Ever since I saw Dothraki screamers using bow from horseback, I nursed a desire to learn equestrian skills. Little did I know that I would get a chance in the Nilgiris. Even though I could not exploit the opportunity fully (due to a travelling job), riding in the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington, Tamil Nadu, gives one the freedom to experience a legacy of 170 years.
Regular Hunts—the name is a misnomer as sighting even a fox on the route is rare—are conducted under the aegis of Ootacamund Hunt Club, located in southern Tamil Nadu and the only surviving hunt club on the East of Suez. Established in 1848, the hunt has been continuing, but had a brief pause during the 1857 soldiers’ mutiny. Post-1947, the DSSC has become the patron of the Hunt Club. The tradition at the Ooty Hunt Club has been followed in Ooty, the Queen of Hills, even as it is fading in England.
The hunters gather in the crisp mornings of the Nilgiri mountain range that is part of the Western Ghats. Though there is no actual prey or bloodshed, the traditions of the hunts have been kept alive. The hunt begins from picturesque places such as Sheep Farm or Ooty Gymkhana. As the riders reach the place of beginning, they check the health status of the horses allotted to them, as they are transported a day before. Sometimes they have hard luck as a tall rider might get a short horse and vice-versa, so they generally bribe the horse with jaggery. Before the riders embark on the hunt, they give cap money to the care takers of the horses.
The hunt is conducted by the Master of Foxhounds. He explains the etiquette to the riders, and is followed by the Commandant of DSSC and patron of Ooty Hunt Club Lt Gen Amreek Singh. At no point are the riders allowed to overtake the Master of Foxhounds. If they do so, they will have to pay the penalty of six beers. Once the Master mounts, the horse riders clad in blue blazers follow the suit (only the patron and leading riders wear red blazers).
Thereafter, foxhounds—do not call them dogs or else you will end up paying beer penalty—are let loose. The trained hounds are controlled by whistles and chase an imaginary quarry, and are followed by the riders. The foxhounds are trained not to bark, lest the prey is alerted.
The hounds are no ordinary ones. In 2005, Shepherd, an English foxhound, was brought from the Hurworth Hunt in North Yorkshire, to improve the bloodline of the local hounds.
After about one-and-a-half hours, the riders take a refreshment break, and the culmination of the hunt takes place either at the Ooty Hunt Club or the Gymkhana Club. The first-timers are given a lapel pin by the DSSC Commandant. But the sport is definitely not for the fainthearted as you not only end up losing early morning sleep, but if you fall you might end up paying six beers as penalty and one or two broken bones!
I realise this as my better half is leaving the Nilgiris with two titanium plates in his right forearm! But he thinks the experience was worth it and would do it again during his next posting.Nonetheless, traversing the slippery slopes of undulating Nilgiris and dense forests, one gets the best
view of the mountain ranges from the horseback.