High in the Saddle: Horse and Windhorse in Nepal

Features Issue 75 Jul, 2010
Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Manang Youth Society & Kiran Man Chitrakar

In the days before Nepal had roads and airfields, officials, traders,landed gentry and ill patients traveled cross-country on horseback, getting off to walk on steep slopes in the high hills. In those days—and still today in many remote areas—there were two ways to travel: on foot along a hirne bato (walking trail) and on horseback over a ghoreto bato (horse trail). The historic hulaki bato (postal trail), the main overland thoroughfare that linked Pokhara with Kathmandu, is a well known example in regular use up to 35 years ago. I remember being nearly run down on the postal trail by an anchaladhis (zonal commissioner) racing along on his steed, with his syce (the groom who tends the horse) jogging along behind trying to keep up.

In the hills throughout Nepal, ghoreto batos may still be seen. Though some have been converted into jeep or motorcycle roads, they still accommodate the occasional horse rider. Around Pokhara and below Bungamati (on the south side of the Kathmandu valley) some old ghoreto batos can still be seen and in the far western and northern parts of Nepal horses are still extensively used.

Way back in those vague and un-documented centuries when Nepal was being populated by various ethnic groups migrating south out of Tibet, some who came were closely associated with horses. The Tibetan word for horse is ta, and several ethnic groups of Nepal have names beginning with Ta- that indicate their identity as ‘people of the horse’. They include the Gurung (who call themselves Tamu), the Tamang and the Tamang-Thakali people. Near the earliest known Gurung settlement, a place called Kohla, remote and in ruins high up in the forest of northern Lamjung District, there is a meadow described in Tamu legend as ‘a
horse-racing ground’.

Horses are thought to have been first domesticated in Central Asia sometime around 3000 to 4000 BC. At first, they were kept for meat and milk, then as pack animals, and eventually as riding animals and war horses. Among the most famous of them were the ‘Heavenly Horses’ ridden by Ghenghis Khan, which people said could “fly like the wind”. In the 13th century AD, the Golden Horde led by the Khan’s grandsons eventually “flew” its way on powerful steeds off the Mongolian steppes all the way to Europe, as well as into Persia, India and China.

For centuries, when the Nepal-Tibet trade was established and maintained by the entrepreneurial Newars, horses were used for trans-Himalayan transport from the valley of Kathmandu up along the Bhote Kosi river to the northern border and, from there, across the Tibetan plateau to Lhasa. That old ghoreto bato and porter’s trail may still be seen, in places, from the highway past Kodari and Khasa (Zanghmu) where it parallels the river into southern Tibet. The horses of Lhasa were considered so fine that rich horse-owners in Kathmandu often brought new stock from there to Nepal.

In India, the horse fancy has long been important, earliest among the Moguls and Rajputs and more recently including the former maharajas and others who take great pride in their chargers. In Rajasthan, for example, fine horsemanship has long been one of the definitions of manliness. The horses of Jodhpur are especially well known, and is the derivation of the term jodhpur, for riding breeches.

In Nepal, horses were regularly used for getting around by Ranas and royalty, Bara Hakims, zonal commissioners, chief district officers, forest officers and other senior karmacharyas (civil servants). Before Nepal opened its own Institute of Forestry, Nepalese forest officer candidates studied at the Indian Forestry School in Dehra Dun. Among the required courses were both rifle shooting and horsemanship.

Horses in Nepal today
Today, horse riding as a means of transportation in Nepal (as elsewhere) has been eclipsed by cars, buses, airplanes, motorcycles and bicycles. Nonetheless, in the border towns and cities of the Terai, horse drawn carriages called ekka and tonga are still common. Horses are also seen along some trekking trails, especially around Pokhara, and in the northern border districts. Horse treks into the semi-restricted uppermost Mustang District (also called Lo Manthang), for example, are popular. In many of the northern and north-western districts, trekkers can hire horses or Tibetan ponies for short or long rides in the mountains. (But, if you travel the traders’ trails, beware of the pack mules. They wield a mean kick!) Horses are commonly ridden by the residents of Jumla, Dolpa, Mustang and Manang Districts. They are so common in upper Manang, for example, that there is a sign prominently posted at the entrance to Manangbhot town warning riders to dismount and walk their steeds, or suffer the consequences: a stiff fine.

Horses are so important to the people of Mustang and Manang that the locals celebrate an annual horse festivals called Yarthung. This occasion falls near the end of the monsoon, when the animals are brought down from high summer pastures. The main attraction of Yarthung is a dangerously daring khata race that pits the most skilled and spirited local horse riders against one another. The objective is for the brave riders, one after another, to reach down out of the saddle while racing pell-mell along the track and pluck up a series of white silk khata scarves laid out at intervals on the ground. The rider who successfully snatches them all up at one go—without falling on his head—wins the ‘race’. The Yarthung races can be seen at Rani Pauwa near Muktinath (Mustang) and at Manangbhot town.

Horse festivities also figure prominently in Kathmandu, highlighted by the annual Ghora Jatra , ‘Horse Festival’, on the central Tundikhel. This celebration is well known for shows of horsemanship and for racing. The Tundikhel, in fact, is part of the guthi (endowment) of the Kathmandu Kumari goddess, who, according to tradition, also possesses a white horse that is sometimes displayed during the festival. This year Ghora Jatra is scheduled for March 5th. There is a ritual puja at Balkumari temple in Patan that officially starts the Kathmandu festival.

In 1986, when Queen Elizabeth of England last visited Nepal, she rode down Durbar Marg to Narayanhiti Palace in a beautiful horse-drawn carriage, escorted by a stately company of mounted cavalry. The crowds along her route were thrilled to see the royal pomp and circumstance of what is now a by-gone era.

Horses can also be seen almost any day in Kathmandu carrying officers and men of the Nepal Army, the mounted traffic police and, for those with access, wedding couples riding in an army carriage. And now, more and more, modern Nepali and foreign riders can be seen exploring the streets of Patan and the hills that rim the valley. Some of the best horses in the city are privately owned, as is Windhorse Stables, the only commercial horse stable and riding center in Kathmandu.

Riding in Kathmandu
Recently, recreational horse riding in Kathmandu reached a new height for avid riders and novices alike with the opening of Nepal’s all-new Windhorse Stables. The name is derived from lung-ta, meaning ‘windhorse’ in Tibetan. The lung-ta is a feature on most
Tibetan prayer flags where the flying steed is believed to whisk the prayers upwards on the wind.

Windhorse Stables is located at historic Panchyang Ghat alongside the Bagmati river in Thapathali, on the riverside near the maternity hospital. Until 2006 horses were available for hire from the Chandra Riding Center at Mana Mandir (also in Thapathali), but when those stables were closed and the property was sold, the horses and gear were purchased by the long time Kathmandu residents Lynn Bennett and her husband Gabriel Campbell. Today, Windhorse Stables is home to four Tibetan riding ponies from the high mountains and eight horses, including some brought from Bangalore (South India) and a few that are privately owned. Six of the Windhorse horses are Thoroughbreds and one is a Marwari—a exotic breed found only in India. Lynn’s own horse is a cross between a Marwari and a Thoroughbred. Two of the Thoroughbreds at the Stables are specially trained to pull the ornate and carefully crafted horse carriage, also brought from Bangalore.

Thoroughbred horses

The name ‘Thoroughbred’ literally means ‘purebred’. Thoroughbred horses were originally bred for racing in 18th century England out of crosses between Arabian stallions and European mares. Nearly two million Thoroughbreds are now found worldwide.
According to their pedigrees, all modern Thoroughbreds can be traced back to three foundation sires, the ‘Darley Arabian’, the ‘Godolphin Barb’ and the ‘Byerly Turk’, owned by three wealthy English landowners named Thomas Darley, Lord Godolphin and Captain Robert Byerly, respectively. Keen interest in these horses and their offspring over subsequent generations led to publication of the first Stud Book in 1791 by James Weatherby, in association with the English Jockey Club. It wasn’t long until the English passion for horses found its way to India during the time of the East India Company and the British Raj where, from the 19th century onward, English style horse riding and racing blended with princely Rajput traditions and became common pastimes among the ruling classes.

The British in India took their sport and recreation very seriously, as did the Indian elites, especially the Maharajas of the realm and, more recently, some industrial tycoons. Over the decades, both British and Indian army officers and the titled aristocracy avidly
promoted horse racing, and a number of turf clubs, race tracks and regional classics sprang up. In some cities of both India and Pakistan there are still avenues known as ‘Race Course Road’. Officers on tour and on campaigns frequently went ‘pig sticking’ (hunting wild boar with spears on horseback), and ‘tent pegging’ (spearing tent pegs out of the ground at full gallop) is still a popular sport among the cavalry. In India today, horse racing, polo, horse safaris and leisure riding are maintained by small groups of enthusiasts.

We all know what Thoroughbreds look like in general, from watching the races on television (or in person) at America’s Kentucky Derby or England’s Grand National, for example. They are usually bay, brown, chestnut, black or gray, or less commonly roan, palomino or white (rare). Those at the Windhorse Stables in Kathmandu, for example, are black, grey, dun and bay. One is named Bijuli (electricity) for the white lightening like streak down his face. Best quality Thoroughbreds have a well- chiseled head on a long neck, high withers, deep chest, short back, deep hindquarters, a lean body and long legs. The average height at the withers (shoulders) is 15 to 16 hands on a horse weighing 1,000 pounds or more and able to race at speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour. Thoroughbreds are often called a ‘hot-blooded’ breed, known for their great spirit and boldness, and their agility and speed.

Naming horses appears to be one of the fine arts of the equestrian world, and the names of some winning race horses are legendary. Remember America’s Secretariat, Man o’War, Seabiscuit and Seattle Slew? Or England’s Best Mate, Red Rum, L’Escargot and Meritocracy? There are books and movies about some of them, and innumerable legends. Some very innovative monikers are found in India (with off-beat spellings), such as: Independentcounsel, Ineed Money Honey, Iran Sensational, and Youmadeyourpoint, as well as I am Not a Crook, I R Brilliant, I Am the Iceman, In Full Control, In Mint Condition, Ragtime Rascal, Royal Gardener, Jamabalaya Jazz and (yes) Expensive Hobby, to name a few.

The Marwari breed
Thorough breds are most popular, but the Marwari horse of India is a breed apart, unique and quite sought after internationally. The Marwari breed (also called Kathiwada) dates back to the 7th century when they were first bred as war horses by the Rathore Rajputs of the royal family of Jodhpur. These horses have been cross bred with Arabian horses over the centuries and are sometimes called ‘The Desert Horse of Rajasthan’. In the words of one of the top Marwari breeding centers (Rajasthan’s Baba Marwari Horse Breeding Farm), the Marwari horse has long been bred “to lift the heart in battle and please the eye”. It is easily recognized by equine aficionados by its “proud carriage, upright graceful neck and distinctive aquiline head with deep expressive eyes”. The “crowning glory of Marwari horses”, however, is their distinctive lyre-like scimitar shaped ears set high on the head and curved inward. Without exception, those ears are unique among the noble horses of the Indian subcontinent and the world.

Nepal’s Windhorse Stables

Lynn Bennett, an anthropologist who lives in Kathmandu, has long been enamored with horses and horse riding. Since she retired from a staff position at the World Bank a few months back, she has been able to give more attention to working with stable manager and director Niroj KC (formerly of the Chandra Riding Center) to running the Windhorse Stables. Lynn’s has ridden horses since childhood, but her equestrian passion was raised to new heights on her 60th birthday when Gabriel bought her a very special Thoroughbred-Marwari cross mare that she named ‘Jansi ki Rani’.

There’s a story behind that horse. It begins with Aimee Junkers, one of India’s few woman polo players and former ‘Mistress of the Stud’ of the imperial stables of HH Arjun Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur. A decade ago, Aimee moved from India to Nepal to manage the Tiger Mountain Tharu Lodge resort adjacent to Chitwan National Park. She brought a number of horses with her, including her mare ‘Phoolan Devi’, named after India’s infamous Bandit Queen, and Phoolan Devi’s three month old foal, Jansi ki Rani. Jansi’s unique name refers to a famous woman warrior who led part of the Indian Mutiny against the British Raj in 1857 riding on horseback.

After Lynn’s birthday, now literally ‘saddled’ with a fine Marwari cross mare, she needed some place in Kathmandu to stable and ride her new acquisition. For the first year she kept her at the Chandra Riding Centre with no intention of starting up a stable of her own. But when the Center’s owner decided to close the center and sell the land that the stable occupied Lynn ended up buying up the center’s horses. Then she, Niroj and Gabriel decided to open their own stable and riding business as a way to keep the horses fed and happy and to nurture horse riding in Nepal. The Windhorse Stables are located at historic Panchyang Ghat, on the north bank of the Bagmati river in Thapathali, behind the last remaining section of Jang Bahadur Rana’s wall, which dates to the 18th century.

Panchyang Ghat is also the location of the Rana kul deuta (clan deity). The temple is located right behind the stables and every two years it is the site of massive ritual sacrifice to the goddess offered by all members of the extended Rana clan. Only men may enter the shrine. Rana women may take prasad (an offering) from the goddess, but it would bring misfortune if they should see the deity.

Riding at Windhorse Stables
In the past year, Lynn, Niroj and Gabriel have built 15 stalls for the horses, a rider’s clubhouse and two rings. (They are also considering constructing a bio-gas plant to heat and light the stables and clubhouse, using the immense amount of lidi, horse dung, created each day by the animals.) One of the rings is an international size dressage ring and the other is a longeing ring.

Dressage is a beautiful equestrian sport for very controlled horse riding. It involves the graceful execution of maneuvers by a horse through changes of gait, pace and airs, all in response to barely perceptible movements from the rider’s hands and legs. It requires
systematic training of both horse and rider. The horse must learn to listen to the rider’s signals and carry himself smoothly and powerfully through all the gaits and to a perfect controlled halt. The rider must learn to communicate with the horse, to build and direct its energy and power into graceful movement.

The longeing ring is where horses are exercised and trained using a long strap called a longeing rein for leading and guiding the horse. The longeing ring is also where children begin to learn the art of riding before they graduate to the big ring. Recently lights have been installed in the big ring so it can be used by night as well as by day. Visitors are welcome to come and watch the trainers working gracefully with the stable’s beautiful horses.

Windhorse Stables operates a riding academy for riders of all levels, novice to pro, adults and children, with special programs for the handicapped. Instruction is available in horse riding and the Stables also organizes cross-country horseback excursions (horse treks), including overnight and longer trips in and around the valley. Lessons at  the Windhorse riding academy include instruction in how to mount and ride a horse in each of the three gaits: walk, trot and canter, as well as how to halt, dismount, groom, feed and
generally care for a horse. Once these basics are mastered, riders can learn to jump, do formation riding in groups and dressage.

The trick to riding, according to experts, is learning to communicate closely with the horse using one’s legs and seat, with only a very light but firm hand on the reins. In horse talk, good riding technique is said to be “all in the rider’s legs and butt”, and well-trained riders are often said to have “a good seat”. Evidence of good riding technique can be seen in a horse that is “collected”. This means  that the horse’s power is not flowing out through his front legs and neck, but has been gathered in his hind quarters and brought gently into the control of the rider. This can be seen by the arch of the horse’s neck and its head held perpendicular to the ground. There should be harmony, rather than fighting. “Ideally, control means that the rider and horse work as one unit”, Lynn says. “The rider uses his or her hands the least, and the legs and seat the most, to create and collect the horse’s energy.” When you get that control, she says, “it’s like riding on a cloud.” And that’s why she gave a Tibetan name to the stable: Windhorse.

Windhorse Stables is open every day except Tuesday, the horses’ day off. Regular riding sessions are conducted mornings from 7:30 to 10:30am, and afternoons to early evening from 3:30 to 6:30pm. The hours between 10:30 and 3:30 are for feeding and resting the horses. People interested in riding lessons may make an appointment by calling ahead, or just show up and taking your chance for an opening.

Special programs and courses are tailor made for schools and groups, and for the handicapped, especially children. For example, a school package can be arranged for between four and six students per session. Windhorse Stables offers a six-week course for as little as 9000 rupees per student, with one lesson per week. Forty-five minutes of that hour is instruction on horseback and at least 15 minutes is spent learning to groom and basic horse care. Classes for school groups can be arranged for weekday mornings or afternoons (except Tuesdays). Two lessons a week can be arranged if more intensive instruction is desired, and lesson materials are available on request. Participating schools arrange their own transportation for students to and from the Stables. Horsemanship is good therapy for body and soul, and enables physically challenged children and adults to experience the same freedom of movement as other riders. The Stables hopes eventually to be able to organize a Gymkhana or informal horseshow where students from different schools will compete, and to establish more scholarships for deserving students in Kathmandu valley.

The Windhorse instructors are friendly and patient. They want you to learn, but most of all to enjoy the wonderful horses. Safety is a special concern and students are given special riding helmets to wear while riding and are taught safety rules. Riders are advised to wear boots if they have them, or shoes with hard soles if they don’t. They are taught the ‘rules of the road’ in the ring and on riding paths, and how to follow instructions for safe riding.

The Stables’ grooms escort children on short trail r
ides in the nearby UN Peace Park. More advanced riders also use the trail along the Bagmati river, or a longer rides to Chobar gorge. When riders show that they can confidently walk, trot, canter and halt a horse they are allowed to join guided trail rides.

Windhorse Stables has also developed overnight horse treks to sites along the ridges ringing the Kathmandu valley. Currently there are trips developed to nearby Lakhuri Banjyang and to Hatiban. These leave from the Stables, follow back roads to the edge of the valley, and then proceed by horse and jeep trails up the ridge. Resort hotels and tented camps on the ridges provide a base from which beautiful ghoreto batos can be followed through pine forests with spectacular views of the Himals, from Everest all the way to the Annapurnas on clear days. Special arrangements can also be made to take the horses with trained syces on longer horse treks starting from the valley.

A specially made bright red horse carriage offers a beautiful private alternative transport for wedding couples. This magnificent open carriage with liveried drivers and footmen can also be rented for birthday parties, honoring elderly parents, second honeymoons, and special tours in the valley.

Lynn’s, Niroj’s and Gabriel’s hopes are that Windhorse Stables will not only become a basis for the resident and transient foreign community to provide lessons to their children and enjoy horse riding in this beautiful valley, but that it will help rekindle the traditional Nepali love for horse riding.                  

Good riding!

For information on membership and costs for riding lessons and trips, contact Windhorse Stables at 425.6852, or email: asbeautifulasmyhorse@hotmail.com. Director Niroj KC’s mobile is 98510.86.246. The Internet site is: www.windhorsestables.com.

Lynn Bennett, Niroj KC and Gabriel Campbell of Windhorse Stables provided some of the historical material and description of the riding center program for this article.