Don - The latest addition to the menagerie
The kids have been crazy about horses for many years now. I'm not sure how it started but I clearly remember our oldest daughter Ammu when she was about a year and a half old, watching the horse movie Sea Biscuit on TV and getting all excited and cheering the horse on, when the race was happening. Since then, they have been on a trail ride at a riding academy in Bangalore on Midhu's birthday and had a couple of sessions at the Riding school at the Bangalore Turf Club. Ammu attended a week-long residential riding camp at a riding school near Pune last summer, which she thoroughly enjoyed and which further fuelled her passion. The kids have all been wanting a horse of their own and we had promised to get them one when they were ready for it and they knew how to look after one. They've been feeding this obsession by watching our collection of horse movies over and over again and reading every horse story they can lay their hands on. They had started a piggy bank that was initially labelled 'For those in need' to collect money for charity. Once the horse-obsession took over, it was surreptitiously relabelled 'For those in need of a horse'. A sympathetic grandmother and another good friend have also made contributions to this fund. We had visited a horse farm in Goa where a Swiss lady Monique looks after several horses and teaches people to ride and care for horses. It has been on our agenda to spend a few days with her, but several attempts to schedule a visit there have not worked out due to misalignment of the stars.
Driving along the back roads of the plains of rural North Karnataka, one sees large flocks of sheep grazing on empty fields after the main crop has been harvested. They belong to the shepherd community (Kurubas) who spend the summer herding their flocks from one place to another, in search of pasture land and water. Farmers are happy to let the sheep graze on their uncultivated land in return for the fertilization that happens from the manure and urine of the sheep. These nomadic communities are on the road for many months and cover large distances before they head home when the monsoon begins and the fields they are grazing on start to get prepared for the rain fed crop. They transport their belongings on horseback and set up camp for a few days at a time once they find suitable grazing. It is a familiar sight to see the sheep grazing in the field, a few dogs keeping watch over the flocks and the horses grazing along the edge of the road. With the tentacles of 'development' and 'progress' reaching far into the hinterland, many of these shepherd communities have bought automobiles, locally called 'goods autos' to transport their belongings. The horses have been let loose and abandoned and there are hundreds of them wandering along the roads, jobless, ownerless and homeless. The region where we live is beyond the edge of the plains, in the hills of the Western Ghats. The land here is mostly dense forest, with intermittent patches of privately owned fields and orchards. There isn't much open pasture for the sheep and hence the shepherds mostly don't venture into these regions. However, over the past few months, we've seen several horses in pairs and sometimes in larger herds, wandering along our roads, looking lost and miserable in the heavy rains we have during the monsoon. Apparently, large numbers were brought by truck and let loose in the forest areas where they can graze without straying into fields. I'd often see them on my early morning runs and I'd come back and report these sightings to my kids.
Two horses had wandered down the road to our village and we first saw them grazing within the fence of a local shop. We sent word to him expressing interest in taking them home. Always looking to make a quick buck, he asked for Rs.10,000 for the two of them. We didn't show any interest. A couple of days later, they disappeared and we had no idea where they went. About a week later, we saw them standing in pouring rain, by the side of the road about 6Km from home. The female was hanging her head and looked quite run down and sickly but the male seemed healthy. Heading out the next morning on my run, I found only the male. He seemed to have a raw wound on his foot and limped slightly. There was no sign of the female. I abandoned my run and coaxed him some way towards our home. Halfway home, he refused to move any further. I had to give up and head home. Back home, when I narrated the events of the morning to the kids, they were excited and demanded that we head out right away to try our luck again. The family piled into the pick-up and we headed out. Someone thought of taking along some carrots for the horse to entice him. We found him further away than where I had left him. He had walked back some distance towards where we had seen him the previous night with his mate. We drove ahead some distance hoping to find the female that was with him. One of the kids spotted her lying dead in a ditch. She might have died the previous night. I later found out that she might've eaten some grass sprayed with weedicide which killed her. We went back to the male and tried getting friendly with him, holding out the carrots we had brought. We herded him along for some distance but again, after a certain point, he just refused to move along. Local traffic on the road was picking up in the morning and many people saw the strange sight that morning of a family with three kids standing and talking to a horse and feeding him by the side of the road, trying to coax him along. We finally had to abandon our efforts and head home. The kids had dance class that afternoon. On our way to town, we took some cattle feed as a treat for him. He sniffed it once and turned away, seeming quite unused to the good things in a horse's life. We left him grazing beside the road. In keeping with our naming convention of naming our animals after infamous characters, we had even named this wandering horse Lallu (he of the fodder scam fame).
The next morning, we took some grass along, on our way to church. We were hoping to befriend him with more offerings of friendship. He was standing in front of a shop but there were a lot of people around. So we carried on, hoping to get some quality time with him on our way back after noon, which would be a quieter time of day. On our way back, the road was distinctly horse-free once again. We kept a lookout for him, hoping he had headed towards our home. He had done the disappearing trick again. The kids felt I wasn't doing enough to track horse down and decided to take things into their own hands. They called our postman and left word with him to let us know if he sighted the horse on his daily rounds. They even convinced me to go back to the shop in front of which he was last sighted and leave our phone number there to inform us if they know the whereabouts of the horse. These shops are also social hangouts where locals congregate in the evenings to exchange news and shoot the breeze. So there was a good chance that horse news might get reported here. I also informed the driver of the milk van that comes around to collect milk from local farmers for the dairy, to keep his eyes open for a horse wandering our streets. He told me that there are dozens of stray and abandoned horses in his town (Hangal) and he asked me to come there with a vehicle and he'd help me get any number of horses we wanted. The next night, the milk van driver came and told me excitedly “Your horse is heading this way. He should be here in about 10 minutes”. I drove out looking for him but couldn't spot him in the dark. The next morning on my run, I saw him back inside the shop compound. I stopped by and had a chat with the shopkeeper. The chap said he wanted to keep the horse. I told him that I'd be glad to take him home if he decided not to keep him. He said he'd let me know. Back home, I managed to get the kids to give me a good leg massage while I narrated the story to them in great detail, adding in many inconsequential details to extend the massage. That afternoon, on our way to town, I saw the shopkeeper try to wave me down. I didn't stop since we were running late for music class.
Raghava, a friend who lived with his family on a farm near Davangere had got two such horses a few months ago. We'd heard that his 10-year old son was now riding them around on the farm. So a quick trip was organised to visit Raghava and the horses. After music class that day, a 4-hr drive in rain and darkness got us to Raghava's farm. We sat up late into the night catching up with each other about farming, homeschooling (he too homeschools his 10-year old son and 13-year old daughter), horses and various other interests. Raghava's advice was to take about 4 people along to drive the horse home and to have a paddock ready to hold him. Once inside the paddock, we would be able to feed and get friendly with the horses. The next morning, the kids went to the paddock where his horses were tied for the night and brought them out. The bridle was put on and the kids took turns riding bareback. Ammu was able to get the horse trotting around the farm by herself. The ones not riding would run along behind. We had to return that evening and it was hard to tear the kids away from their friends and the horses. This visit and the riding experience made them more desperate to get the horse.
One morning, later that week, I had just headed out on my early morning run when I ran into Lallu just about 2Km away from home. I managed to drive him some way towards home. I called home to tell them I was heading home with the horse. Then he suddenly took off into the forest, along a narrow walking trail. I couldn't get ahead of him to cut him off and turn him back. So I just followed. That path ended at the gate of a paddy field. From there, I managed to get him across a small gully and he again found a track and headed along very purposefully. That track ended on the road leading to our home, just half a kilometer from our gate. It seemed like he was leading me home on a short-cut, along a track I had never been on. We were greeted by the rest of the family, minus Ammu who in her excitement to see the horse had gone ahead of the others and had passed the point where the track joined the road, before we got there. Sushie then had to go and call her back. In the meantime, Lallu trotted towards home and entered our farm and the gates shut behind him. There was plenty of grass all around and he settled down to graze right away. He had a reputation for biting and kicking. He had thrown off some adventurous inebriated local who had tried to mount him for a ride when he was wandering the streets. So we kept at a safe distance from him until he was more familiar with us. The cattle returning from grazing had the shock of their lives on seeing an animal they had never seen before. A cow with a young calf got aggressive and charged Lallu a couple of times. That, and Veeru and Ozzy nipping at his heels unnerved him a bit. Peace returned soon and he was grazing contently once the cows were in their stalls. We had to leave on a trip to Mysore that night and we were going to be away for the next three days. We thought he'd settle down and get used to the place and the other animals by the time we returned. The entire farm was fenced and he wouldn't be able to get out. Atleast, that's what we thought. After lunch, we went out to meet him and said goodbye and told him we'd be back in a few days. We came back home, packed our bags and drove out of our gate. The kids had dance class and we were to take the train to Mysore after that. About 200mtrs down the road, we got the shock of our lives. Lallu was trotting ahead of us, up the road. I pulled over and ran ahead and cut him off. However, he was determined to get away and refused to turn back and was turning a bit aggressive. We were running late and had to carry on. But we were puzzled about how he managed to get out. Turns out that the small gate from our farm to Ravi's house was left open. Lallu managed to find that and go across his land and find the road heading out. This looked like one smart horse. The kids were heartbroken and it took a lot of effort to console them. Midhu was crying during her dance class. On our way to town, we met Mooku's (our neghbour and staff) son Nagaraj and his friend leading a horse home by a rope. I stopped and we had a chat with him. He said that they found the horse about 6Km away and were taking it home because his friend wanted to keep it. Seemed like everyone wanted to raise horses. This horse looked tamer than Lallu and seemed easier to handle. We told them that if they ever changed their minds about raising the horse, we'd be happy to take him off their hands. The kids were angry at the unfairness of it all – they had wanted a horse for so many years and the one horse we managed to get ran away after a few hours. And here were people who had no interest in horses getting a docile horse with little effort. We convinced them that we'd persist with our efforts and something nicer was awaiting them. The short break in Mysore helped assuage the hurt and took their mind off the feeling that the universe was conspiring against them.
When we got back from Mysore, we still kept our eyes open for Lallu. The new horse was still parked at our neighbour's house, clearing all the grass that had grown within his fence. He was due to be taken to the friend's house in a day or two. One afternoon, the kids and I paid him a visit. He was approachable and he let us stroke him. But he seemed to be limping badly. His right foreleg seemed hurt though there was no visible injury. We spent some time befriending him. The next day, word arrived that the chap didn't want to keep the horse anymore and was going to drive him out. So he was available if we wanted him. We were in a dilemma. On the one hand, here was a fairly tame horse available at our doorstep. We only had to lead him home up the street. On the other hand, he was limping badly and we had no idea what was wrong and if it would heal. We didn't want to be saddled with a crippled horse that couldn't be ridden. We had a huddle to decide what to do. The bleeding-hearted kids were all for bringing him home. We pointed out to them that we can't run a shelter for horses and if he couldn't be ridden, then they would have a horse but they'd have to forget their riding dreams. That afternoon, we went back and had another look at the horse.His limp was still pronounced. I gave in and brought him home. He struggled up the path to our home but once he got there, he grazed contently. We moved the bicycles and some other junk out of the jeep shed and spread a layer of sawdust on the floor to tie him there for the night. This might've been the first time in his life that he was under a roof. The shepherds usually just tie them in open fields. The next morning, he was let out to graze and he wandered around having his fill. In the afternoon, after the kids had their music class in town, we went looking to buy a brush to brush his coat and scrub him down. He seemed to really enjoy the pampering. His foot seemed better and the limp was slight. I promised the kids that if his foot healed, I'd help them ride him in a couple of days. The kids have been leading him around the front yard as part of his training. They spend a lot of their free time hanging around him, petting and leading him around. This morning, he seemed fine and in good spirits. Midhu was eager to ride and I put her on and lead him around the front yard a few times. Ammu was initially reluctant since she's cautious by nature. But seeing how Midhu was enjoying herself, she too had a ride. Deepu who has taken on the job of cleaning out his dung every morning, has decided to wait a week before trying to ride him.
Then there was the matter of a name for him. Many typically 'horsey' names were suggested by the kids who have grown up on a diet of horse books and movies. But there was the matter of the 'No Man's Land naming convention' that had to be adhered to. He had to be named after a rogue or infamous person. So Sushie suggested Don and I wholeheartedly agreed. Don he is. We respectfully call him 'Mr.President' sometimes. Sushie had initially wanted to get us a donkey. We would have named him Don – Mr.President the donkey.
These past few days, he has been more settled and seems to be feeling at home. He spends the morning grazing in the company of the cows who seem to have gotten used to him and are not alarmed any more. He comes to the front yard a few times to say hello to us, once the cattle have returned to their stall. Evenings, he takes the kids on a few rounds of our front yard and is brushed down for some time, before he returns to his shelter for the night. We need to get a halter and reins so he doesn't have to be lead around by someone when he's being ridden. The rider can control and manage the horse then. He is 12 hands tall (1 hand = 4 inches; unit of measurement of a horse's height from hoof to withers or shoulder). So he is technically a pony since animals below 14 hands are classified as ponies. He is the equine equivalent of a mongrel since he is of no particular breed. His colour is 'Bay' (brown body with black mane and tail. Lallu was 'Chestnut' since his body, mane and tail were all brown) and his face marking is 'stripe'. We haven't been able to determine his age since we're not comfortable yet of opening his lips to take a look at his teeth, which is how a horse's age is determined. I don't trust him enough to put my fingers into his mouth.
Who knows, this could also be a step towards making ourselves more resilient when the world runs out of fossil fuel. Until then, Don might help us reduce our carbon emissions and reduce the use of our pick-up truck. Scenes of going on horseback for local errands and to deliver milk to the dairy play in my mind.
The story of getting a horse has had a happy ending. Although, who knows, this might be just the beginning of the story.