Jim James, 39, director-publisher for Haymarket, a UK-owned media company, has been based in Mumbai for two and a half years. Last February, he visited Rohetgarh in Rajasthan for a tryst with its famed Marwari horses. Madonna did the visit over the New Year holidays.
How did you get interested in horse riding? Does it always define your holidays?
I rode fairly often as a child and very, very occasionally over the last 20 years or so. It was when I moved base to India in 2004—I had been coming here since 1999—and went riding in Matheran that I decided I wanted to get back to it. These days I try to ride regularly but, because of my schedule, it’s not terribly often. So whenever I go on holiday I always try and include one or two days in the saddle. It doesn’t so much define the holiday, as you can normally find destinations with horses, but if there is a place I know I’ll be able to ride then I’ll definitely go there. I’ll take pretty much anything I can get, even if the riding is limited to a couple of hours in a paddock or woodland, but obviously if going on a long hack and camping out is an option, I’ll jump at it.
Getting back into the saddle in a new country—what was that like?
There’s a degree of getting back to nature but I think the notion of getting out into the countryside, with trees and grass, hillsides and valleys, no noise and no pollution, is the real incentive, especially as I live in Mumbai. The fact that it is exercise is a bonus. I also like the idea that people have been using horses as transport for thousands of years. Matheran itself did not make for the most ideal of situations, since the terrain is stony and one would often have to walk with the horses instead of riding them. But all the riding I have done here has been on personal recommendation and the most important thing is that the horses were well looked after. Riding in a new country does give you a fresh perspective—you tend to go into regions you would normally never see.
Do you like to travel with your own gear?
I’m not that fussy about the gear, and don’t have my own saddle or tack, but I do have a pair of boots and riding hat in both the UK and India, and my half chaps go pretty much everywhere with me.
Was Jodhpur a riding-specific holiday after a long while?
Yes. I had been riding occasionally, but not as a specific trip. My friend Marion Gamel, who was Google’s marketing head for India, knew of the facilities at Rohetgarh and fixed up the details. Sometimes, travelling companions are not into riding, but Marion was. Either way, it wouldn’t have affected my decision to ride.
Tell us about Rohetgarh.
Well, it’s this 17th century palace, which is now a heritage hotel, about 40km from Jodhpur. It’s on the banks of a lake and pretty much the only structure of substance in the area: All around are villages and scrubland. The owner of Rohetgarh trains Marwari horses, the ancestors of which went to war with Rajput warriors.
Did you find the horses or the experience there different from elsewhere in the world?
I’ve been riding in USA, Canada, UK, Europe, and Australia—all of which are very memorable for different reasons. Riding in the Rockies in Colorado was pretty special, real cowboy stuff, and India, where I have been riding the most of late, has a lot of memories too. But there’s a lot of England in me and so probably the best experiences are at home.
Not specific to Rohetgarh, but the horses in India are generally a lot smaller in size than those I’ve seen in the UK and North America. For instance, the horse I was riding in the UK over my year-end vacation was 17 hands; the ones at Rohetgarh would have been 14 hands at most. That said, the Marwari horses seemed to be fitter, stronger and altogether more suited to the local terrain.
What was the most memorable experience for you on horseback in Rohetgarh?
No one thing really, the whole experience was memorable. The horse was sure-footed and strong, the hospitality at the hotel excellent. We were with the horses most of the time—at least in the early mornings and the late afternoons, avoiding the hottest part of the day. There was no question of going off on our own, though—we were always with a guide—so I guess we followed pretty specific routes. Perhaps the best experience was riding out 25km or so one morning to a campsite owned by the hotel. In the winter, they set up camp here and it’s pure luxury as far as camps go, with running water and full-sized beds.
What was the ride like?
It wasn’t difficult but it was hard work for the amount of time we were in the saddle and the heat. We encountered locals all the way along, and they were very much individuals—a young kid with an old tyre that provided him endless entertainment, a couple of old blokes who were shredded after too much opium in their tea, the people who looked after the Jain temple… Even the wildlife approaches you differently when you’re on horseback. When you’re in a car, they tend to stay away. But on a horse, I think one is less threatening since you are accompanied by one of their kind. We saw black bucks and chinkaras, apart from local farm animals like buffaloes.
Did you go to Jodhpur?
Yes, we did. This wasn’t my first time in Rajasthan, but it was the first time I was visiting Jodhpur. We went to the fort on the hill (Mehrangarh), which I had either read about or seen a film on, but large parts of it seemed to be under renovation and reconstruction. There were quite a few tourists there, and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did walking around the city and the central marketplace. That was a really interesting experience for me—I am not really into touristy stuff and I’d much rather talk to or, ideally, listen to the locals. I still carry the sights and sounds of that marketplace with me, from the bags of bright red chillies to the guys cooking stuff by the roadside. Call me brave or stupid, but I’ll eat almost anything that’s freshly cooked in front of me, and though I almost never know what I’m eating, I still remember the fragrance of those crisp pakoras emerging from boiling oil.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Share your last holiday with us at email@example.com
Indian Airlines connects Jodhpur with Delhi (current return economy fares from Rs3,760), Mumbai (from Rs5,655) and Bangalore (from Rs7,540). Rohetgarh is a 40km drive from Jodhpur