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A relief ride through India

February 5, 2007

by JoAnn Roe for Equestrian Adventurer

Photo: Preeti Verma Lal

Article © 2007
This article may not be reproduced in
any form without prior permission.

Many people who love horses are also the kind of people who enjoy helping others. An equestrian vacation that gives horseback riders the opportunity to do both is Relief Riders International.

This unusual vacation company gives riders the opportunity to ride through beautiful rural India, while also delivering supplies and medical assistance to the people who live in the rural villages.

I had the opportunity to spend some time catching up with three amazing women on their experience riding with RRI.

The women were Judith Shaw, a horse owner, who has traveled throughout the world and was looking for something new; Barbara Jenkel, who loves working with people and teaches residential teenagers how to train dogs for the disabled; and Shirley Campbell, a 69-year-old retiree who at the time had limited riding experience, but took riding lessons intensively to prepare.

Shirley Campbell rode with a Relief Riders International (RRI) equestrian adventure to Rajasthan, a district about five hours south and west of New Delhi in northern India. She had flown into the teeming city of New Delhi, but the ride was through rural areas and small villages where locals had rarely or never seen an American or European.

She was lyrical in her descriptions: "I reveled in it, cantering along soft, sandy country lanes between brilliantly green fields where the wheat flourished ... greeted everywhere by villagers who turned out to wave and smile."

Photo: Laura Millet

RRI was begun by Alexander Souri, a film producer who may be best known for his work on "The Matrix" and "X-men". Born in New York City to a French mother and Indian father, he was moved by the lack of medical and communications facilities in rural India, after a visit there. He started RRI as a way for equestrians to experience high adventure while helping people.

For his plan he needed reliable horses and turned to the son of an Indian cavalry officer, Kanwar Raghuvenvra Singh Dundlod (commonly called Bonnie), a Master Outfitter who had furnished his own fine Marwari horses for the film, "The Far Pavilions".

Here's an overview of the ride: Up to 15 general equestrians of varying skills and ages (except young children), an Indian doctor and two medics, and a staff of grooms and other helpers ride from camp to camp. Spouses or others not wishing to ride can go by camel cart or jeep. A few goats accompany the party. (Up to 60 goats are trucked to villages to be donated during the ride.)

At night the party stays in yurts or at palaces, adventurous but far from spartan. The spacious yurts hold two persons each. Furnishings include woven rugs, camp beds with colorful bed linens, a table, candle, and mirror-all transported ahead and in place before the equestrians' arrival. Portable toilets and showers make Westerners happy. Delicious meals are served on a long table. In the evenings people sit around a bonfire, often entertained by the men singing traditional songs.

Photo: Preeti Verma Lal

On some rides the guests have the opportunity to stay at forts or palaces formerly owned by princes or Rajahs, whose descendants now operate them as hotels with western style bathrooms. Shirley told me that she absorbed a medieval feeling as she rode through the archway of one palace into a courtyard, where the horses spent the night, their soft neighs audible from the palace bedrooms.

At villages the doctor(s) worked with the Red Cross and locals to receive and treat ill people - especially for eye problems common in the climate. To date RRI has served 7000 patients, including 1400 children.

Judith Shaw, who also rode with RRI told me that "our job sometimes was to reassure the crowds, to keep them from mobbing the doctors, and when we visited schools to hand out books and talk to the children."

All the riders were told to get in shape before coming, since sometimes the rides were as much as 20-25 miles a day. The horses have few or no bad habits but are fairly spirited. The party often canters for some distance at a good pace.

Barbara Jenkel, who rode with RRI in 2005, was not a highly experienced rider and expressed some concern about being able to cope but had no trouble.

She said, "I had ridden across Mongolia and survived that. It was quite different, though, from nose-to-tail rides. These horses wanted to go."

Photo: Laura Millet

The Marwari horses are a special breed. Particularly distinctive are their curving ears that almost meet above their polls. They are descended from the war horses of feudal India owned by the upper classes and are being bred again by families like Bonnie's (the RRI outfitter). The breed averages 15 to 16 hands and comes in all colours, including broken colours. With a powerful body, long, graceful legs, and a supple, curving neck, the Marwari has the qualities of muscle in thigh and shoulder for endurance and energy. All are equipped with English tack.

Shaw, an experienced equestrian, said the horses are gaited like an Icelandic.

They have a running walk and a fifth gait called a Revaal, a trot that requires no posting. All of them are endurance horses.

Temperatures in the region can be hot at midday, similar to the desert regions of the Southwest, so riders start fairly early, rest and play during midday, and resume in mid-afternoon. Shaw, Campbell, and Jenkel all commented on the Marwari's willing spirit and great heart. They do recommend to equestrians that they become comfortable with long, fast canters before coming.

Judith Shaw said: "One wonderful afternoon we played around on the horses in an area of sand dunes, some as high as a house."

Photo: Preeti Verma Lal

Shirley Campbell commented on the scenery and quaintness of the villages, where women still may wear veils. Rajasthan is not far from the Himalayas.

Barbara Jenkel was touched by the interaction with villagers, saying: "We often served 500-600 patients in a village, some of whom had never seen a doctor. One boy was malnourished from some condition, and we guests donated money to get him to a hospital for a blood transfusion. At schools we handed out deworming medicine to children, as well as educational materials. Most had never seen an American and could not believe we would be interested in them."

All three of these amazing women agreed that the adventure would stand out in their memories and hoped to take equestrian adventure trips to other locations. Shirley Campbell said, "I will never forget the ride up the riverbed in Lobargal ... under a smoldering Rajasthani sunset."



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