Many of my best memories are associated with horses and riding. I love riding and used to be at the AP Riding Club in Hyderabad at the crack of dawn. I would make my salaams to Abdul Hameed Khan sahib, the ex-cavalry NCO who was the headman at the Club. He would return my salaam with great seriousness and say, “Aaj aap Fascination pey sawari karo.” (Today you ride Fascination). Fascination was an Indian Half-bred mare; about 15 hands. Half-breds are a breed created by the Indian Army by breeding Thoroughbred stallions with Kathiawari, Marwari or sometimes other imported mares. The result is one of the most delightful horses that I have ever ridden. Highly intelligent, about 14 or 15 hands or so; hardy, able to live off the land, slim, agile, fast, can turn on a dime and with a beautiful temperament. Ideal for trail riding, polo and used extensively by Mounted Police and the Army. Fascination was a superb example of the breed. I was training her for dressage and intended to enter her in the Gymkhana Competition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_half-bred
When I entered the Riding Club and was allotted my horse, my day would begin with cleaning out the stable. Then I would groom Fascination going over every inch of her with the grooming brush. I would scrape the brush over the metal cleaner and knock that out on the little mud platform at the entrance of the stable until I had eight of the signature, rectangles of horse-dust in two rows. It was essential to do this correctly so that the rows were identical and absolutely straight. Then I would lead Fascination out of the stable and saddle her and walk her in a large circle around the central watering trough and then tighten the girth once again. Horses tend to expand their bellies when you first saddle them, so that the girth is loose. If you don’t tighten it, that can be lethal as in the middle of a gallop or even more, during the tight twists and turns of dressage or polo, the saddle can suddenly slide off to one side depositing you on the ground. Being deposited at full gallop can be injurious to more than your ego. The solution is to walk the horse for a bit and then tighten the girth a second time. You can do this from the ground or even if you are mounted, by taking your foot out of the stirrup, moving that leg forward and then reaching under the skirt of the saddle and tightening the girth. But doing it before you mount, is the best and safest way to do it. Once I had tightened the girth to my and Fascination’s satisfaction, I would mount and begin my ride. The normal time of the ride was 45 minutes but because of my relationship with the riding masters and because I was willing to do more, I would ride three to four horses which needed exercise. Normally the syce of the horse would exercise him but since I was more than willing, I was given this very pleasant duty.
Between rides, the tea boy from the Irani hotel from across the street would come with the highly sweetened, milky brew that we all knew as Irani chai. Irani hotels, as they were called, were an institution in Hyderabad all through my childhood and youth. Today thanks to high real-estate prices these cafes have almost all disappeared, having been replaced by multi-storey shopping complexes. Typically, there was a checkout counter with the owner behind it, as you entered. In the hallway, there were square wooden tables with cloudy-white marble tops and four chairs. You sat at the table and when the waiter came to you, you could order any of the following:
- Ek chai (one tea)
- One by two (one tea and one empty cup) because you intended to share it with your friend who was accompanying you.
- Pauna: three quarter full
- Khada chamcha (standing spoon), meaning that there should be enough sugar for the spoon to be able to remain standing like a flagpole without a flag.
- Burqay Wali (veiled lady), meaning that you wanted a thick layer of cream on top.
There were other names which I can’t seem to recall. You had the option of having the tea served with a snack; Osmani biscuit, tie biscuit, bun-maska, samosa and lukmi. Bun-maska was a round bun, sliced in half, spread with white unsalted butter and sprinkled with sugar. Absolutely delicious. In the days I am talking about the tea cost all of 25 paisa.
I used to order four teas, for me, Hameed Saab, Sayeed Khan Saab, the boy who brought the tea and myself. We didn’t order anything else as those were the days with a lot of grace but not much money. Today when I see the world with far more money and almost no grace, I think very nostalgically about my days of ‘poverty’. The tea was half-time in my ride. After the tea I would get onto the next horse and finish with the fourth one. I groomed only the first one for the day. All the others where done by their syces and would be brought to me. However, I always insisted on checking the girth myself, much to the approval of Hameed Khan Saab who would nod with approval.
The entire grooming process took anything from 30-45 minutes and the work was smelly and sweaty. There were grooms who were paid to do what I was paying to do, but for me this was character building. What was I learning? That I was responsible for my charge. That my own welfare depended on how well I looked after him; that if I hadn’t tightened the girth or failed to pass my hand under the saddle blanket to smooth the hair in the natural direction and the horse got a saddle sore, then I could not ride until he was well again; that if I did not check the soundness of the tack and the stirrup leather broke and I fell off, guess whose fault it would be? That how my horse, the saddlery, and even the stable looked, was not a reflection on the horse or the stable, it was a reflection on me as the rider. If I rode the animal, his welfare was my responsibility. He depended on me and you never let down those who depend on you. My horse and how he was cared for was my signature.
Once my ride was over, my job continued. I would dismount and lead the horse into the stable to unsaddle him and rub him down. I would let him cool down and take him to the water trough to drink, ensuring that he didn’t drink too much as that would give him colic. Then I would lead him back to the stable and put fresh hay on the floor and his feed in his feeding trough. Finally, I would wipe down and hang up the saddle on its tree and bit and bridle on its hook. Only then would I be free to leave. Riding taught me many lessons in life; not the least important one being responsibility.
The horse itself is also an amazing teacher. Horses have an uncanny knack of sensing weakness in the rider and using it to their advantage. They sense the hand on the reins and behave accordingly. They respect strength and kindness and take advantage of weakness. They will punish cruelty and are very loyal to those who take care of them. A horse is a very intelligent animal and a great judge of character. That’s why the bond between a horse and his rider is a bond of affection born out of mutual respect. A horse is not always forgiving and blindly loyal like a dog. A horse tests you first and then decides to be your friend only if you measure up. With a horse the relationship is one of equal partnership, not of master and servant. However, to learn all these lessons one must ride the way I have described. If you ride the way rich youngsters do nowadays – the groom does all the work and stands there holding the horse, the kid mounts up, rides, dismounts and walks away – you learn nothing. The horse is not a motorcycle that you can mount and ride and then park and switch off.
In those days we learnt social skills early. I guess we still do. And those who did not know the rites of passage would hit a stone wall, the bewildered expressions on their faces bearing mute testimony to their ignorance of the ropes. A surprisingly simple system but to some, an enigma.
One of those bewildered ones was a man who was later to become the latter-day ‘Nizam’ of Hyderabad (he became Chief Minister); the then not too well-known Telugu film actor NT Rama Rao (NTR). The first time I saw him at the riding club was in strawberry pink pants and a rose-colored shirt with a white Stetson on his head. He, poor man, just walked in, brandished his ticket, and demanded a horse. Ustad Havaldar Abdul Hameed Khan (AHK), a tall lanky, taciturn man with a huge hook of a nose, dressed in khaki jodhpurs, cotton sweater, and beret, looked him up and down in silence. Then in his best parade ground voice he roared, “Yeh Phulsungni ku ghodi lau re ma ke lauday.” Duly with much ceremony the worst nag in the stables was trotted out. Quite understandably, the horse took exception to NTR’s clothing and started doing the backward circle dance. Horses do this when they don’t approve of your dressing, to let you know that they don’t want to associate with you. However, when Ustad AHK reminded him of his ancestry in the most colorful terms, he stood still and NTR mounted. After he had ridden for the shortest 45 minutes that I have ever seen and was led to the stable to dismount, he looked at the beautiful Indian half-bred mare that I was riding and asked Ustad AHK why he didn’t get her. “Hau, hau ek din tumare ku bi deyinge,” (Yes, yes, one day you will also get to ride her) was the reply. Then he turned to me and snorted, “Thailay kay waisi sawari hai aur yeh ghodi chalata katay” (He rides like a bag of potatoes and wants to ride this mare, huh). Little did he and I know that this man would one day sit on the “throne,” as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Sad to say that the AP Riding Club is no more. Neither are our Ustads AHK and Sayeed Khan.
Gear was important. You had to be wearing khaki jodhpurs, white shirt, hard hat, leather knee boots polished to a high shine, and a leather belt to be able to get some ‘respect’ in those days. In winters or on formal occasions you also wore a navy blazer with a single split at the back. You carried a whip (riding crop really), but you almost never used it. Jeans, or god forbid, ordinary trousers were not acceptable, and neither were ordinary shoes. The only exception was Mr. Raza Ali Khan who used to wear leather chaps over his jeans. It was less about dress than about etiquette, form, and discipline. Tambaswamy, the Club cobbler/saddler was the man to go to, who would measure you for boots and make them. Today talking about handmade riding boots seems unreal and only for the super-rich. In Hyderabad of those days, that was the most economical option.
‘Horse riding’ was a bit of a misnomer really and it should have been called character building. Our Ustaads didn’t just teach us riding. They taught us character, manners, discipline, commitment, and responsibility. They didn’t achieve this by ordering us around. After all, they were instructors in the Riding Club. And we were not troops under their command, so they had no real authority over us. However, they offered us opportunities, most of the time unspoken, but clearly what resulted thereafter was the result of the choices we made. It was their way of influencing without authority – one of the most important lessons I learnt in my life. A lesson that has continued to yield results, working across cultures and nationalities both in the corporate world and later as a consultant and teacher. Naturally, they had no idea all this would happen. But I would be a gross ingrate if I didn’t acknowledge their contribution, albeit unconscious.
The AP Riding Club was a place where most of the venerable Hyderabadi aristocracy gathered to ride, drink tea and just meet each other for a chat before going home for breakfast. On one occasion one of the most famous of them, Brig. Tawfeeq had finished riding and was sitting in a garden chair having tea. I greeted him and he invited me to sit with him. He told me a wonderful story. He said, “There was a beautiful Arabian stallion that belonged to the Aga Khan which had a problem that his neck was very stiff. That meant that he was almost impossible to handle as no matter what kind of bit you put on him; snaffle or Pelham or anything else; he would take it in his teeth and bolt. He was uncontrollable. They tried all kinds of potions, rubs and medicines to get the horse to bend its neck, all to no avail. His neck was like iron and he wouldn’t bend it. It got to the point that the Aga Khan was contemplating putting him down. That is when I learned about it and requested the Aga Khan to let me try my hand at it. I did and it worked. In about a month, the horse was bending his neck and in two months, I was riding him on a snaffle.” I asked him, “How did you do this?” He said, “Very simple. I called for a fresh bunch of Lucerne and tied it below his chin, high up on his neck. This was done every morning and left on all day. The horse went crazy with the smell of fresh Lucerne but couldn’t get to it as it was right under his chin. All day and night he kept trying to get to the Lucerne by bending his neck as much as he could. This went on day after day and in a month his neck was supple and flexible.” I was amazed at the simplicity of the solution. The lesson has remained with me all my life – that the best solutions are the simplest.
Final story before I sign off here. It was the day of the Gymkhana Mounted Sports. This was the annual mounted sports event that was held on the Parade Ground in Secundrabad. It was sponsored by the Artillery Center where the GOC (General Officer Commanding), was General Kuldip Singh Bajwa. A most gracious and generous man who was the life and soul behind polo and mounted sports in Hyderabad. For us, youngsters, this was a very big day where all those of us who rode could show off our skills while our poor less fortunate friends (according to us) who didn’t ride watched us in amazement and envy. The Parade Ground would be decked up with a three-tiered stand made along one side with a shaded pavilion in the middle where the VIPs and their ladies would sit. The rest of the spectators sat on the steps of the stand. At one end was the commentator’s box. The commentator was Nawab Habib Jung; a better commentator than him, I have not seen. His fluency in English, a clipped British accent and his extensive knowledge of horseflesh and mounted sports and polo all came to the fore in his commentary. It was a delight just to listen to him.
Typically, the program was as follows:
After the inauguration and welcome and the national anthem played by the Army Band, there would be an exhibition polo match played between the Army and civilian AP Riding Club Teams. The Army team was mostly comprised of the 61st Cavalry and some officers from the Artillery Center with General Kuldip Singh Bajwa as its Captain. One of the names from those days that I recall is Arjuna Awardee Colonel RS ‘Pickles’ Sodhi, of the 61st Cavalry, who was a Major at that time. The AP Riding Club team had my friends, Siraj Attari, Shahzad Abbas, Raza Ali Khan, Ghulam Hyder and we younger ones on the side. Nawab Habib Jung was the team captain. It was in this match that Habib Jung took a shot at full gallop and as the ball soared in the air aimed at the goal, a pigeon flew in its way and was knocked dead by the ball. The ball lost its momentum and didn’t make the goal but the case of the pigeon being ‘shot down’ by the ball was so unique that nobody bothered about the goal. Nawab Habib Jung collected his ‘trophy’ the dead pigeon and had it mounted on a polo ball.
After the match would be the Mounted Sports with all kinds of imaginative races, like musical chairs, potato race, tent pegging and vaulting. On that day, we were competing in the Potato Race. This consisted of a bucket with 5 potatoes at one end of a track and an empty bucket at the other. The race started at the empty-bucket end. You galloped to the potato bucket, dismounted, picked up a potato, mounted and galloped to the empty bucket and dropped the potato in it. If the potato fell out, you had to dismount again and put it in the bucket. Whoever managed to complete the task first, won the race. The main thing was to be able to get on and off a horse fast. I used to ensure that I rode a Kathiawari or Marwari horse or a smaller Half-bred i.e a horse that was not more than 14 hands or so, tall. To ride a 17 hand Thoroughbred would have put you at a serious disadvantage unless you could fly. I would push the stirrups up under the skirt of the saddle and then simply leap off and on using the pommel of the saddle as my pivot. That was not quite a vault but close. Using the stirrups to mount and dismount was simply too slow, and horses were excited with all the racing and would dance around and delay you even more. The best option was to leap on and off.
We started off well enough. Then when we were on the third potato, one of my dear friends, who was riding neck to neck with me, suddenly fell off his horse and it ran away. I reined in my horse and leapt off to help him up. Friends were more important than races. Syces had already caught his runaway horse, and the race was over for us, so we walked to the stables. I asked him, ‘Kya hua Baap? Kaisa gir gaya?’ (What happened? How did you fall off?). He said to me, ‘Kuch nahin. Main ghoda ruk gaya samajh kay utar gaya.’ (Nothing. I thought the horse had stopped and dismounted). Well, he thought that in the middle of a gallop with predictable results. My question to this day is how someone riding a horse at full gallop can think that it had stopped? Simple pleasures, good friends, time for everyone, lots of outdoors. Those were good times.
The event ended with high tea; a truly sumptuous affair with an extensive menu and we all went home, replete, tired and content. As my friend Berty used to say, ‘Fully fed-up and fulfilled.’