The Mystical Marwari, the Other Desert Horse

A Westerner tries to help save a rare East Indian breed facing extinction due to political and cultural conflicts in its homeland.

Photo by Manusharma

by Kristin Berkery

Marwari horses with their unique ears. Photo by Donna DeMari

Photos and videos of the rare and exotic Marwari horse are like a time machine, transporting the viewer to an era of ancient Eastern traditions and costumes. Bred since the 13th century by Rajput warriors, the Marwari was first used to conquer northwest India, a desert area now known as Rajasthan.

To survive the arid climate and fierce combat, Marwari horses were bred to be tough, fiery, and courageous, but they can also be described as temperamental and a challenge to handle. They have many similarities to the original desertbred Arabians with their spirited temperaments, physical endurance, arched necks, dry facial features, fine legs, and proud bearing. Not surprisingly, they share common ancestors with Arabians, which were also bred for fierce battle and survival in a desert setting.

Marwari horse

The dancing white Marwari stallion Swraj. Photo by Manusharma

One big difference, and disadvantage, for the Marwari is that it was recognized and appreciated by foreigners 100 years later than Arabians were. In 1893 the Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Hamid II, sent Ottoman exhibits, including Arabian horses, to the World’s Fair in Chicago in an effort to create goodwill with Westerners and to prove Turkey’s status as a modern nation. The Arabian breed was first discovered by Americans at the venue, including several people who later became important foundation Arabian breeders in the U.S.

Photo of the Taj Mahal by Dan Searle

Photo of the Taj Mahal by Dan Searle

By contrast, the Marwari horse wasn’t appreciated by Westerners until Francesca Kelly visited India in 1995 and fell in love with the breed. She bought a horse to bring to the U.S., but was told it couldn’t leave the country because of its historical significance and rarity. After a five-year battle Kelly convinced the Indian government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow her to bring six horses to her home at Martha’s Vineyard.

Because Arabians are associated with Islam, predominately Hindu breeders bristle at the thought that their native breed could have Muslim roots.

The most recognizable trait of Marwari horses is, of course, their curved ears. They have other characteristics they don’t share with their Arabian cousins: Marwaris can carry the cream gene, which produces palomino, buckskin, and the other cream colors, and the tobiano pinto gene. A form of the sabino gene, which results in high white stockings, wide blazes, and sometimes heavy roaning, is often favored. And of course Marwari horses come in the base colors of bay, chestnut, grey, and black. Solid white Marwaris, which are not albino but possibly an extreme form of sabino, are often used in religious ceremonies in India.

Grooms riding Marwari horses in a wedding procession.
Photo © Rupert Sagar-Musgrave

Another trait that sets the Marwari apart from the Arabian is its four-beat ambling gait called the revaal, which carries the rider smoothly over rough terrain for long distances.

Many Marwari horses are trained in a native form of haute √©cole, similar to the Spanish Riding School techniques, to perform as “dancing horses” at ceremonial events, particularly weddings.

Most likely descended from native ponies crossed with Arabians, the Marwari’s origins have created controversy among their owners in India. Because Arabians are associated with Islam, predominately Hindu breeders bristle at the thought that their native breed could have Muslim roots.

Marwari horses

Marwari horses in a rainbow of colors.
Photo by Rachel Saunders

The Marwari is still extremely rare in North America — Francesca Kelly is the only owner of Marwaris in the U.S. and she gave four of her horses on permanent loan to Kentucky Horse Park in late 2011. The rest of her Marwari herd will be moved to the United Kingdom.

At home in India, the Marwari breed teetered on the brink of extinction for much of the 20th century. Only nobles were historically permitted to ride Marwaris, so the horse became a despised symbol of the Indian caste system. Thoroughbreds were imported and preferred to native stock during British rule of the Rajput states from 1817 to 1947, nearly wiping out the Marwari breed. And because there had never been an organized registering authority for the Marwari and the remaining breeders tended to be poor subsistence farmers, many of the breeding stock were of lower quality. As a result, the government’s knee-jerk response was to ban exportation of the breed without any other beneficial action.

Kelly was undeterred by the export ban. She worked with Indians to create the Indigenous Horse Society of India, an organization that promotes and protects five native Indian breeds: the Marwari, Kathiawari, Manipuri, Spiti, and Zanskari. The organization establishes breeding standards and sends horses to compete in equestrian games. While there are other Marwari organizations that have differing opinions, the Indigenous Horse Society is the only approved registering authority for showing indigenous horses in India or exporting them abroad.

The dancing stallion in the video above is also pictured at the top of this article. He starts performing about 1 minute into the video.

There are still many barriers to taking Marwaris out of India. It’s now possible for indigenous horses to leave only if the exporter agrees to return them to India after a year. Since the costs associated with transporting horses around the world are so high, few people choose this option. In addition, the European Union has banned exporting any horse directly from India to the European continent. The U.S. accepts Marwari imports, but they must test negative for the tick-borne blood disease piroplasmosis multiple times before they can enter the country. Unfortunately many Marwari horses are carriers for piroplasmosis and the disease is notoriously difficult to eradicate from a horse’s system.

There are several beautiful photos of Marwaris in their native environment at the Indigenous Horses of India blog. Francesca Kelly’s Marwaris can be seen among the Horses of the World at Kentucky Horse Park. Photographer Christiane Slawik has several photos of Marwaris and Marwari crosses, which she calls “India’s Best Kept Secret.”

Watch a clip of a Marwari doing a revaal gait below.


3 thoughts on “The Mystical Marwari, the Other Desert Horse

  1. Equine Abby says:

    These are beautiful horses.

  2. Sally Holt says:

    Has anyone used to riding horses int he UK any comments on how comfortable it is to ride these horses with their unusual gait – I have the opportunity to ride them for a week next year and wondered if it will be enjoyable

  3. Venky says:

    Firstly, great to note your initiative to summarise information about the Marwaris.

    I am a happy owner of a couple too.

    On a critical note, (hope you don’t mind) the blurb, ‘A Westerner tries to help save a rare East Indian breed facing extinction due to political and cultural conflicts in its homeland,’ comes across as patronising and half-true, and I as a reader am not sure of the tone, wondering as I do with Kipling’s ‘White man’s burden,’ whether it was an honest account or a loaded commentary on Western views of the world, with them as saviours of the day.

    Ms Kelly’s efforts are praiseworthy. But, there are many others doing a lot more. The narration of X working with ‘Indians’ sounds too colonial. Almost reads like a page from David Livingstone’s biography where he went and reformed the natives. There are many angles to reality in this case.

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