Off the bridle track

The sahibs introduced equestrian events in Shillong that once had a well-maintained race course. But a part of history faded with time & so has the culture of horse-riding & related sports

Of the many things that Shillong lost over the decades is its equestrian history. As time trotted by, the hill city is left only with its Polo ground, where the sahibs once cantered on their horses. They regularly played polo and took part in horse racing.
Those were days when horses were a common sight on the streets of Shillong. The several bridleways were especially made for the majestic creatures which carried their British masters around on the back. For the hoi polloi, horse-drawn carts were the mode of transportation. Though the carts continued their journey till the mid-nineties, horse riders became inconspicuous and the equestrian history of the sahibs faded with time.
Horse-riding is no more a common practice in the city or other parts of the state. Equestrian events are equally rare.
BK Dey Sawian, former DGP of Meghalaya, remembers his father riding a horse. He recollects that even in the mid-sixties, there was horse racing at Polo ground and “the riding culture was there though far and few”.
An equestrian enthusiast and a rider himself, Sawian says the sport has always been on the elite list and not many people can afford to own a horse or take care of the animal. “It is expensive. There is a constant exercise for the rider and the animal. You have to ride for two to three hours every day. These are some reasons why riding is no more a civilian’s sport here and is associated with the police or the army.”
In one of his articles in 2018, Sawian, who owns two hill ponies, wrote, “In Meghalaya, the West Khasi Hills is home to a peculiar type of hill ponies. These indigenous horses roam freely on the grass covered slopes of Markasa, Mawkyrwat, Rangshken and the adjoining areas of Nongstoin. No documentation or study has ever been conducted by related institutions on the origin of these ponies. They are a well-constructed animals with a very definite and a well-formed body structure.”
The successive state governments never thought of preserving some of the bridleways for a trip down history. Neither the local tourism sector thought of promoting horse riding as a tourist attraction.
But as the state started preparing for the National Games 2022, it became necessary to form the Equestrian Association of Meghalaya, headed by Sawian, in 2018.
“The state Olympic association had actually resolved not to have equestrian. But when it submitted the proposal to the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the IOA, during one of the sittings with the state members, said ‘you can leave out any other discipline but you must have equestrian’. This is because equestrian is a growing sport in the Indian sub-continent,” he says, adding that building the equestrian association “was a mammoth task” because nobody was interested.
Equestrianism is the skill of riding, driving, steeplechasing or vaulting with horses and requires training. Equestrian events became a part of Olympic disciplines in 1900. These were included in the Asian Games in 1982. It was the army that had kept alive equestrian sport in post-independence India, including Meghalaya.
Shillong had its first horse show organised by the state association in November 2018. Previous events included the Junior National Equestrian Championships and International Young Riders Championships in 1996 and an All India Police Equestrian Meet organised by the Assam Rifles.
The participants in the 2018 show included riders from Assam Rifles, Assam police and North East Police Academy, among others. The event was necessary for the state body to get affiliation from the Equestrian Federation of India and was organised in a month’s time.
Shillong experienced the state’s own equestrian enigma after decades. The spectacular tent pegging and show jumping events were an instant hit. “People in the entire (northeastern) region talk about the Shillong model of having a horse show. It was organised in record time,” says Sawian.
Now, Sawian and his team, which includes trained rider Manish Pasari from Kolkata, have the daunting task of grooming a team for the Games. The main challenge, says Sawian, is cultivating an interest in the sport. “I am looking at building a team for Meghalaya through the Assam Rifles. There are a few civilian riders here but they live and ride outside… I cannot find local people coming forward to ride,” he adds.
Time hops, skips and jumps and waits for none. The tide of time takes away with it the old and makes way for the new. But mankind has always made an effort, and successfully, to preserve heritage and history. It is saddening and disappointing to see that those at the helm of power in the state never showed the urge to preserve its heritage for the new generation. Now, with the new association in place, one can hope for a revival and continuation of the equestrian events even after the 2022 Games.

~ NM

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