May 2, 2021 6:30:37 am
Written by Anup Tiwary
History of humankind, it is said, cannot be written without a reference to our special bond with the horse. That is also true for the President’s Bodyguard (PBG), which prides itself as the senior most regiment of the Indian Army. It has a legacy of nearly 250 years, but its story is incomplete without a nod to this magnificent animal, and the role it has played over the years in the battlefield, in the sporting arena and even in the regiment’s stables.
It all began in Varanasi, where Raja Chait Singh presented 50 horses to the first Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, in 1773. Since then, the agility, faithfulness and valour of the horses have added to the regiment’s colourful history, that continues to inspire generations every time they escort the President of India for ceremonial functions.
There is a saying, “No hour is wasted that is spent in the saddle”. The riders of the PBG, across generations, have appreciated the distinct quality of horses to follow humans, and share a unique bond of trust and respect for one another. The faithfulness and simplicity of this wonderful animal are well articulated in the inspiring story of a horse called Big Boy.
It was in November 1983, during the presidency of Giani Zail Singh. The PBG was all set to receive the visiting state guests from the UK, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. In their final public engagement in the Capital, a mounted display was held in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The musical ride had 20 riders and their horses in ceremonial regalia, performing in exquisite harmony with the music of a military band. It was to be a memorable demonstration of fine balance, timing and ceremonial deportment of both the horse and the rider.
The sunset reverberated with the sound of hoof beats as the men displayed their equitation by performing show jumping and tent pegging, prior to the final event for the day, which was a musical ride. The ride, considered a fiesta of equestrian discipline and rhythm, was held in four different-coloured uniforms and was intended to be a befitting finale to the evening’s events.
Big Boy was a sensitive and affectionate horse, with a penchant for jumping. He rarely bucked or reared and was usually used as a pointsman leading the musical rides. He had a reputation in the regiment: People said all you were required to do was point the jump to Big Boy, he would assume the jumping position and clear the obstacle with poise and balance, making even an average rider look graceful. The performance had just commenced with the trumpet call, which signals the ride to break into the first trot. Something irked Big Boy, and the usually tolerant soul decided to buck, throwing the rider, Mohan Singh, off onto one side.
“If you ride you would eventually fall off,” they say, but Mohan Singh had never thought it would happen on such a solemn occasion in the presence of the first citizen and the visiting head of state. After a fall, horses usually take off galloping, bucking, letting off steam or simply stop and stare at the rider, as if asking whether it was the rider’s fault. But none of this happened. Big Boy had been through many such performances and he decided to continue performing the intricate patterns of the ride along with the rest of the riders and horses.
Mohan Singh’s first reaction was to mount the horse at the earliest opportunity, but for some reason, the Commandant, sensing the equine spirit of the moment, signalled him to hold on. Years of training, practise and social behaviour to remain in herd had conditioned Big Boy and he decided to continue with the performance without the rider for the remaining six minutes.
Big Boy received a standing ovation as soon as the ride got over. The spectators were amazed by this unbelievable spectacle in which the horse, without any signal or control of a rider, had performed to the accompaniment of the band. That day they realised that not just Pegasus — the winged horse — can fly, but all horses can, and carry us beyond all that makes us earth-bound.
While the horses returned to the stables sensing that something had gone wrong, the men waited with bated breath for the wrath that would fall on the hapless Mohan Singh. He was an accomplished rider and wondered what had triggered the unexpected reaction in the horse.
Later in the evening, Zail Singh enquired if the rider was safe. Mohan Singh was pardoned, and at the banquet, hosted in the honour of the Queen, the splendid performance of Big Boy remained the hot topic
The stories of Big Boy and many others — Fariyad, Titan, Virat, Vikrant and Gadgore — have become part of the regiment’s folklore. Every time these magnificent animals move out of the stables, the men instinctively recollect their wonderful feats.
The relationship between horses and human beings is extremely intriguing. It is that bond, based on trust and respect, which transcends into sublime, synergised trots during ceremonial parades or spectacular performances during equestrian events.
They evoke a range of feelings difficult to express. To some, they symbolise power, passion and a free spirit, but to the riders of the regiment, they evoke sentiments of gentleness, affection and empathy. The horses with the PBG are the best-groomed horses in the country and every rider, who has ever served with the regiment, remains indebted to their unflinching loyalty, displayed since its raising centuries ago.
Colonel Anup Tiwary is Commandant of The President’s Bodyguard
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