We were posted to Babugarh, a small cantonment close to Meerut, where an Equine Breeding Stud is located. It was spread over 2,300 acres holding around 3,500 equines. The horses, mules and donkeys bred here are transported to various other army units and are trained for different activities like riding, show jumping, tent pegging, polo, load carrying and are even sent to the President’s Body Guard Estate. Fodder for all these animals is also raised here. The place had an old world charm with huge colonial bungalows, big beautiful peacocks, neelgais, rabbits, horses and horse driven carriages like Victoria coaches, tongas and tumtums. Victoria coaches were drawn by two hefty horses. The seats were covered with velvet cloth and the windows were decorated with lace curtains. They were manned by a driver and a footman standing behind.
My daughter used to go to a school at Hapur by tonga along with the other children of the Stud. Several officers and my husband also used to go to work by these horse drawn carriages. The main attraction for the guests and visitors was the huge, big, majestic carriage ‘four-in-hand’ drawn by four horses, driven by two coachmen with two footmen, all dressed elegantly in riding habits, riding shoes, pagadis and starched, fan shaped crests (turra). The stallions used for breeding these beautiful horses were kept in separate enclosures and were given V.I.P treatment. During summer huge blocks of ice were kept outside their enclosures. Fans were used to keep them cool. Now of course the blocks of ice have been replaced by coolers and ACs. Some of these horses were gifted by Saudi kings, the Russian President and many important dignitaries. Many senior officers like Army commanders and Corps commanders used to spend their holidays there; they enjoyed the good food served by liveried bearers, their stay in the mess, the joy rides by Victoria coach and four-in-hand. Very early in service, we had the privilege of interacting with senior officers, who used to be affectionate and dignified, but at the same time maintained the required distance.
Officers were always busy with rearing and breeding the equines, looking after and treating them, raising crops, dispatching and receiving food grains, V.I.P’s visits and security. With several hands to help them, the ladies had all the leisure and spent their free time each in their own way. This was the routine till Col. Raina came there as the Deputy Commandant. Mrs. Raina, an elegant Kashmiri lady, though not highly educated, brought us all ladies together, revived the welfare centre, the ladies club and kitty parties. She persuaded us to do embroidery, knitting and cross-stitch. She would make as redo the work if it was not done neatly. She even made us call her ‘didi’. Sometimes we used to take this kindness for granted and would leave our children in her palatial bungalow saying, “Didi, inko sambhalo. Hum picture/shopping ja rahe hain”.
Col. Raina was a father figure to all. One could ask him anything. He knew quite well how hard working all the officers were, and how bored and lonely the ladies must be feeling with each bungalow placed a kilometer away from the other. Every evening, he used to pass by our bungalow on way to his residence, stop his gig, and talk to me and my daughter. He also encouraged us to meet in the Mess to play a game of shuttle with his family and with the other ladies.
I learnt driving the gig from my husband’s gig driver and took part in the annual gig driving competition held there. Though I cleared all the obstacles within the stipulated time, I did not get any prize. I went and asked Col. Raina why I did not win anything. He told me that my gig was drawn by a mule which trotted and the commandant’s daughter’s gig was drawn by a horse which cantered, so she won the prize. I was so disappointed that I never took part in any competition thereafter. But, I learnt that a horse trots, canters and gallops.
Since it was an equine breeding stud, little new born foals were also there on the stud. I learnt a lot about them. I learnt that the place where the foals are born and kept till they are two weeks old is called a foaling line. The place where they are shifted after the second week and kept with their mothers till they turn six months old is called a paddock. Thereafter they are shifted to the young stock wing or number 10 lines where they remain for a year. The shift is marked by a solemn ceremony called weaning parade which is conducted in the presence of the Commandant and all other officers. This line was looked after by Capt. Murthi. Everything went pell-mell in the first week after the weaning parade because the foals were looking for their mothers. They wanted milk but they got only tender grass.
One evening, my daughter and I were sitting in the open area of our house which led to the main gate. It was dark and frightening, with frequent howling of jackals and hyenas from the adjoining agricultural land. Suddenly, I saw four pairs of glittering eyes near our gate. In a few seconds I could see eight young horses in two rows trotting towards us in a disciplined manner. I shouted for my choukidar, a Nepali lad. He walked towards the horses with both hands raised and said ‘Thum’. The horses stopped at once. The line jamedar appeared behind the horses and took them back. In fact, he was panic stricken when he realized that eight of his young horses were missing after a careless worker left the wooden ballies open after feeding them that evening. There is no proper explanation for the friendly visit by the young horses to our house. They could have wandered to any other place. I guessed there could only be one reason. Capt. Murthi used to visit these horses twice a day, talk to them, pat them affectionately and spend some time with them, enquiring about their general well being. That day he couldn’t visit them at all, which was a rare occurrence. So, these horses might have decided, guided by their instinct, to find their master’s house and look him up. Anyway, it was a frightening experience for us.
One day I decided to visit Mrs. Raina. I wanted to meet her and her married daughter who had come down from the States. I went on foot and stayed there till 1 o’ clock. As I got up to leave, Didi suggested that I wait for a few more minutes and go home by the same tumtum that would drop Col. Raina from office. Since he was expected any time, I accepted the kind offer. I met and greeted Col. Raina and took leave. I crossed their spacious verandah, climbed down the ten steep steps and sat in the waiting tumtum.
After picking up the reins, I realized that I had left my house keys in their drawing room and wanted to get them. The coach man offered to bring them for me and ran into their drawing room climbing up and down those big steps and brought the keys. But before he could even reach the tumtum, the horse started galloping so fast that I found it almost impossible to control it. The young, sturdy Halflinger, an import from Austria, was zooming past as I held on to the reins and to my dear life. The poor coach man was running behind the gig, shouting and instructing me to sit firmly in the seat and hold the reins tightly. The road to my house was straight except for one turning and two crossroads. I could have collided with a vehicle, a cyclist, a human or an animal and caused damage as I had no control over the horse. Within minutes, we approached our main gate which was to my right. Instinctively, the horse slowed down a little and I took this opportunity and pulled the reins tightly to the left expecting the horse to turn right. Fortunately it did, and I shouted for my watchman who on hearing the sounds came running to the gig. I asked him to stop the horse which he did once again by raising his hands and saying, ‘Thum’. I jumped down from the gig, handed over the reins to him and stood there trembling. In the meanwhile, the coach man arrived, panting and gasping for breath. He enquired how I was, while he spoke to the animal gently and patted it.
When I enquired about this crazy behavior of the horse, he told me that it was not “crazy behavior” but a basic instinct that made it bolt. The horse was hungry and wanted to rush back to the stables. Luckily, our house was on the way to the stables and it was also used to stopping at our gates every evening. That is why the horse slowed down at the gate. Otherwise it would have taken me to the stable. A dumb animal gave me a piece of its mind and told me not to meddle with its routine. It taught me that though we humans can train and teach animals we must never interfere with their natural instincts.