I gave up with Balli. Ever since Naranag, she had utterly ignored my attempts to steer her, either with the reins or with my heels. Instead, she doggedly followed Ravi, often so closely that she virtually nosed up to the other mare’s hindquarters. Balli definitely has no sense of personal space, I thought with an inward sigh.
Perhaps the horses of Naranag had never been trained to respond to the standard equestrian commands. After all, they were generally work horses, used to carry goods around the mountain. The rest of the time, they seemed to be left free to graze around the village. They seemed to only be lightly used, as the horses seemed healthy for the most part, and were unshod.
Horseback riding in Naranag
This was the very reason why I wanted to come to Naranag. When our houseboat host in Srinagar pitched the idea to us as an alternative to the shut-down tourism draws of Kashmir such as Gulmarg and Pahalgam, Baiti was attracted to the possibility of equivalent mountain scenery around Naranag. On the other hand, not being particularly mountain-loving, I was indifferent. That is, until he mentioned horses.
“Can we go horseback riding?” I asked. Indeed, we could.
It turned out to be a practical idea as well, at least for me. I hadn’t been well for some time, ever since I returned from French Polynesia. Kashmir was the first time I returned to the high mountains after my trips into the Pacific. And I found it difficult to acclimatise to the altitude this time. I struggled with the hikes, not because they were particularly difficult in terms of mobility, but just because I could not breathe.
So on our third day, our village host brought over his horse and borrowed a second one from his relative. He saddled them, and introduced us. Balli would be my mount, a red bay mare with a stripe and one sock. Ravi, another bay mare, would be Baiti’s. Both Baiti and I were equestriennes, and needed no help mounting.
A horse-loving people
Our host’s eldest son came with us, for he was responsible for Balli, and he was not about to let her go off with me unsupervised. So there were five of us altogether, the women mounted and the men (and boy) on foot. As in Taal, I felt a twinge of disappointment that the Kashmiris led the horses for us. Indeed, Ravi’s bridle did not have a bit, and Balli only had a halter on.
I asked Niyaz’s relative, whether they ever used a bridle and bit at all. They had them, was the reply. But the villagers rarely used them, generally omitting the bit unless they were riding for speed. And, as in Taal, I understood why they wouldn’t give any random tourist a fully bridled horse, who might not be gentle.
Riding up the mountain slopes of Naranag
Niyaz chose a steep mountain trail for our horse riding excursion. Once we were on the trail, they gave us the reins. I soon realised that their trust was not so much in us, but in the horses. For the two horses were clearly used to the trail, and did not need to be told where to go. In fact, neither of us could really disagree with our mounts! They went at the pace that they chose, stopped to bite off random vegetation if they liked, and Balli would crowd as close as she wished to Ravi, even if she came to the point of nearly pushing her along.
This had a major downside, since Ravi was constantly hungry, stopping at random moments for an impromptu graze, resulting in Balli bumping into her. It was additionally a downside, because Ravi was also very flatulent that day. It was hilarious.
Nonetheless, the horses were sure in their footing, and their scenic pace allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the breathtaking Himalayan scenery. I resigned myself to being a mere passenger to what was really the horses’ excursion. As the way got steeper, I gave my phone to the guys, who had volunteered to take photos on our behalf.
The shepherd’s hut
We stopped at a lone shepherd’s hut at the top of the slope. It was in shade, as the sun had just fallen below the top of the mountain on the other side. But, through a break in the tree line, where some trees had fallen, the sunlight spilled as a bright beam, illuminating a lone tree.
We dismounted, and the horses were set loose. Both immediately began grazing, nosing through the shrubbery in the shade. The hut, surrounded by tall slender pines, was rough timber. The sod roof had begun to show growth of late summer grass. Somehow, it brought Tom Bombadil to mind, though it has been many years since I’ve read The Lord of the Rings. That is, except for the village water pipe that ran past it, with a leak that sprang a fountain.
Here, Niyaz informed us that if we wished to see Gulmarg-like mountain views, we would need to hike for about half an hour. I wished I could, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up while I wasn’t fully well. I declined, so the two guides could hike at full speed with Baiti. His son kept me company while I waited, taking pictures together and enjoying the view.
The semi-wild horses around Naranag
Before the hour was up, Baiti returned with the guys. She was pleased with the view, enough to mollify her for coming all the way to Kashmir but not be able to see the fabled sights of its better-known sites. We re-mounted, and made our way back to the village.
I was thankful then, for my equestrian lessons, and for having spent so much time at my university’s equestrian club. For the way down was as steep as the way up, and it takes some nerve to keep your seat and remembering to keep the reins loose. This is particularly so, since Balli seemed to have a death wish near ravines. She constantly veered right at the edge of the trails whenever they fell off to some kind of mini ravine, and it didn’t help that she sometimes slipped on a cobble or two.
But the trail widened again, and we were back in the goat pastures. Shepherd huts were arrayed against the slope. A young goat bleated as it skittered close to us, curious.
And here we saw again Naranag’s free range horses, similar to the unattended horses near the temple ruins. They seemed tame, like they have been domesticated. But at the same time, they seemed to be free, belonging to no one. Or at least, I suppose, until they get a person, and go to live in the village with them.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.
Keen to explore Naranag on horseback? Or just want to meet the semi-domesticated horses? Pin this idea!