It took a British expat gardener who stretches her six months’ London summer earnings into another six months of $4/day Pushkar-guesthouse-room-with-attached-bath subtropical leisure, so unhorsey that none of her connotations of the word “amble” apply to quadrupeds, to explain the survival of the prancing, showy, bombproof Marwari to me: wedding processions.

            Marina was the first to mention the wedding corteges which parade through Rajasthani village and city streets, from the groom’s house (which is decorated with a depiction of a man in fancy dress on a horse on the right of the front door facing another on an elephant on the left) to the bride’s house and back. These celebrations allow the families to display their social position, and the groom, costumed as a prince whether noble or common, rides a Marwari. While I was there, The Times of India gave front page coverage to surely the most elaborate baraat in years, that of the Prince of Jodhpur. Guests at the wedding included Prince Paras of Nepal, the princess of Bhutan, the King of Kapurthala and Dame Judi Dench. The paper reported that the procession featured cavalry and the horses from the royal stables led by the “Nishan ka hathi” royal elephant. It would have been quite interesting to see how the prince handled his horse.

            Given the stakes, any inclination to get upset in busy, noisy environments seems to have been bred out of the Marwaris. Chenno, the mare I rode most, lead or followed with scarcely a twitch along town roads lined with bundle-toting pedestrians and roaring with speeding, beeping, overloaded motorbikes, rickshaws, busses, trucks and cars; and into alleys jostling with more motorbikes and rickshaws and flocks of women in swirling, sequined sarees of every color, crippled beggars on skateboards, hawkers with armfuls and cartfuls of trinkets, turbaned tribesmen draped with fringed blankets, carts with breads toasting or chai or vegetable stews bubbling on burners, pariah dogs sniffing for scraps, cows standing, walking and lying, monkeys clambering along second-floor facades and shimmying along phone wires, even boars wallowing in sludgy gutters; and on to the fairgrounds among yet more of the same, plus acrobats and tightrope walkers, tutued performing monkeys, camels carrying tourists or drawing them in carts or roaring plaintively dancing on at the ends of nose-ropes held by stick-flailing handlers, and horses rearing or rolling for show, smacked with whips and switches, tied in rows eating, sleeping, having panic attacks over their restraints or just standing, and being ridden fast or jumping, skittering, backing or rearing to resist being ridden fast. (In the vehicular free-for-all of Indian byways, horses are the only things that pedestrians will scramble out of the way of.) Mind you, despite her cool in this chaos Chenno is not a “dead” horse; she will gladly gallop around the 200-yard wide arena in wide, smooth arcs.

The standard training method appears to be chasing the horse and whipping at it until it stops jumping and kicking and does what you want; my guess is any horse that won’t play it this way is culled without a second thought. At the edge of the big arena, where busses park, camel carts, vendors and strolling musicians solicit tourists, and sellers bring their horses to demonstrate and display, a small man, maybe a potential buyer, who has clearly not ridden this horse before, is boosted onto a rearing, sidestepping, completely uncooperative Marwari. Once up, he clutches a handful of mane with a fixed, frightened expression while the horse skips around the seller, who is hanging onto the cheekpieces with both hands. The seller leads the skittering, crowhopping horse forwards, obviously having trouble keeping it under control, finally gets three or four yards of agitated walking, and lets go. Its head free, the horse starts rearing and turning in every direction but towards the open arena while the hunched-over rider grips the cantle with one hand and the reins with the other. When the horse happens to be momentarily pointed out towards the arena, the handler, with a full swing of his 3-foot stick with the knotted rope on the end, SMACKS the horse across the back of the butt. The horse takes off straight across the arena, the rider clinging on for dear life. They somehow make the turn at the far side and come rocketing back at that same wild, head-waving racing trot breaking in and out of a canter. As he approaches the crowd at this pace, the rider is leaning back and pulling hard on the snaffle, his teeth bared in a rictus of terror and determination. When it is either turn now or crash he pulls hard to the side on the left rein and bends the horse’s neck in an arc, and prancing and lunging the horse follows its head around and makes the turn. They shoot off back across the arena the way they came, and repeat the same madly nearly out of control circuit half a dozen times. Could this actually be an attempt to sell this horse to this man? Or have I misinterpreted, and the rider was a trainer? If so, a trainer fully prepared to be frightened of his horse sort of raises the bar, doesn’t it?

Aside from a formally-attired fraulein woman on a riding tour cum documentary shoot I never saw a single woman rider, and even on the motorbikes I saw only four women drivers among the swarming thousands. The Rajasthan horsemen, then, seemed to have the same confidence in reincarnation as the speeding, phoning, five-on-a-motorbike and seatbelt-scorning motorists. By default, riders gallop full tilt over and through whatever gives them a long enough clear shot at frightening speeds. At an informal show spot where a chai tent was pitched at the intersection of two access tracks through the tents and staked out horses, amidst the passing pedestrians, horses, motorbikes, jeeps and camel carts from the ground a seller set his horse to trotting in place in a maneuver familiar to any dressage rider. Then he handed the lead to an assistant and crawled between the pistoning legs and sat crosslegged to demonstrate the horse’s (and his) aplomb.

            But most of the action took place in the arena. Riders raced back and forth with varying degrees of control, admonishing their mounts with an ejaculation sounding like “hoit” or “hoot” (pronounced like “foot”) or “hut”. Frequently a horse would curve on a graceful line through the arena’s mobile obstacles while transitioning smoothly through the entire thread from a poised, focused walk up through a very fast trot or running walk smooth enough for the rider to sit, and then back down again. Beautiful jet black or pure white stallions that seemed to require two handlers snorted and pranced, clearly challenging a prospective buyer whether he were man enough for this horse, but then to demonstrate their manageability were made to roll. A white-bearded, white-turbaned, white-garbed handler positioned a young man in jodhpurs and riding boots at the head of the snow white horse and let him hold the lead long enough for his parents to take his picture. Maybe a princeling, working up to his big day.

            The handlers rode through the fairgrounds and the arena mostly true bareback, i.e., horses naked except for the bridle, or sometimes on saddle pads improvised of blankets layered and folded to form a thicker bulge in the front and cinched on with a strap going right around the horse. In a few cases they rode with an English saddle or the sharp Indian cavalry saddle, essentially an English style with higher cantles fore and aft, the back one arched and tapering to a point; usually their feet would be in the loops of stirrup leathers sans stirrups. While the horses were unflappable, the camels seemed to be a bit leery of them, particularly the youngsters, who would frequently lurch to their feet and shift uneasily at our approach. (While I hold no brief for camels as mounts, sitting in front of a chai tent I watched one next to me sort rapidly through a tray of grainy chaff with its lips just like horses do.)

            To get another angle on the breed, at Marina’s suggestion I went to see Marco, aka Jean-Marc, at the Shannus Inn guesthouse on the edge of town. Marco fled northern Quebec to establish himself in the balmy antipode, where he caters primarily to Francophones. With a gold earring, smoking those weird little Indian cigarettes that need to be relighted all the time and wearing a T-shirt that said “Successful action tends to become an end in itself,” he zigzagged among tables and wicker chairs set on sparse crabgrass under trees, lovebirds in a cage, flies, a couple of ingratiating German shepherds chained to stakes, crows stealing the kibble until the Pomeranians noticed and chased them off, monkeys swinging by looking for whatever might come to hand, a daughter with whom he would interlace French, English and Hindi, a fat cheerful Indian wife dangling a leg off the porch slicing onions beside a kitchen boy peeling garlic, a shallow furrow in the dirt draining water from the cooking area out into the street, chai, black or some third kind of tea coming out the kitchen a few times an hour or a liter of ice cold water in a reassuringly sealed bottle for the thirsty returning rider, and a row of stalls along the side with the big friendly white stallion looking on and whinnying whenever anyone rode off with his mares.

            For some years Marco had a tent at the fair, but presently he was recuperating from a hernia operation (his version to me) or a prostate operation (the word in town). In fact his convalescence had him considering line breeding a mare rather than trucking her to a stallion, as she had never been loaded. He asked me my opinion of the idea, and overlooking the presence at the courtyard table of a Brit couple with U accents I cited the English royal family as an example of the pitfalls. Marco was pleased with himself for being the only horseman in the area to feed peanut stalks, cheaper than alfalfa and the other common fodder and have peanuts and peanut oil in them, which he said “builds flesh.” He had carefully chosen his newest mare for her serenity, as I have indicated not a common trait, and our ride through the adjacent truck gardens (well, oxcart gardens) was picturesque but unexciting aside from the gallop, when it came in handy.

            The horse and camel fair overlaps with a Pushkar religious festival called the Kartik Purnima. The festival ends on the full moon but a couple of days before that almost all the traders’ tents had been struck and only a few animals remained (this year including a dead camel attracting buzzards in a ravine and a bony horse lying unbreathing beside two others pegged out on the same picket line). So I caught the train further southwest to see what the stables in Udaipur might have to offer. Lonely Planet pointed me to Krishna Ranch. I had only one day and the longest ride there were takers for was a half-day, so we rode through farms and villages nearby. The ride was much more formal and controlled than those in Pushkar, but on the other hand the trail boss spoke good English. After passing the new 100-euro luxury hotel with the broken glass-topped wall, we rode among fields in which turbaned plowmen vociferously flogged their oxen, brightly-swathed women behind sowing seed from the baskets balanced on their heads. Our guide differentiated “middle class” farmers (land plus a well) from “working class” farmers (land, no well, consequently laboring off-farm outside of the monsoon season). In a village we got a glimpse inside one of the better class of houses; the ground floor was mostly a stable for the oxen. The legend is that the Marwari were the mount of the Rajput warrior caste who ruled Jodhpur. The back of one is a fine vantage point from which to survey the peasants.

            When we got back, the horses were led to a sandpit to roll, then tied them fore and aft as usual. While we watched a sareed untouchable scoop up horsepoo into a pan with her bare hands, the trail boss told me that the Udaipur farrier shows up on a motorbike with his cold shoeing tools and does the job for $6-8.

            For pictures from the fair, the trainer beneath the horse trotting in place, and the countryside from horseback, you can go to http://picasaweb.google.com/Tengrisky/MarwarisOfIndia2010?feat=directlink. For a video of a Marwari being ridden at speed, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kq0U4kNFIuw; for an example of the training techniques, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KshBtEVebk.