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As the jallikattu debate heats up and protests rage in Tamil Nadu, there are a lot of ignorant arguments being made in favor of the ban. Trying to dispel some of them.

Bulls are not naturally aggressive

There is also this absurd Facebook video doing the rounds to "prove" it.

This Teacher Showed The True Cruelty Of Bullfighting

Say no to bullfighting!

Posted by The Holidog Times on 20hb Disember 2016

This video is an extremely misleading JOKE. To copy from the last time I commented on it:

This video is extremely misleading bullshit. The “bull” in the video is a calf. Watch him run – all legs, no bulk, total frisky. Still has his baby coat of hair. Adorable max, but really he wouldn’t do anything even if the students petted him. Likely around a year to a year and half old, though guesstimate – not familiar with the development of that breed. The male aggressive behavior is a part of sexual maturity. You won’t see it in calfs!

This is like saying dogs don't bite, because you didn't meet one that did. Describing this in terms of dogs, because more people are familiar with dogs.

There are many breeds of dogs. Some are great companions and pets. Others are better working dogs. Even among working dogs, there is the question of temperament. There's a reason why there are entire breeds called some or the other "shepherd" - these dogs have good protective instincts and stamina. Some dogs are easier to train. Think labradors and retrievers making great dogs for sniffing trails/drugs/etc. Others have a strong fight instinct - they are great for protection work - think rottweilers, German Shepherds, Doberman... You can train a German Shepherd for precise obedience work. They will be harder than a Lab. Expect a lot of cocked heads asking "WHY" - a dog's way of arguing/challenging in "conversation". The occasional pet may save owner's baby in a fire. Only a fool would start using that breed for protection work as a result. It is aptitude. A lot of it is genes and it is taken further with temperament of the individual dog. That is what breeding is about. And then what training is about.

It is similar with horses. Draught horses have stocky and large bodies. Fantastic for pulling. The long legged thoroughbred will beat it for speed, always. A Shetland pony may do neither, but is way safer for your kids to get acquainted to horses with. Mountain ponies would suffer in the heat of the plains, but their surefootedness will have them outperform other breeds on a mountain.

Among cattle, you have distinctions between beef and dairy cattle abroad. Beef cattle are stockier, yield more meat, less milk in comparison with dairy breeds. And so on. Similarly..... breeds of bulls used for sporting events are high spirited. You don't exactly race a bull that wants to plod along. These are the breeds used for sport for any success. Among them, those with aptitude will be raised for sport. Good feeding, possibly some training on what to expect, excellent care. You don't enter an abused creature for a sporting event. These are prime animals selected and brought to form - hardly the sign of an abusive owner!

The cattle are abused by being forced to stand in crowd, etc

And form, in a herbivore is excellent health so the animal responds to the slightest stimulus. Probably the easiest "visual" for an urban person might be... racehorses. Primed, prancing, ready to go. This is rural India and cattle, so "prancing" won't be visibly evident, but they will be restless and reactive to stimulus. This is not abuse, it is BRILLIANT CARE!!! Yes, this means they will react to the slightest thing and will be difficult to control and rebellious. That is how a high spirited animal is. If you want a half dead flogged ox who placidly stands there as the chaos of traffic flows past, you'll find plenty at your neighbourhood garbage dump! Clap a hand next to them, nothing will happen. Clap one next to these bulls, they will react! Not because they are abused, but because they have an excess of energy waiting to DO something. Even if it is not as evident in cattle as in horses. Think of it as your hyper 7 year old in great health restless and bouncing off walls in a place he's made to stand still. Compare with when he's ill. Are you really ABUSING him if he is in good enough health to be bored and restless to GO and you should keep him feverish and placid so no one thinks he's being abused?

Here's a simple test you could try without "animal abuse". Follow a cattle transporter around. See which animals give trouble being loaded in a truck. The half dead ones will walk in. They don't have the energy to react to everything - auto pilot. The better the health is, the more they will resist being loaded on a truck. They will find it unfamiliar and have all the energy they need to be appropriately mistrustful and resist. Is transporting animals abuse? Debatable point.

A large part of the "abuse" videos are this. Controlling cattle to stand in assigned place waiting for their turn. If they stood quiet and didn't need to be controlled, they'd be useless to compete! That just is not how health in herbivorous animals works. A healthy herbivore will take effort to be made to stand in place. Calling that abuse is like saying you prefer them to be half dead and docilely standing where told so you don't have to see them being forced to stand in one place!

Pro-animals, anti-humans

The people being accused of abuse are the same people that got the bulls to fighting condition. It is the same trusted owner holding the bull in place who got him in great health enough to compete! How do I know this? Because only an idiot would presume to handle a bull they aren't familiar with and  only an idiot would allow a prize animal to be handled by strangers. And no livestock would be calmed while restless in a crowd by a stranger. Anyone who owns livestock would know that they aren't strangers harassing bulls they got off eBay to torture, but the owners/carers standing with their prize entries!

The idea that you love those animals more than the people who spend their lives caring for them is little more than your intoxication with yourself as a little know-it-all.

You can fake abuse, you can't fake care

Anyone who owns livestock will tell you that it is impossible to fake good health in an animal. You simply have to do it. Spend time, money, effort, and again and again till they shine and bounce with health. That is the only way to do it. There are no hacks, no shortcuts. If those animals stand there in good condition, you can't convince a livestock owner that they are abused. Abuse doesn't result in animals like that. But you sure can convince an urban person with no perspective beyond their own that the strength needed to control a bull is, in fact abuse.

Livestock are not pets, they are property

Like you wouldn't allow your best, most expensive car to be vandalized because a cheering mob thinks it fun, a bull owner won't allow his bull to be deliberately injured. If it happens once, would you bring your car to such events over and over? So wouldn't a bull owner.

Participants are not film villains, they are people

Bulls have enormous strength. it would take a particularly suicidal person to want to engage with a bull driven out of control with pain. The chances of there being hordes of them at every event are nill to none. Because what sounds like a great evil script to an urban mind is suicidal absurdity to someone who has worked with large animals. These are animals that leap in the air with two people hanging on to them under normal circumstances. Who the hell needs them to be crazed and even more aggressive? If driving them mindless with pain were standard practice, participants would refuse to risk it! Which parents would allow their sons to play with maddened bulls? Note, these animals weigh between 450 kilos for the lightest to around 650 for the heaviest - that is at least five times the weight of any participant in the arena. And with more legs, even more times the power. You don't need a maddened bull going out of control. A normal bull is plenty challenge!

Those bulls can be put to other use

What other use? Castrated oxen are way easier to handle for stuff like ploughing and pulling carts. They could be abandoned on the streets, and likely will. God save the farmer who tries to chase them out of fields they wander into. Of course, the farmer not engaging in a fair "sport" would use weapons. Which goushala will want bulls that will attack the other cattle they have to taken in? What can aggressive bulls do to each other? Here's an example. Also an example of just how much hitting a bull can take without - forget injury - without even losing focus once it has something on its mind. Also handy for a perspective on the "hitting" during jallikattu to control the bulls. What would likely break your and my limbs is barely a deterrent for large livestock. They are stronger. I don't think urban minds fully comprehend what that means in terms of force needed in different situations. So here are two bulls. One of them being hit mercilessly by people with sticks with all their strength. Note how much impact it has on the bull.

I guess this is a good time to mention in comments what use you'd put aggressive sporting breeds to, if not sport.

It is also a good time to understand why I laugh when bleeding hearts claim that prize bulls are terrified of the men in the arena. I most certainly don't support animal abuse. I have personally never used sticks with my animals, but I also spent time with them 24/7 as a nomad and had all the time in the world to train them. I did use stones and I can throw stones like nobody's business. And this is livestock I literally lived in poverty to pamper. Hardly hated them! They were my life! But unlike a couch activist, I KNOW what hurts them and what amounts to little more than a rap to get them to obey. The point is that the amount of force used with a stick is directly proportional to the need for control. This is an extreme situation and you have three people hitting all out, usually, there will be just one. But the "hit" will never be gentle enough for a human. It would be no deterrent whatsoever. That hitting with sticks in the above video is an extreme example and shared more for a sense of how much force can a bull take as compared with the average person's idea of force, but you got to be demented if you think a rap or a poke with a stick injures a bull any more than a hard tap on your shoulder injures you.

At the end of that video, both "brutalized" bulls race off leaving the humans exhausted from hitting one of them staring. THAT is how powerful they are.

Does this mean no abuse happens?

No, of course not. Where there are humans, there will be abuse. But the prevalence of abuse is likely extremely exaggerated because of a lot of urban minds simply having no frame of reference for what is normal. There will be abuse. There will be rich people who may buy prize animals days before events to enter for kicks and don't mind what is done to make the bull more aggressive. But these cannot be the vast majority. Mind you, even among people who buy good animals to enter the events, most will value the bulls. Very few will be rich enough to treat a bull worth lakhs as disposable. Most of those with the best animals will be seeking to enter multiple events and win prizes and fame, not destroy the animals and render them unfit for further use.

There will be people who will be entering random bulls rendered useless by modernization on a lark thinking that they are useless anyway and good if they win something and doesn't matter if they are injured. Such people may even be fine torturing a bull so that it goes out in a blind fight for survival thinking it improves their chances of winning.

The good bulls definitely enjoy the challenge and use serious strategies

Yet, if you see winning bulls, they are strategizing. They know exactly what they are doing and they avoid letting players get into a position to attempt to hold them at all as a first strategy. Study their fights and you will see that they approach it with a more "kabbadi" mindset. Keep an eye on getting a clear exit, feint and move to prevent being caught, find an opening, take it. Stuff like this comes with tremendous training and care. And make no mistake, the bull enjoys the challenge. Aptitude can't be faked and it can't be developed to such extents without the bull being a partner in the process.

This bull, for example has a clear strategy. If he can't be touched, he can't be caught. Full kabbaddi approach to his game. He spins and feints in very fast circles, keeping people at bay (incidentally showing just how much sideways movement a sports bull is capable off - not torture!). Tosses over a few people (notel, he is not goring them), but doesn't let himself get distracted by an easy target. His eye is always on having a clear run out of the area. Holds participants at bay till he gets an opening out and takes it. Over and over. Another bull has a less elegant but equally effective strategy. Aggression. Several times, he gets the first person to approach near the gate and then pretty much brute forces his way through. Proactive overreactions are his deterrent. Note how he catches participants by surprise almost every time till the last, where they simply give him a wide berth.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ap1SFWeVGc8

I have purposely used compilations about individual bulls, so you are able to recognize their strategy being played over and over with complete confidence. These aren't random defensive actions, this is training at work. Note that the people they hold back effortlessly have also trained and have strategies to catch bulls - that fail.

Any of these entries could easily be confused for a scared bull if seen one off. Compilations like these show how it is a consistent - and winning strategy individual for tbe bull. Far from being a scared victim, the bull is trouncing his opponents with great skill/strength and definite strategy. There are others that come out of the arena rearing on their hindlegs so that their rump is high out of reach for the initial crowd and those attempting are extremely vulnerable to the bull. These are strategies.

Not just do they know exactly what they are doing I even saw a couple of videos where bulls who mostly had a straight run through the participants stop and turn back as though disappointed and expecting more! Animals aren't idiots. That bull knows it could have been more fun. And high adrenaline action is indeed fun for animals with energy to spare. That is why healthy horses NEED regular exercise or they go restless (and usually create trouble by deciding how to spend that energy on their own). That is why grazing animals in peak health often have mock fights with each other. A brisk tussle that they know how to handle is not just not abuse, it is invigorating.

Political psyops against PETA

This is crucially important. It must be said here that the calls to ban PETA are flat out wrong. I see these calls to ban PETA as a standard political practice of using polarization against "foreign oppressor" to consolidate people in solidarity - for politics. Standard extremism script. That it is an anonymous "apolitical" protest suddenly exploded to massive sizes and having very expert social media support stinks of exactly one party that has used strategies like this in the past. That it comes in the wake of a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu makes it all the more certain. Targeting of rights organizations and NGOs interested in protecting animals is not the sign of animal lovers. On the other hand it is very much a sign of a party given to attacks on NGOs, "apolitical" protests against existing governments (note, BJP is in the center and supporting the protests - whoever thinks this is a Tamil uprising against Hindi hedgemony is merely being exploited by their emotions for a political agenda, while the TN government that did everything to allow the practice to continue is being attacked. Subtly, now, but "where is Paneerselvam" is already appearing on protest posters). Remember the IAC protests. Tamilians being led by their anti-Hindi sentiments should note that they are neither the first nor the last to be used in such a manner. Hatred by "animal lovers" for organizations protecting animal rights ought to be a warning signal that all isn't as it appears.

Abuse must be identified and targeted and prosecuted.

PETA have definitely nailed abuse in their videos even if all of it is not abuse. Sharp weapons, irritants rubbed into eyes, etc are 100% abuse. Another channel had done an independent expose showing crackers being burst, tobacco being put into eyes, and the commentary doesn't mention it, but my experienced eye caught a limping bull - a limping bull has no place in "sport". These practices need to be stopped - non-negotiable. And the "massive" protests are a very real risk that political games will bulldoze away all gains made toward regulating them.

But it can't happen if everything gets objected to as abuse. These are neither stupid animals and nor are they as unprepared for sport as the average urban viewer discovering it on youtube. Those on the ground will call you nuts and dismiss you the minute you begin with all the bulls being scared - they so totally are not! Bring the law down on their heads and they will call you the enemy for misrepresenting them and harming their practices.

Which is what we see happening.

There is a very real and urgent need for finding middle ground in the interest of animal rights.

Does the survival of indigenous species really depend on jallikattu?

Well, not all indigenous species. From having over 120 indigenous species, India is down to some less than 40 (these are numbers off my head, but on the conservative side, real likely to be worse). But for the species used specifically in jallikattu, particularly the Kangayam and Pulikulam, it can be the death knell. Let us face it, there would remain no need to breed bulls suitable only for sport if the sport were banned. Far tamer species would be more useful for work. At best, most bulls would be castrated at early age to make them easier to handle. There would be no reason to pay stud fees for expensive bulls if cheap artificial insemination would also mean breeding cattle with higher milk yields. In other words, they would be too much trouble for no use = no one would want = extinction. Like the many other species that no longer exist in India. So, in my view, judging jallikattu irretrievably cruel to animals also means saying that those animals in excellent form are better off not existing at all. The question is, there are plenty of videos on youtube. Do you really see animals that should go extinct?

"Do YOU have any ideas to make jallikattu safer?"

Frankly, as an outsider, I don't think I am the best person to make helicopter recommendations, but from what I see, the following ideas come to mind. I bet local enthusiasts and best breeders will have more.

  • Mandatory safety fencing strong enough to contain a bull that leads to a pen for bulls to escape to and cool down, where only owners/caregivers registered will be allowed to enter. This should be out of sight of the main arena (up/down a slope, around something, etc - up is best - will burn some excess energy off in reaching). This will prevent a lot of the injuries by keeping the bulls in full adrenaline mode away from people and giving them a place to calm down safely (without running into vehicles or breaking limbs on obstacles).
  • Mandatory animal lover/village vet/respected animal lover elder serving as a "referee" kind of character, who will call a halt to all attempts on a bull if it shows signs of undue distress or aggression (no, bursting out of a holding area or bucking people off, isn't distress or aggression - it is reflex). If an animal appears to be going in circles trying to escape and unable to find way out, or if an animal starts attacking the participants, time to call it a day for that animal and let him be led/herded out of the area to the pen. Participants to persist after the referee declares a halt should be disqualified from further presence.
  • Tranquilizer darts and person competent in using them. An animal showing excessive distress or aggression and being beyond control should be tranquilized and taken to the pen to recover instead of risking his or participant's safety with further provocation in the form of attemtps to control it. This is not an ideal solution and shouldn't be standard practice, but more like a "last resort" to prevent injuries.

I will add to this if I can think of something, but frankly, for someone who has no direct stake, I've already said too much. There are too damn many sheharis talking and not enough bull owners.

7

I am neither defending nor opposing jallikattu. Nor do I intend this to be an adverserial discussion. Bear with me, it is slightly long. The downside of describing behavior of bulls to those not trained to see it is that each picture seems to take a thousand words.

My response to the response by Poorva Joshipura, CEO of PETA India to my article on Jallikattu

While I don't agree with PETA India's view about the ban, I agree that the rights of animals must be protected. My main issue is that it does not seem familiar with the body language of cattle and sees everything as abuse, even when the bulls themselves clearly don't.

On the similarities between jallikattu and bullfighting—since you raised the point—there are many. You say weapons are used in bullfights—well guess what, they are also used during jallikattu events. During jallikattu, in the holding area, participants stab and jab bulls with sickles, spears, knives and sticks in order to force them to run toward the mob of men (which goes against their desire, which is to flee in the opposite direction). In bullfighting, the bulls are often deliberately disoriented. For jallikattu, bulls may be force-fed alcohol for the same purpose. Jallikattu participants also cause bulls intense pain by yanking their nose ropes, and jallikattu participants also punch, jump on and drag bulls to the ground and twist and bite their tails.

I will post here the video you refer to, that was included in my original article as visuals of the abuse Poorva mentions. An attempt to let bulls speak for themselves, so to say.

Sticks are commonly used to control livestock.If you have to use a stick through a narrow gap, your use is pretty much limited to "poke". This doesn't mean you're skewering the animal. Not something I like, but it is a fact of cattle rearing not limited to jallikattu. Also tail pulling, it is easy to see that the bull's movement is being controlled to angle him into a narrow space, except the last instance where it is to hold him back. To someone unaware of how cattle move or are moved, this may appear as random harassment, but this is likely shot outside the narrow pen the wary bull has to get into. Precise positioning using vulnerable body parts is normal. Not ideal. But not a jallikattu special either. Ask cattle transporters or... vets.

You claim jallikattu is similar to bullfighting, because weapons are used in the holding area. It may be possible, but so far I have yet to see blood on a bull entering the arena in any jallikattu video. It is also extremely unlikely that the cattle owners will take kindly to prime livestock being cut or injured by a mob. So I am just going to pass on this till I have some evidence it is prevalent.

About the "alcohol". The video is not certain it is alcohol. Supporters of jallikattu claim it is glucose water for a burst of energy. Whatever it is, the bull is drinking it willingly in the video. I don't think much will need to be done to make the bulls agitated. Not having control in a situation with a loud crowd and other bulls around will do the trick for most bulls.. Add to it the nature of the activity - youths dispersing when bull faces them, approaching in peripheral vision, pouncing - this sort of thing spooks all herbivores and is enough to make them flee. This is more along the line of harassment than brutality.

Few of the bulls appear intimidated by the men, though resentfully resigned to the control.Jallikattu or not, these are the same people they live with for the rest of the year, who care for them and are trusted, even if they are making freaky demands. Incidentally the same people who have cared for them well - you don't get these kind of bulls from neglect and brutality. Most of them are just extremely alert (watch ear and tail movements - ears pricked forward is alert, twitching back and forth is nervous, tucked tail is fear, head lowered is aggression). This is not fear, it is wariness. They burst out, get away from the youth and that is that. You will see it if you approach livestock at pasture. The more an animal is in the prime of health, the more it will startle, react. So bursting out of that area is about as normal as a racehorse bursting out of a gate. Some bulls are scared, definitely, where they go around trying to gore people. That is fear/anger behavior. And usually you'll find the crowd rapidly switch to calming the animal. Not always, not always successful. Basically the bull has "snapped". The bull has no idea which way is safety, feels cornered, so gets aggressive and does the next best thing, evicts people (the threat) from the arena. Or bulldozes through any and everything to get out of there leading to injuries for people and bulls. There ought to be safety protocols for handling this sort of thing, including the possibility of a referee kind of character who calls it a day for that bull if the men persist.

Cattle have strong flight responses. While they flee a threat, they aren't too scared unless they get trapped. It is a reflex. The bucking off of people trying to catch it. Left alone without further irritation, they will calm rapidly. For animals, "threat" is not how we interpret it. Anything from the unfamiliar to outright attack is a "threat". The usual response is a burst of adrenaline and a gallop away from the source. This really doesn't mean they are intimidated - reflex kind of thing. Spooked. Like we jump when someone goes "boo" is irritating, but not abuse - unlikely thought it may seem to someone not used to them. Or it would be impossible to have thousands of years of sport and get that same reaction over and over.

This is not to say it is "right" to play with them or that it is ethical. There is a need to engage with breeders of prime bulls, veterinarians, animal rights activists such as yourself, lawmakers and get perspectives and contribute to evolving more sustainable practices instead of helicoptering in with the "right interpretation" that those on the ground don't recognize. There will be negotiation. The worst of the practices will have to be chipped away. There will need to be convincing, not ordering. That is possible only when you have the buy in of those engaged in them.

But the most important thing from this video as well as others on the internet is the importance of a sturdy arena that the bull cannot exit and injure others or himself. Possibly with a little pen at the opposite end of the arena with view of arena blocked for the bulls to cool down where people other than owners should not be allowed. I repeat, I am not an expert or even familiar with jallikattu but it certainly appears that an area for bulls to escape to and cool down safely will largely reduce injuries for all. Regulation can actually achieve things of this sort if a determined effort is made to identify them.

There are other things, but my point is that there is a mix of abuse and normal behavior with cattle in the objections, which makes it difficult to tell what the prevalence of abuse because of jallikattu is. While this approach is very healthily pro-animals, it is hostile to their owners and considers them malicious by default to the point of making breeding and owning bulls at all unviable. This is a problematic view - that the animals who are clearly in excellent condition are better off not existing at all, because of your views on how they are treated on one day. These are bulls worth lakhs that you are consigning to being no better than butcher meat. And they will face worse injuries, because if more money is not to be spent on them, they will have to be provably economically unviable to be butchered. Not the few that accidentally get injured, but deliberate neglect and potentially injury by owners unable to sell them or earn from them anymore. Because here is a thing. An owner loves an animal he takes pride in, not one he has to feed at the cost of necessities for his own home. Livestock are not pets, they are property. Check out the vanishing male cattle in Maharashtra. There is a complete ban on slaughter now, but the law was similar to Tamil Nadu when these numbers happened - no slaughter of cows, only slaughter of economically unviable males. They get abandoned or starved to death now. They got butchered earlier, but every successive rural hardship has led to a decline in their numbers. Such are the alternatives you are recommending when you remove the one thing that makes them desirable and economically viable. With a  ban on jallikattu there remains little need for an indigenous cow owner to opt for continuing - this often includes stud fees that are 20 times the fees of artificial insemination - with imported sperm. You are wrong when you say it is entirely determined by dairy industry. It is, if there is no other use for non-dairy cattle, which you are ensuring.

You also claim the bulls used for jallikattu are “aggressive by nature and prone to attack”. Are you sure you’re not talking about the jallikattu players? The bulls run helter-skelter not because they are aggressive, but because they are scared. They are so scared they need to be coerced to participate through weapons and the cruel methods as described above.

In fact, a teacher in Mexico conducted an experiment to prove it is not the bulls, but the humans, who are aggressive. The teacher had the students stand in a bullfighting arena where a bull was let loose and matadors used red flags as they do during bullfights. As you can see in the video, the bull just wants to find a way out, and is working on doing so, without hurting anyone:

https://www.facebook.com/HolidogTimes/videos/vb.1077612508960066/1197700626951253/

The video shows bulls will not attack if not provoked.

You seem to think of bulls as terrified, timid creatures. They are not. They are capable of fear, of course, but they are perfectly capable of attacking people if they feel cornered- or, for that matter, otherwise. I have to disagree completely here to the point of DON'T TRY THIS. This video is extremely misleading bullshit. The "bull" in the video is a calf. Watch him run - all legs, no bulk, total frisky. Still has his baby coat of hair. Adorable max, but really he wouldn't do anything even if the students petted him. Likely around a year to a year and half old, though guesstimate - not familiar with the development of that breed. The male aggressive behavior is a part of sexual maturity. You won't see it in calfs! It wouldn't matter even if the students moved all they want or got aggressive. The calf would shy away. There is a reason bulls are castrated as a medical practice. It is because adult males can be very aggressive and territorial. Never mind me. If you can trust the University of Wisconsin Department of Dairy Science to not have an agenda of protecting jallikattu or any other bullfighting, here's an excerpt from their Farm Safety Fact Sheets. This excerpt is on page 2.

I also have no idea why you think bulls aren't aggressive. I've met many bulls who would dispute that. Heck I know a couple that went out of their way to make that point. Strangers couldn't pass one of those damned critters without risking getting gored. Zero provocation. Just existence was enough. Magnificent animal, but liked people about as much as I do, was just less inhibited about it. Loved him. From a distance. To the best of my knowledge, he was never mistreated. Was the darling of the family, whom he never attacked. Put him in that Facebook video and it would never get uploaded. There would be a news headline "Bull gores x students in an attempt at a Facebook video gone horrily wrong." Just like good temperament, bad temperament too is a combination of nature and nurture. And sometimes just the personality of the animal. Most bulls fall somewhere in the middle, though all are territorial to some degree unless castrated. They can also be trained otherwise, but this is unnatural behavior, not easy and cannot be relied on with anyone other than their trainer. They may be trained for fights too, but you cannot invent aggression in an animal. Only train discipline or how to channel aggression.

This is one thing I want to insist - regardless of jallikattu or bullfighting. Please stop spreading disinformation that could put people at risk. You are a voice of authority related with animals. The chances are that you could get a gullible urban supporter gored. Rural folks who know bulls won't believe.

You have concluded your piece by mentioning that other animals suffer—but the existence of one type of suffering cannot justify another. If it did, setting animal rights aside, even human rights would never progress. You, as a woman, or me as a woman, would likely never have been educated or have the opportunities we have today if people thought this way.

It is a minor point, but defending my honor here. The article is public. You are implying I conclude the article justifying jallikattu by bringing in other instances of animal suffering. Actually, that is not how the article ends. The PETA video which actually makes the opposite argument comes after that. Entirely voluntarily. Why would I do that if I wanted to conclude with justifications of jallikattu and ignore harm to cattle as something other animals go through too?

The rights of animals aren't a negotiable issue for me. My disagreement is with what constitutes abuse as well as whether the alternative is better or worse. I am also concerned about people and their livelihoods. And I am not concluding that jallikattu does not involve abuse. I am trying to find out more. I am trying to decode the complaints and see what appear to be genuine areas of concern and what appears to be a misunderstanding. I am interested in knowing whether there is a possibility that allows all to thrive without harming another.

5

I have refrained from commenting on jallikattu for a long time, mainly because I don't have any real experience or concrete insight on the subject (yes, that does prevent me from making opinions known). However, after several debates, reading up, arguments and a lot of thinking, I can definitely say that a middle way needs to be found. A ban is not an answer and animal rights must be upheld to the best of our capacity (which can be considerable if we make an effort).

I think it is quite harmful to import PETA arguments against bullfighting and slap them onto Jallikattu for a handy halo of standards for animals. While I still am not expert enough to provide a "solution" that I can robustly defend without doubt, here is my thinking on several aspects of the issue.

What is jallikattu?

A youth hanging onto a bull during jallikattu.
A youth hanging onto a bull during jallikattu performed in Alanganallur, Madurai. Photo: Iamkarna

Jallikattu is a part of the celebrations of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, where youth of a village engage in a bull taming match, where a bull trained to buck them off is sent into the arena and the objective is to hang on to the bull by the rump, while the bull tries to buck them off. There are no weapons or rope involved and only bare hands may be used to hold on to the bull. Injuries to contestants are more likely (and prevalent in reality) than to bulls. If the bull succeeds in bucking them off, it wins, or the youth to hang on to the end wins.Like many other rites of passage seen in tribal societies worldwide, it is a test of the man's strength and skill in going barehanded against a bull. It is also a process of selecting the best bull for breeding. The event has been criticized due objections about cruelty to the bulls.

What is bullfighting?

A matador before the final strike at Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid, Spain 2005
A matador before the final strike at Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid, Spain 2005. Photo: Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

For the purposes of this discussion, bullfighting would be what is practiced in Spain. Another cultural tradition. However, in this, the bull is repeatedly "hooked" at the hump with lances and finally when weakened with loss of blood and pain and defeated, it is killed with a sword. The bullfight invariably ends with the death of the bull. In rare instances, a bull that fights exceptionally well may be spared the final strike (but not the injuries). There is no competition involved. It is a traditional "art form" slaughter. The bull's struggle to evade a certain death is entertainment. There is no option for the bull to escape the injuries or death, usually.

How is jallikattu different from bullfighting?

In case the difference is still not evident, jallikattu pits the strength of a 60 kilo man against a 400+ kilo bull and the bull has far more power and horns. It is by no means a fight that endangers the animals - though of course accidents are possible in everything involving reflexes. The worst a bull will usually come to is exhaustion and injuries. I don't think even PETA will dispute this. In contrast, in bullfighting, the animal is pitted against people with weapons, some of them mounted on horses. When bulls disemboweled more horses than bulls getting killed, they started protecting the horses. There is no question of allowing a bull to win, merely making a spectacle of its death. Whatever our stands on what constitutes animal rights, the factual dissimilarities are glaring enough that arguments for or against cannot be copy-pasted between the two as currently appears to be happening.

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Beyond this, I am looking specifically at jallikattu rather than bringing bullfighting into it. What considerations are there? What lives and livelihoods are involved?

The jallikattu bull

The bulls used in jallikattu are primarily from the kangayam breed of cattle. They are aggressive by nature and prone to attack. They are further trained for the sport, it is true, but these bulls are not preferred for work with far more docile breeds being easily available. They are, however good for breeding because of generations of stock selected for strength and reflexes. It is very common in rural societies for the males of herd animals to be castrated (horses, bulls, bullocks... even goats if there are more than one male!). The reason for this is that herd behavior dictates that males fight among themselves for dominance. This is natural behavior. Leaving the best of each generation with the temple as "public property" of sorts for all breeding needs of the village solves issues related to access or individuals maintaining their own breeding males (who will fight and do damage if they encounter each other). The jallikattu serves to identify the strongest stock for this purpose.

The ecology and economy of jallikattu

P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu
P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan, PARI Network

Where there is a feat of strength, you have a crowd of men to watch. It is easy for testosterone to dominate the narrative where the only thing visible about jallikattu is the fight or perhaps, due to hot debates on the subject, the question of breeding stock. But there is more to that. There are lives, livelihoods and the survival of an entire indigenous species tied in closely with the sport. Small farmers like P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu. Their cattle will lose value. Jallikattu is an important area where indigenous cattle of India continue to be supported and preferred.

In a country where successive government policies have endangered indigenous cattle breeds, the sport not only provides robust and preferred survival to a few, it generates public awareness and interest in their well being and qualities. Two decades ago, P. Sainath's tragicomic epic "Everybody Loves a Good Drought" already described vanishing indigenous breeds as an established problem. The first section of the book "Still crazy after all these years - A brief introduction to the Indian absurd" sets the tone for a book that is relentless in portrayal of the gloriously hilarious and tragic mismatch between government policies and people's realities. The first story "Very few specimens - but a lot of bull" described the haphazard processes of introduction of "superior breeds of cattle" in Odisha that wiped out the famed Khairar bull in the Komna region.

This is a situation that has repeated all over the country in the name of increased milk production. In 2015, he reported the efforts to reverse such damage in Kerala with the dawning awareness that many Indian indigenous breeds are at threat of extinction. But many other pressures are in play. The holy cow is a big deal in India. There is increasing resistance to cow slaughter rendering non-milk-producing cattle a liability. This further reduces the demand for indigenous species, as their milk production is lower than the imported and hybrid breeds. Ironically, the indigenous cattle actually give much better returns in comparison witht he expense and effort that goes into maintaining them, vis-a-vis the more exotic breeds.

So far, jallikattu has protected the native breeds that are engaged in the activities from going the same way as the rest of the indigenous breeds. The jallikattu ban threatens to change that. But it isn't that simple either. The bulls bred for jallikattu are naturally aggressive, and most cow shelters don't want them - they wren't exactly bred to meekly accept marginal care and be no trouble! They can be aggressive and hostile and a lot of trouble to care for. With the restrictions on cattle slaughter, there won't be much help from those quarters either. There will be no real reason left for the survival of some prize breeds from India.

Of course, the question of survival of indigenous breeds of cattle is larger than jallikattu. I am merely noting that this will add another breed to the mix.

What constitutes animal abuse and where is the line?

Man and animals have coexisted for a long time. Man has harnessed and often exploted animals for daily needs. From eating chicken that are grown more like a vegetable than a bird to using police dogs for risky work like bomb detection or protection. Animals are leading less than optimal lives and facing danger, injury or death to enable our lives all the time. Horses have often been injured beyond recovery at the very young ages they participate in horse races. Bullock carts, ploughs, saddles have caused sores on livestock since time immemorial. Reluctant animals have been flogged to work, patient horses have stood amid exploding firecrackers in marriage processions. Not to mention the national assault on the hearing of dogs every Diwali. Sheepdogs work alongside their masters come snow or sunshine. Cows, buffaloes, goats get their teats pulled with varying degrees of gentleness and efficiency twice a day. The garbage of our lives overflows to kill countless animals, while our "progress" destroys their ecosystems. I am not trying to justify anything here. I am trying to create a larger picture of an interconnected system, where many species of animals often live in harmony with man. Often not even found in nature at all. Witness the silkworm.

Witness the story of "Shaktiman", the police horse who turned out to be a mare who broke her leg while at work on an aggressive protest. I knew that horse was dead, only a matter of time the minute I saw the hind leg broken. It is unlikely that the veternarians caring for Shaktiman didn't know it. A horse bears most of the weight of its body on its hind legs. The horse's hoof also has a spongy pad inside (not getting into medical technicalities) that help pumps blood back up to the heart when it walks, so it is also important for blood circulation in the body. A horse does not burp. Walking helps speed digestion, so trapped gasses escape as farts (yep, stinky). A horse with three legs can perhaps hobble briefly if the injured leg is a foreleg, because the hindlegs easily take up most of the weight. A horse with a missing hindleg cannot walk. And a horse that doesn't walk is a matter of waiting for the compromised digestion and circulation to fail, because there is no way the forelegs can compensate for the missing power of a hindleg. There will be terrible back pain from that enormous weight now being supported only on one side of the spine. The kindest "treatment" for her was a mercy killing. Yet she was subjected to a long drawn and painful death going through a political circus of journalists and prosthetics and what not till the inevitable happened. In the line of duty. Not just the injury, but the manner of death.

The need to bring in this kind of perspective is because a lot of people doing these debates have actually never come close to livestock. They have no idea of the realities of their needs, the threats they face or even their power. While the idea of an adult man hanging on to a bull feels remarkably threatening, the only power of a body most people know is human. How powerful is a bull?

Bull taming at jallikattu, Allangur, India
Bull taming at jallikattu, Allangur, India. Photo: எஸ்ஸார்

That is two people trying to wrestle down a bull at once. Very alarming. Two aggressive men? We are practically conditioned to think of this as unfair. But wait a minute. The bull has all four feet in the air and the two men, in fact, appear to be pulled up. What would the weight of the people have to be if two of them hung on you and you had to jump off the ground? That is what the weight of people is like to a bull. And you don't have to believe me. Please do a google image search for jallikattu to see if you spot pics that even remotely look like an overpowered bull. There are several of boys about to be gored, though.

Does wrestling with a 60 kilo unarmed man cause a 400 kilo bull any significant harm? I don't know personally. From my experience with horses, I can say even a 200 kilo filly cannot be overpowered without at least a couple of people, rope and serious technique. That is why the Spanish bullfights use weapons and that is why without weapons, the goal in jallikattu cannot exceed "hanging on". And trust me, hanging on is going to do little more than irritate a bull that can pull a few hundred kilos easy. That is my thinking.

But there are other serious issues. For example, injuries to tails, stories of bulls being fed liquor or sedatives to make them more aggressive. Man is a pretty cruel animal and a man in a crowd eager for a spectacle... Here is a good documentary about the cruelty to bulls to get them agitated. Please note, that this is a collection of recorded cruelty as opposed to a documentary on the standard practice. Many of these practices need to go. (The link to this film was kindly provided by Sachin Bangera, who works with PETA India. Thank you, Sachin.)

Frankly, I don't think the liquor is going to harm a bull any more than it would harm a person. People who do attend the fights say that it is glucose water for a burst of engergy and not alcohol at all. Rubbing irritants, injuring them and more will harm. Consulting with veterinarians on safety is important. Establishing an arena and disallowing unofficial street chasing is important. I think a lot of good could come out of creating a set of rules that must be followed, failing which the animal or youth could be banned from the proceedings. We already have laws against cruelty to animals for that. We do not need a ban on jallikattu to prevent cruelty. This would be more useful than putting everyone out of work. Competition and peer pressure would ensure better practices or loss of face and overall improve safety standards, like in any other dangerous sport. Substances that cannot be fed, blood tests in the event of doubt (or as a matter of course), protective clothing for participants, disqualification on holding tail, etc. Whatever. Seniors of the field must be consulted.

Which brings us to the bigger risk.

Convention on Biological Diversity

India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global miltilateral treaty that obliges us to "develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity". While I have no legal understanding and no doubt it could be debated up and down the street, it does seem to my limited understanding that a ban on jallikattu that jeopardizes the future of the indigenous species used in it, violates the spirit of the agreement. And how serious is the risk? Very. From over a hundred indigenous cattle breeds in India, we have less than 40 left and those too are under threatas resistance to cattle slaughter increases and in turn increases the liability that cattle threaten to be. This makes people reluctant to own cattle altogether as well as prefer higher yielding cattle for their investment. Any move that reduces the utility of male cattle will add to the threat of extinction faced by our indigenous breeds.

Injuries and deaths of youths who participate in jallikattu.

These are actually more common than injuries to bulls. My views on this are twofold. The first is that best practices and preventative measures must be established where possible. The second is that like all sports with threat of life, the choice eventually must rest on the participant. If countless adventure sports are not banned, then jallikattu must not be either, on account of safety of participants.

This last, I am quite certain of. The rest needs debate. But more importantly, it needs debate that includes people who participate in the sport, instead of the same five talking heads representing "people like us" having an opinion on everything. People like us are conditioned to fear whatever looks darkskinned and sweaty and dirty and male and loud. However, our fears cannot dictate the practices of other people in another place in a shared country.

This article keeps getting updated as I add any important information brough to my notice. If you are interested in the subject, do keep checking back.

In an attempt to bring reason to the debate on cow slaughter bans, I have tried to present data from Maharashtra where the broadening of an existing ban on the slaughter of cows to include calves, bulls and bullocks has the poor cattle owners of the drought stricken state devastated as their livestock has overnight become a liability.

The sentiment about the holy cow is beyond doubt. Upper caste Hindus revere the cow, even though there are many Hindus who do eat it. Whether Savarkar agreed with it or whether the vedas sanctioned it is irrelevant. The idea of cow slaughter is revolting to many Hindus.

However, as sentimentalism and hyperbole builds up, there is a need to take a long, hard look at realities, and for the government that claims to be interested in development to decide whether development lies in the past or in building a new future.

Here is the data from the various livestock census reports from Maharashtra and what it tells me.

Firstly, the numbers.

Livestock census data from Maharashtra for cows and buffaloes
Livestock census data from Maharashtra for cows and buffaloes

A quick glance at the numbers is enough to tell us that in the five decades since the first census data available in 1961 and till the 2012 19th livestock census, the population of cattle has grown by 1,56,632 or slihtly more than a lakh and a half. The population of buffaloes has grown by 25,07,378 or over 25 lakh - about five lakhs short of being doubled. While this, in itself is an astonishing difference, it becomes even more astonishing when we see that the population of cattle was almost five (4.9) times that of buffaloes in 1961 and in 2012, cattle are slightly more than two and a half (2.7) times that of buffaloes. So this dramatic increase has happened in a much smaller population.

The buffalo population saw an increase of 25 lakh in five decades
The buffalo population saw an increase of 25 lakh in five decades while the five times larger cow population only saw a lakh and a half rise in population.

AND, the buffaloes were also getting slaughtered all through, for food.

If you look at the break ups of the population, you will see this more clearly.

Details of Cattle and buffalo population in Maharashtra
Details of Cattle and buffalo population in MaharashtraCattle and buffalo population in Maharashtra

The line lying almost flat against the bottom is the population of male buffaloes, which has barely ever risen other than around 2007 and 2012 - recent years saw distinct radicalization of society against slaughter. This fluctuation, 2007 in particular, could also be explained if the census happened before the festival season when a lot of the slaughter happens. And in five decades, out of the 25 lakh rise in buffaloes, not even a tenth or two and a half lakhs has happened in the male population. And of course India is the world's largest exporter of carabeef (buffalo beef).

Not only do buffalo owners profit from the high yields of the buffalo, and then an income from the sale of the unproductive animals for slaughter, they also do not feed much surplus livestock unnecessarily.

If you take the total population of buffaloes to be 100%, the sex ratio for cows and buffaloes would be thus over the years.

Sex ratio of cows in Maharashtra
Sex ratio of cows in Maharashtra

The only time in the history of the livestock census in Maharashtra that cows have been more than bulls and bullocks is in the year 2012, though the trend starts at 1997 (also relevant later). If you look at the data, you will see that the numbers dropped more drastically than for cows. This basically means that for the first time in Maharashtra, bulls and bullocks were being butchered in any noticeable numbers. But why now, if not for five decades? We will look at the 2012 data in detail in a bit.

Sex ratio of buffaloes in Maharashtra
Sex ratio of buffaloes in Maharashtra

The ratio of male buffaloes to female buffaloes consistently hovers between 8% and 18% - we aren't even pretending gender equality here. 50% is far away in the stratosphere, let alone male buffaloes being the majority of the population. At no point does the male buffalo population even touch 20%.

But the buffalo population did slow in 2007 and fall in 2012 in particular. So did the overall population of cows, which has been falling steadily since the late 90s.

Explanations for changes in trends in livestock data can be found in events that impacted livestock farming practices.

Cow population started dropping after 1997

What else was happening in the agricultural world around that time? Maharashtra's post-economic liberalization agrarian crisis had established. By 1995, P. Sainath's reports of farmer suicides in rural India had triggered enough alarm that they had started being recorded in NCRB data. While livestock, as an economic asset provides a buffer against poverty, to me it seems like it lost its potency by 1997 with the agrarian crisis creating a similar situation for most cattle owners.

At this point, the farmers were committing suicide, but still there is no noticeable slaughter of bulls and bullocks. However, the overall populations started dropping steadily as cows started becoming economically unviable.

Understand this, when less than 50% of the cattle population is cows, milk producing cows are even fewer, so cattle owners probably had two unproductive animals for every milch cow. With the rise of motorized transport, while bullock carts could be used for own needs and ploughing the fields could be done, income earning opportunities from bulls and bullocks started dwindling (and are near non-existent today).

What happened in 2012?

The worst drought to hit Maharashtra happened in 2012. People were desperate for water for themselves. Buffaloes actually have higher water requirements than cows ("water buffalo" d'uh). Buffalo owners seem to have sold off their livestock in greater than usual numbers. This is probably also a factor in India becoming the world's largest exporter of beef at that time.

What was happening with the cows in 2012?

The cattle population continued to drop, except for two major departures from the norm till then.

The population of exotic and crossbred cows rose

While all the other cattle and buffalo population was busy going down, the one notable exception was the population of exotic and crossbred cows - this would be your fancy imported dairy breeds with very high production. Their requirements of water would be less than buffaloes, and milk production would be comparable. Indigenous cows, on the other hand, barely produce enough to justify a business if it also means caring for an unproductive cow later. Those continued to reduce.

Exotic and indigenous cattle population between 2007 and 2012
Exotic and indigenous cattle population between 2007 and 2012

Actually, the crossbred and exotic cattle population has been showing a steady rise all through, it only became visible here, when everything else went down. The rise in the number of exotic and crossbred cows (usually reared for dairy business because of high yields and correspondingly high dietary requirements), combined with the highest drop in male cattle also belonging to the same category shows that the more progressive dairy businesses were moving toward a pragmatism in their business model.

Dramatic drop in male cattle numbers

Male exotic and cross bred cattle saw the highest drops (they are less suitable/sturdy for local climates and work AND they require more feed and water). Male indigenous cattle too saw a drop. For the first time in the history of the livestock census in India, Maharashtra has more cows than male cattle. To put it bluntly, when food and water got scarce, male cattle were the ones sacrificed in greater numbers - either to butchers or starvation and dehydration in abandonment.

My views on what the government should have done, as opposed to what it did

In the absence of slaughter bans, cattle farming is actually more profitable than buffaloes

This is because buffaloes require more care, water and suffer more in drought - which seems to be a permanent feature of Maharashtra now. In the absence of slaughter bans, cow beef is more palatable and thus priced higher than carabeef, which would add to the income of the cattle farmers and make it a viable choice.

Given the lack of any real increase in the cattle population in Maharashtra (similar is seen nationwide), the government should have taken the initiative to free people from traditional taboos against cattle slaughter and encouraged them to sell cattle to middlemen, even as they themselves remained reluctant to engage in slaughter or consumption.

This would not only make cattle farming viable and result in similar increases in population and quality of cattle as with buffaloes, and reduce non-productive investments for the already stressed agrarian economy, it would allow better treatment of cattle, instead of abandonment, injury and worse. It is a matter of debate which is the greater cruelty - a quick death or a week in pain with a stomach full of plastc or legs broken by an irate farmer whose crops stray cattle destroyed. Having fewer non-productive cattle would mean a better diet and care to cows and calves. It would mean optimal use of scarce grazing, fodder and water, which would indeed go to the revered milk producing cow.

It was a matter of educating the people and leading them to economic viability - is that not the government's pet grudge? That the poor are given handouts when what they need is sustainability?

Instead, the government chose to take Maharashtra back to a rigid cow worship as a part of their ideological agenda, but funded by the already stressed cattle owners, turning their investments to liabilities overnight for the sentiments of those who don't raise (and thus serve) the cows themselves at all. It chose to smother the budding realization of the need to reduce male cattle - even if triggered by desperate circumstances and protect the cattle instead of the people. It put the welfare of an animal over that of its voters. That is the bottom line. An open declaration that the state that leads the nation in farmer suicide still expects farmers to spend on unproductive cattle, even as government actions have brought an unending drought.

Basically, the government has turned the cow into its murder weapon. And no, I am not talking of its murderous affiliates slaughtering humans by leveraging rumors here. Is it not murder for a state that sees educated girls give up on non-existent jobs and dreams of marriages and turn to prostitution to feed starving families to force them to fund the government's cattle fetish as well? Is it not murder to force an expense on farmers, remove an alternative to loans and debt in the state that leads the country in farmer suicides? Because that is how it is, you know? Sell a bull instead of taking a loan. Buy another after harvest. Instead, the bull is now unsaleable, and the loan the farmer takes must feed it as well.

What lies in the future?

In my view, unless the oh-so-posh idealistic middle classes are willing to live without milk, the reversal of the ban is inevitable. The dwindling population of cattle if not arrested, will lead to milk shortages sooner or later and recovering from them after they are established will be far more difficult.

Unless the government has bright ideas for increasing grazing available to livestock, reducing the number of unproductive livestock is the only way forward.

There is no alternative. The government has a choice to do it on their own, or have the people kick them out in future elections. If not the immediate next, the one after that is guaranteed. Look at how the curve is going down, and this is before the government's enhanced ban.

The government has a choice here. To rein in their affiliates, to educate people and do enough social reform to allow culling of unproductive cattle, or watch their Frankenstein's monster devour the state.

Note: while this blog is licenced under a creative commons licence, publishers who usually pay authors for content or readers for access are encouraged to offer me a compensation for republishing this piece.

Note2: There are some inconsistencies in the manner in which the data has been recorded over the years. In particular for young stock, which, in earlier years had not been segregated by sex. There is a small jump in numbers where it integrates. It is similar for both cattle and buffaloes. I have deliberately chosen comparisons and examples where the impact of this would be minimal. Alas, there seems to be no other way of looking at the data long term with the criteria changing midway.

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Two articles by P. Sainath - Cattle Class: native vs exotic and Holy Cow! Small is beautiful! about the value of indigenous breeds of cattle caught my attention and took me straight back to my nomad days. I remember having very similar opinions with horses.

Sharing here my observations with three breeds of horses, and how they had evolved for specific purposes and the complications of doing the fish out of water thing with them.

We began with a herd of mountain ponies native to the Manali region. These horses don't look anything like the horses you see in films. Or rather, no one wants to make films with horses that look like this for some reason. I thought they were beautiful.

BTW, the difference between a pony and horse is largely height and some differences in quality of coat, legs to body proportion and temperament. It is the same animal. If it is higher than 14.2 hands, it is a horse. A hand is 4 inches.

Mountain ponies have much shorter legs, stockier bodies, smaller height. In my seven years in the mountain living with horses, I have seen exactly two mountain ponies tall enough to be called horses, though everyone calls them horses (the distinction between horse and pony is largely imported). They are very surefooted and are able to walk on mountain slopes and unstable ground very well. They have a thick coat of hair even in summers, which becomes really thick in winters and they are able to live outdoors around the year as a result, even surviving for over a month if they get snowbound.

They are chiefly used for pack loads and carry it well and with great stability (not about skill, but genetics - skeletal structure, gait). They also have tremendous endurance and can literally work for hours and hours. I have had 20 hour days with loaded horses with no harm beyond exhausted foals and old in the herd. They rested, and were absolutely fine. Obviously you don't (and physically can't) make a habit out of this.

The "feel" of riding a mountain pony is nothing to write home about. Sure, you can ride them, but it isn't the kind of speed you see on racetracks and films. Nor is it as comfortable as riding a taller horse. There is a distinct lack of "grandeur" as compared with horses, that tourists wish for and this is the "deficiency" from where my exposure and experiences with other breeds started.

While mountain ponies are the best for trekking related work, there is significant demand for riding ponies - particularly for Indian tourists come to see the snow and such. A few foreigners want to go on riding trails in the mountains too. A really tall man sitting on a mountain pony looks... not all that hot, though the weight is rarely a problem.

So, a few local people who do a lot of joy rides for tourists purchased the more flashy "Punjabi" horses - which are actually some kind of thoroughbred and Marwadi horses 😀 These horses were what is called epic fail. Excellent animals, beautiful to look at, tall and dazzling speeds (for someone used to mountain ponies).... and a Pandora's box of problems.

Their skins were too thin for the cold air, and they caught a chill very easily. They got colic easily and had more expense for both feeding and healthcare. They had no idea how to navigate the mountainous terrain, and while the theory went that they would learn, I never actually saw one that managed it. Mountain ponies have a crucial skill - they are able to step and shift weight with great skill. They may hate it, but they can come down slopes too without harm. Also, the size of the "low-altitude horses" was a big disadvantage for this. Compared to these, the local ponies were like agile goats.

Their larger legs and slimmer bodies meant that they simply didn't have the lung capacity for endurance at high altitudes. Their bones were too fragile for the constant impacts that uneven terrain meant. Most of them died within years of being brought to the mountains. A few mated with local mares and the foals were really big. Some mares did deliver safely, but the off spring also was not as hardy as wished. The offspring of this offspring was not much taller (or slimmer-longlegged) than the mountain ponies, but I did not live there long enough to observe them in adulthood.

Basically, it was like expecting a Rolls Royce to plough your field. Where you need a tractor, you need a tractor. Rugged endurance.

Another experiment we did (the previous one we only witnessed) was with the "Dhoepa" horses of Pin Valley. Known also as Spiti Ponies, Chumurti ponies, these horses have a special gait that makes riding extremely comfortable. In fact, it feels like accelerating a bike. Zero jogging up and down. Before there were roads, these horses were standard transport in this region, and the better the gait, the more it was a symbol of prestige. The old timers would say that people showed off their gaited ponies by riding them with a filled glass of the local arak (alcohol) in hand without spilling it.

These horses are from Spiti, which is a high-altitude cold desert. They have no problems with altitude or cold. Their gait is truly superb for riding. I have had a horse stumble under me without realizing it immediately. I have ridden a mare who was lame in one leg (as an experiment - she wasn't in any pain) and still had a good ride. THAT smooth. Where regular horses move diagonally opposite legs when they start running, these are much like the Spanish Paso Finos (as a foreigners who knew such things told me) - they move lateral legs at the same time. So the result is a shift/shuffle, which barely leads to much movement in the body.

This gait is very efficient on level ground as minimum body movement is used and they can go on all day like this.

To see one of these horse rider combos coming at you in the distance is really funny, because the legs look like they are all over the place, and the body barely seems to move. If there is a mirage... up a gear or five on surreal.

The problems these horses had was with the uneven terrain too. They were bred for long distance riding and can sustain running for hours on end, but Spiti is a desert - the terrain is vast and mostly flat. The way they step taxes their legs when the ground is not level, since the whole shock is absorbed by the feet. To understand this balance a book on your head and walk around and then go up or down stairs - see how differently your legs absorb shock. Most Chumurti ponies I saw that did any extensive walking on mountain slopes developed problems with their fetlocks. Some temporary, some permanent. Still, with care, they did somewhat better.

But they had also been displaced far less - less than a hundred kilometers as the crow flies - though the Himalayan range being in the middle makes for really stark contrast - lush greenery and abundant rain versus arid desert where they say if you sit in the sun with your feet in the shade, you can get sun stroke and frost bite at the same time.

In any case, this side of the mountains, it is green and warmer and humider. Not something these horses appreciated. Bred for single riding and in a region with very scarce grazing (requiring each horse to need more area to feed in), they were not particularly "herd animals" and had a distressing tendency to wander off on their own. I have lost count of the search and rescue expeditions we did when we didn't know to expect this and imagined they would stay with the herd once they had spent some time together - as most horses do. It was oil and water for a long, long time. Some never took to it and we resigned ourselves to managing them independently.

Mares bred successfully, but the problem with the foals was that they either had the gait or didn't. If they had it, it came with all the problems it brought in this terrain. If they didn't, there was no advantage over regular ponies. Certainly nothing that justified the special treatment the mares needed beyond an experiment. A few offspring used the gait at slower speeds and broke into regular trots and canters for faster speeds. They did slightly better at protecting their feet, but for riding, the "smooth ride" wasn't consistent.

Both breeds were useless as pack ponies. The "low altitude horses" or "horses from the plains" had too delicate skin for the pack saddles and loads and were anyway able to carry far less than mountain ponies for any length of time. Strangely, the super smooth Chumurti ponies actually were not able to balance loads well! Possibly because carrying the load well might involve moving the back strategically to counter any off-balancing that may happen. Tough to say without a horse explaining it, but it could be that.

Besides, both of these were too expensive investments to risk harming them. And it was economic suicide to keep animals that will only do part of the work available and eat round the year. We did it, because we were like that, and we pampered our animals - this cannot be reasonably expected to be standard treatment.

Locals once said the horses must have done something good in their previous life to be with us in this one. We lived, breathed, thought, obsessed horses. Happy animals. How to make them happier, healthier... They were NOT our property, but our dependents in care, and partners in work. It says a lot that with a herd of riding horses, we never ever used any whips, spurs and such with any of them, ever to make them run. A horse bursting with health WANTS to run.

Alas, most people who earn from horses have families to feed that unlike ours, don't include horses. We have lived in poverty but not let the horses go without optimal feeds - this is near impossible for most horse owners. The horses ended up doing work they were unsuitable for and suffering for it or suffering from not having their unique needs understood and addressed, no matter how hard the owners tried to avoid it.

To look at this from a different angle, in all my time in the mountains, the only old horses I know are the local mountain ponies and the most successful horsemen have local ponies.

At the end of the day, for us too, it was excellently bred local horses that delivered the money and ease of work that was spent in pampering the more delicate members of our "family". Health and training aid greatly to presentation, and our horses were shining with health and known as the largest herd of riding horses in the area - all our best performers have always been local ponies.