us silently, fascinated by our every move. I was trying to imagine what was going through their minds. Did they think it was strange we should want to travel around on horseback, in the heat and dust?

two people riding 500km on horseback across Rajasthan. One of them is riding their horse bareback
Riding with Dinesh. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

We had lunch under a huge banyan tree on top of a hill. The wind was blowing and cooling us down. As we ate, local girls herding their cows came close by. They sat for a while watching us but must have decided we were rather boring and soon walked off.

The clothes rural woman wear in Rajasthan is particularly beautiful: a long skirt, a matching top and a long brightly colored dupatta (thin scarf) they tuck in the upper rim of their skirt and put on their heads. The dupatta flows in the wind as they walk around and the colors can be seen from very far.

A Little Conversation

We covered another 15km after lunch. As we went through a village, two little girls ran towards me.

“Where did you ride from?” one of them shouted in perfect English.

“Udaipur” I shouted back.

“Do you know this village?”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Where are you going?”

“To Pushkar. Do you want to come with us?”

“No. Do you know how to ride?” (mind you, I was sitting on the horse when she asked that)

“Yes. Do you?”

“No.”

“You should learn. It’s a lot of fun.”

“Bye bye!” both of them screamed, out of breath from running after the horses.

This short conversation made my day and judging by their smiles, I think it did theirs too.

On our fourth day, Manjeev became very sick. He had a fever all night. They said it was because of the cactus “milk” which is to some extent poisonous. Unfortunately, we were told there was nothing to be done except to let the body fight it off. He rode in the truck while we continued on horseback.

I continued to alternate between various horses but I was always relieved to get Sapna, the paint mare, as by now I had established she was the most comfortable. My body was starting to get used to being bareback.

Riding Back in Time

We made our way to Kumbalgarh, a magnificent fort. Dinesh amended the itinerary because a hotel was built in the place where he usually camped. The horses were very confused. Mine was determined to stop at the usual spot, which was quite funny. It was amazing to think that the horses had only done this trip a few times in their lives but remembered everything so well.

We rode into the national park in Kumbalgarh. We (rather, the horses) had to climb all the way up to a gate which is part of a 36km wall circling the fort. The gate is high on the mountain and gives you a view of the entire area on both sides. Going through it on horseback really brought us back in time. Once on the other side it was time to climb down along a long narrow cobblestoned way. We were surrounded by thick trees, monkeys and antelopes. We were in the jungle.

On the fifth day, we were halfway through our journey. The Aravali mountain chain was behind us and the terrain became flat which meant one thing:

Advertisements

More Canter!

The horses showed no sign of slowing down. Two of them, including Sapna, had a very fast walk. We calculated that the average walking speed was 7km/h but these two easily went close to 10km/h. It was tiring for the other horses who ended up trotting the whole time to keep up.

Enjoying a break during 500km bareback horse riding across Rajasthan
Enjoying a much-needed break! Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

We had lunch again under a huge banyan tree which provided wonderful shade. A very skinny street dog hung around in the hope some of our lunch would fall on the floor. She clearly just had some babies and so we all pooled in and gave her a feast.

In the afternoon we came across a big group of camels, 30 or so. Apparently, here, they only ride male camels so all the camels in that herd were females or babies. They were herded by old men dressed in traditional white clothes and bright red turbans.

Reaching the Desert

The topography of the land continued to change as we got closer to the desert. The ground was sandier and the air became hot and dry. The trees were a brownish color and the floor was soft sand. We came across plenty of wild cows. They weren’t afraid and watched us curiously as we walked by.

After lunch, we mostly rode among fields. Dinesh was amazed: the previous year most of these fields didn’t exist. People had managed to turn semi-arid desert into productive fields in the space of a year. It was strange to think that with the population explosion, land that had been considered more or less valueless was now very valuable. A lot of the fields grew henna trees but we also saw plenty of onion and mustard.

We stopped to let the horses drink near a village and as usual everyone came out to see. The head of the village asked if he could get a horse shoe, preferably having belonged to a black horse. Apparently, having a black animal in your house – or in this case something that belonged to a black animal – helps repel the evil eye. We didn’t have any shoe to give but invited them to come and see us at our camp as the farrier was coming that evening. It was high time, Sapna had worn through her hind shoes.

Letting the horse drink water during bareback horse riding across Rajasthan
Water break. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

That night, we camped in a temple. Historically travelers often spent the night in temples but the downside to it all is that it was very noisy. There were all sorts of music and drums going on throughout the night. But it was very kind of the priest to let all of us, including the horses, stay here.

The Temple in the Middle of Nowhere

By day 7, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. We camped in an area where there were no houses, no passersby, just a giant temple and a huge bird feeding platform attracting thousands of birds, including green parrots and peacocks.

We observed the platform for a while and realized there seemed to be a hierarchy involved: if the peacocks came then most of the other birds flew off. Once the peacocks were gone the parrots flew back in, followed by pigeons, doves, and finally crows. At night, everything stopped and it was dead silent, except for the temple of course.

The temple in itself was impressive. Based on a structure close to 1,000-year-old it has many new parts, including a viewing platform from which you could see for miles. Near the main praying area there was a giant beehive. It was actually located just on top of the music machine. We were amazed that the machine didn’t make the bees panic.

A giant beehive in a temple in Rajasthan
The beehive. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Modern Highways

Two days away from our final destination, we rode along a highway and stopped to have tea. As we sat there, two young children were herding a group of goats across the highway. Before the highway was built it must have been easy for them to cross. Now, it required a feat in coordination and a very risky situation. Luckily, they managed but I felt sad. It reminded me that a few weeks ago I was complaining about an old man crossing with his buffaloes the highway we were driving on. I thought it was a very silly thing for him to do. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he must have done this all his life until one day this highway got, literally, in the way.

The day before we arrived, we covered an impressive 55km. The horses, for the first time since we had left, seemed a little tired. I still couldn’t believe how fit they were, much more than we were. By then, however, I was completely used to riding bareback. I could feel my riding position had improved tremendously and I was really able to ‘feel’ my horse in a new way.

Approaching Pushkar fair

In the evening, we rode through a town a little bigger than the ones we usually went through. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience: a lot of honking and guys on bikes making some unpleasant comments. I missed the countryside and the friendlier people. Fortunately, we camped in a harvested field a few kilometers from the town so we could enjoy some rest. It was our last night camping before reaching Pushkar.

The last 20 km were quite a challenge. We had to share the road with trucks and tractor loads of people on their way to the fair. Music was blasting and it looked like a lot of the drivers were drunk. One jeep drove past with a tire completely busted. We tried to tell the driver but no one cared. In a way it was nice to see the joy and excitement, knowing that, we too, were on our way there. On the other hand, it was a rather stressful experience. Nevertheless, the horses coped extremely well. They were heroes!

Pushkar’s surroundings are completely sandy, unlike the semi-arid desert type we had been riding through. We were soon riding through thousands of camels, many of which were royally decorated. Later on, we arrived in the horse section. Similarly, thousands of them were paraded around.

I have to admit I was a little sad to see so many horses tied up in the sun with, in some cases, all legs hobbled. I knew I shouldn’t judge as things are done differently here but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for a few of them. On the other hand, there were many extremely beautiful horses that were being paraded in the hope of winning the beauty competition. It felt like we had crossed a whole state to end up in horse-land.

Looking Back

Although I had ridden bareback many times before, the long hours spent on the horse as well as all the things – some scary – that came our way helped me improve my riding as well as how I communicated with my horse. I would not have been able to do it had it not been for the support crew we had, as I could not carry anything with me. My husband gave me water whenever I needed it, and carried the camera and sunscreen. On the other hand, I felt like I was one step closer to nature. When the horse climbed up, I had to work harder, on the ride down, I could feel the pull of gravity with her. We sweated together and enjoyed our breaks all the more.

This trip gave me a passion for bareback riding that I still have to this day. I love the feeling of simply hopping on without having to bother with tack. I love feeling the horse’s movements and having the sensation of being one.

500km bareback horse riding across Rajasthan with 3 friends
Bareback riding in Rajasthan. Photo Credits: Charlotte Kingsman

Charlotte’s life revolves around the beautiful Marwari horses. Have a look at her article about starting one of the first Natural Horsemanship programs in India!

If you are looking for opportunities to ride some Marwari horses yourself, then have a look in our free “Horse Riding in Every Country” catalog. There you can find horse riding tours and stables in India and more than 180 other countries woldwide!

bareback horse riding across Rajasthan - Pinterest
Love her story? Pin it!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.