Wednesday, June 23, 2004

saving the raja's horse

British horsewoman Francesca Kelly brings India's fiery Marwari to the United States in hopes of reviving the breed.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in June 2004).

When Francesca Kelly took her first trip to India—for a luxury horse safari in 1995—a friend told her, "You'll either love it or you'll hate it." Francesca was one of those who fell in love, and hard—first for an exotic and desperate Indian horse, the Marwari, and then for its sprawling desert home.

But when Kelly bought her first Marwari with the intention of bringing it to the United States, the horse was on a long list of threatened breeds illegal to export. With Indian scientists then estimating that only 500 or 600 Marwaris remained untainted by crossbreeding, the odds against getting the Indian government to reverse its position looked insurmountable.

Many people would have given up. Not Kelly. A 49-year-old woman with a slightly square jaw that hints at a streak of stubbornness and impatience, Kelly grew up the stepdaughter of Sir Harold Beeley, the United Kingdom's ambassador in Cairo from 1961 to 1964 and again from 1967 to 1969. Some of her fondest childhood memories were of midnight gallops in the sands surrounding the family's Egyptian desert retreat, a large Bedouin tent filled with colorful hangings and rugs. Nearly three decades later, looking into the eyes of Shanti, her untamed Marwari mare, was like looking into that past. She wasn't about to give that up. But first she would have to go toe-to-toe with some pretty tough opponents—among them, the Indian government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her battle lasted five years. By the end, she'd not only won—bringing six Marwari horses home with her to Massachusetts in 2000—she'd launched a remarkable drive to preserve one of the world's oldest horse breeds.