I gave up with Balli. Ever since we left Naranag, the horse had utterly ignored my attempts to steer her, whether 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 pack horses, used to carry goods around the mountain. They were unshod, but I guess that was fine since they seemed to only be lightly worked. The rest of the time, Naranag’s horses were left to graze around the village freely.

Horses approaching carrying loads in single file along a mountain trail near Naranag, followed by villagers. The Himalayas form a steep backdrop, with sunbeams running down the middle where the sun had just topped the ridge.
Pack horses in Kashmir
Horses idling in a clearing in Naranag village. The adult horses still have their saddles and bridles on. One only had a blanket. The young horses were bare.
Left free range most of the time

Going horseback riding in Naranag

Horse riding was the reason why I wanted to come to Naranag in the first place. 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 seeing 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. The last high altitude trip I did was to the Atacama desert. I found it difficult to acclimatise to the altitude in Kashmir. I struggled with the hikes, not because they were particularly difficult in terms of terrain, but just because I could not breathe.

On our third day in Naranag, our host Niyaz 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.

Mounted on horses to go trekking around Naranag
Ready to go horse trekking in Naranag

Horse people in Naranag

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. Ravi’s bridle did not even 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.

Looking down on the mane of a bay horse from its back, while it is being led by the reins by its handler.
Being led on a horse

Riding a horse up a mountain trail in Naranag

Niyaz chose a steep mountain trail for our horse riding excursion. Once we were on the steep trail, they gave us the reins, to my surprise. But 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 up the hill.

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 also a downside for a second reason, 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 on 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 lay in shade, as the sun had just fallen below the top of the mountain on the other side. Nonetheless, through a break in the tree line where some trees had fallen, the sunlight spilled as a bright beam, illuminating a lone tree.

Tree bathed in light

We dismounted, and the horses were set loose. Both immediately began grazing, nosing through the shrubbery in the shade. The hut was rough timber, surrounded by tall slender pines. 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.

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 that 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 tame horses in the valleys

Before the hour was up, Baiti returned with the two guides. She was pleased with the views she had seen, enough to mollify her for coming all the way to Kashmir but not being able to see the fabled sights of its better-known tourism 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 long ago. Enough body memory remained, and it helped. For the way down was as steep as the way up, and it took 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.

Here we saw again Naranag’s free range horses, similar to the unattended horses near the temple ruins. They seemed tame, like they had 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!

8 Responses

  1. What a fabulous way to soak in all the beauty and tranquility. I remember doing this a long time back. Love your photographs.

  2. I can’t get over these beautiful horses! I can definitely see why you wanted to visit this beautiful setting :)

    • Teja says:

      It was quite interesting, because many of them seemed to be roving about freely but they didn’t seem wild either. It was fascinating.

  3. Terri says:

    I absolutely love doing a horseback riding tour when I travel. I have also experienced the stubborn horse which decides he is in charge!

  4. Krista says:

    Wow this looks like an amazing adventure up the mountain on horseback. It looks very peaceful too which is a nice change from busy city trips.

    • Teja says:

      It was. It would have been too easy to be lazy and just look at the scenery, but fortunately the villagers keep themselves busy so you can’t help but pick up some of the rhythm as well.

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