Sunday, April 24, 2011

Touchwood

No greater thrill
Solid, the color of oak and as dependable. But also known as a ride for the not so nimble. Big brown, melting honey eyes with just a hint of cataract. Always in a hurry to get back home. Partial to carrots over jaggery. The handsome old coot, quite wise beyond his years which meant he was pretty much on way to becoming a fairy considering the veteran was touching the outer limit of a horse’s age spectrum.


The arrival of the hunt season was a nervous time for riders at the Defence Services Staff College. The DSSC Wellington as it was popularly known was named after the Duke of Wellington in the 1840s. The college had a long history of participating in and supporting the Ooty Hunt, originally formed by the 74th Highland Regiment in 1835 to chase Sambhur Deer, Bison, Wild Boar and the stray Tiger. It was believed that the Club had hunted every year since, with only a brief pause for the Indian Mutiny of 1857. More than six decades after the dissolution of the Raj, the Ooty Hunt Club still rides to hounds, chasing jackals, the premise being that the sport provides leadership skills and inculcates teamwork that are essential for all Military officers.


The Ooty Gymkhana Club Hunt is known as the World’s fastest and only surviving hunt, east of the Suez. It is also the grand event that most riders at Staff College aspire to. There are some nine to ten hunts spread over the year but it is the opening hunt that stands out for all the pomp and show and ceremony. On a crisp, blustery dawn over the undulating Nilgiri hills, there is a bonfire and a briefing-cum-inspection by the Master of the Foxhounds, in his knee length scarlet coat and green collar. He leads some 40 riders, on the gallop after eight hounds across Ooty's rolling Home Downs, 7,500ft above sea level, at this opening meet.


The Ooty Hunt takes off
The Directing Staff get their pick of the stables for this event. It is the rest of us who awaited the rider-ride list with the eagerness that is nationally reserved for the IIT success list. I routinely prayed to be paired with, whom else but Touchwood, the dear daft and wise Touchwood. Neerja Singh/Touchwood. Well, I got lucky enough to ride him in a hunt, only once.


I quite suspected senility had begun to beckon him. One chilly morning, out on a hack ride I cannot ever forget, he took off from the top of Gorkha Hill. We were all trotting in a perfect file. All of a sudden, Touchwood leapt ahead. “Aaraaam se bhaithe raho,” the Saheb called after me. Very helpful, that suggestion. Off we went in a cloud of dust, the trot rapidly metamorphosing into a canter, stopping just short of a gallop. While coming down the hill towards the stables, Touchwood went into the dressage mode. Some familiar faces passed by, looking up to smile. I tried hard to pretend I was in charge, trying as nonchalant a seat as possible and praying fervently that he in fact was headed towards the stables. What if he had a last ditch romp on the downs in mind! Descending the hill, across the road, over the downs, canter right, pushing aside the surprised stable guard and cleaners, busily sashaying past the initial stalls and he came to an abrupt stop in his pen. My legs had turned into jelly by then. I hoisted off awkwardly, a tight knot in the pit of my stomach.


I recall staring at the “points of a horse” poster on the wall that day and vowing that come what may, I would go on this hunt, riding Touchwood. There was something very primitive and beautiful about the sport and so appealing about this horse. Coronet, croup, dock, fetlock joint and the rest of you Touchwood. You and me, me and you!


And sure enough, my first hunt was logged, astride Touchwood.


Around the time the second hunt came up, Touchwood had slipped further on the decline. He did not figure on the hunt list. I remember missing him keenly as I advanced tentatively towards Mist, a roan beauty of feisty and frisky disposition. He was prancing even while I was mounting him. The hunt had departed and he was impatient to catch up. While I had indelible memories of the first hunt, this time the only sensation I registered was of being in flight. I was sailing over the wooden stumps, past several other riders, even yelling at one to step aside. I remember being airborne and my mouth tightly pursed, the heart was right there, threatening to plop out. I fell over the horse's neck when we finally came to a stop, gradually registering my peeled fingers; there was a fluid dripping over the riding gloves, the skin had gone raw.


I weaved a shaky and meandering path to the family and the sumptuous Ooty Gymkhama club hunt breakfast, awaiting me.
Back from a Hunt, playing the fool !
Aqseer,Asawari; the rides...


PS: Just as the hunting season was drawing to a close, a decision was taken to have Touchwood put down.
I wrote an ode to him.
Nothing to rival this one by Ronald Duncan though:


Ode to a Horse
Where in the world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity!
Here, where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined.
He serves without servility, has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, nothing as quick, nothing as patient.
The world’s past has been borne on his back.
We are his heirs; he is our inheritance.
The Horse

5 comments:

Aqseer said...

I was telling Manu uncle about this a few days ago, thought the horse was called Pride for some reason.

Honey Sangha said...

Pride was the Pune Sub Area ride. She bucked and threw me off the day Mom came to see the daughter ride !!

kanwar said...

maa'm we r finalising the Hunt magazine for 2012-1. m one of the asst editor. reading ur blog, i think should contribute an article/write up for the Hunt magazine.

March 8, 2013 at 7:11 AM

kanwar said...

Nice Blog Maa'm. The feelings of a 'Hunter' nicely summarised...I am at present riding in Wellington while undergoing the course...its totally out of the world experience. Now that I have to leave this place in about 40 days...I feel sad thinking of that, just because I wont be able to ride into early morning mist of Nilgiris.

March 8, 2013 at 7:11 AM

Anonymous said...

umm, isn't that wellington gymkhana club? they are now doing hunts there? It has been a long time since I was there. I think 20 years(I now live in san francisco) thanks for the pictures. I did show jumping In the gymkhana grounds & also did hunts in & around ootyand (we trained remounts too- ahh the fun). hows the gorse now around oot??