'They were my family during lockdown'

Updated: Jul 26, 2020, 12:13 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

The veterinarian at Mahalaxmi's Amateur Riders' Club recounts days of the lockdown spent caring for thoroughbreds, stranded away from their owners and caretakers

Dr Pandurang Sawandkar stayed at the bachelor quarters in the club all through the lockdown. Pic/ Suresh Karkera
Dr Pandurang Sawandkar stayed at the bachelor quarters in the club all through the lockdown. Pic/ Suresh Karkera

For as long as he can remember, Suresh Tapuria, member of the Amateur Riders' Club (ARC), has started his day in the verdant environs of Mahalaxmi Racecourse. He'd sip his morning brew while strapped to a polo horse. An avid equestrian, the 74-year-old owns six thoroughbreds at the club—Snowflake, Agrima, Suzie, Golodrina, Vacation and Classic. All six are familiar with his quirks.

"They are so intuitive that none of them budge when I'm having my tea," he laughs.

His routine of 40 years came to a halt when the lockdown was announced in March. Incidentally, the polo season was in progress at the time. While the international visiting players and umpires from Argentina and the UK returned to their respective countries in time, the horses and their grooms were hunkered down with immediate effect. The management swung into action by constructing temporary stables for the visiting horses and their grooms, while maintaining safety and hygiene standards. All essentials, including food and facilities for the horses and grooms, were being delivered directly to them. The club has been taking care of 200 thoroughbred horses since. Established in 1942, it is one of the oldest and largest private civilian horse riding clubs in India.

Suresh Tapuria, an avid equestrian, with his Argentine thoroughbred at the Amatuer Riders’ Club. The 74-year-old owns six horses at the  club
Suresh Tapuria, an avid equestrian, with his Argentine thoroughbred at the Amatuer Riders' Club. The 74-year-old owns six horses at the  club

Recently, the club reopened the outdoor riding area to members for stipulated hours—other sections including the café and the stable continue to remain locked up. Unsurprisingly, Tapuria was one of the first to make it back. "While I was petting Suzie near the entrance, I could see Vacation getting impatient and kicking at the stable door. They were all vying for attention," he says. All through the lockdown, the Malabar Hill resident was in touch with the staff at the club about the wellbeing of his horses. "My wife says that my original family is at the racecourse," he jokes. Tapuria owns another 16 horses that are currently in Jaipur.

Dr Pandurang Sawandkar, the veterinarian at the club, understands the anxiety of a horse owner. He has allayed the concerns of many during lockdown. While he has been associated with the club for almost a year, in the last week of March, he was asked to camp on the premises till the lockdown was lifted. For three months, he stayed at the bachelor quarters near the stable. "The horses were my family," he says. Although there was no horse riding taking place, a training routine was established to ensure the animals remained active. "High-performing breeds need exercise and high levels of energy and movement. When they are deprived, there are chances their organs may be affected," explains Sawandkar. At 6 am, the animals would be taken to the ground for riding. Then, they were groomed, bathed and fed a hearty breakfast consisting of barley, oats and fibre to keep their extremely long and sensitive digestive tract working.

Stylist and horse owner Ritika Jolly with Icecutter
Stylist and horse owner Ritika Jolly with Icecutter

With horses, body language is key, he says. "They are highly social animals and possess excellent memory, allowing them to recall their human friends after periods of separation. If you come and meet a horse today, he'll remember you a week later." He gives us the instance of a horse that he had treated five years ago. Last year, it was brought again for a checkup. "When I caressed his mane, he started making a distinct sound, which was a sign of affiliation and affection. I was touched." Sawandkar says horses, while extremely intelligent, are creatures of routine. "Before lockdown, they were led to the stable through the parking lot. But post March, we changed course and opted for a route within the premises. They initially seemed resistant. It took them a couple of days to get used to it."

Every horse has a personality, observes Sawandkar. While thoroughbreds such as Kathiawari and Marwari are known to be alert, spirited and reactive, warmblooded are generally quiet and docile. "We import the warmbloods for dressage and show-jumping. You can go pet them and they will not resist. The same cannot be said about the thoroughbreds."

Horse

According to experts, the way you treat the horse decides how it will react to you. Ritika Jolly, a freelance stylist, says her horse, Icecutter, was quite cranky when she acquired him four years ago. "He is a dream when it comes to riding; sturdy and intelligent and quick to pick on cues. But he loathes being caressed. You can say he's quite the loner." While he might have threatened to bite others, with Jolly he's more tolerant. "Sometimes, he even bullies me," she adds. Before lockdown, the riding area was Jolly's getaway. "Horse riding is meditative. It has been my me-time. When you're with horses, things tend to slow down and I can practice being in the moment." Which is why owners felt unmoored during the lockdown, she reasons. Like Tapuria, Jolly has been keeping tabs on Icecutter's exercise regime and diet.

She said when she met him last week, the temperament of her grouchy horse had undergone a subtle change. "He had mellowed. For the first time, he seemed happy to be petted."

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