The Twist-Ear Horses of Rajasthan

The Twist-Ear Horses of Rajasthan

My father was an art critic.

(He was a man of many talents. Ranching was his vocation and joy, but hardly his sole interest or area of expertise.)

He had sharp criteria for separating the artistic wheat from the chaff.

“If an artist can draw a horse that looks natural, with the foreleg stepping out right, and the head showing proper emotion, then you’re looking at the work of someone who knows what they are doing.”

I am a listener, and an absorber.

Because of our respective talents, I was immediately skeptical of the highly acclaimed school of miniature painting that has flourished in Rajasthan over the centuries.

One look at their horses and I think to myself: “These guys are frauds! Sure, they can paint thin lines in small spaces, and their fancy gold paint is nice, but their horses are junk! The ears are twisted all wrong, and pointing backwards all the time.”

"Lady with Falcon Leading a Horse," India, Rajasthan, Ajmer, 1700-1725, Watercolor

“Lady with Falcon Leading a Horse,” India, Rajasthan, Ajmer, 1700-1725, watercolor. Click the picture to enlarge. Source:

While I am quick to judgment, I am also an observer, and an absorber.

I try to be humble and admit my mistakes as soon as I am aware of them: the Rajput painters deserve higher standing than I first gave them.

Why? Because the horses of Rajasthan have unusually shaped ears, and the artists were faithfully painting and carving what they saw.

Here in Jodhpur I was able to get my first close-up view of the local livestock. These equine are strikingly different than their European and New World counterparts.

The poor nags I saw draw small, two-wheeled carts that are public transit for the very poorest Jodhpuris.

Two Wheel Horse Cart of Jodhpur

The two-wheeled carts common to Jodhpur. At their best they are dazzlingly painted, and at their worst they are heavily overloaded, carrying four, five, or six people.

Theses ponies were wickedly undernourished, just ghosts of the proud cavalry horses the painters saw and what I know enough to imagine. A recognized and rare breed, called the Marwari, their exportation from India is banned. And only in the last ten years have better cared-for representatives of the breed traveled outside of India.

White Marwari Horse With Twisted Ears

A white Marwari wearing belled harness. His ears are in a relaxed position and the queer curl of the ears is evident. Click the image for more detail.

All Marwaris share these strangely twisted, inward-turning ears, where the top opening of the ear points much more towards the middle of the skull, in comparison to European horses where the ears have a long, narrow, cupped-bayleaf shape.

The Same Marwari Horse Scratching His Foreleg

The same Marwari scratching his foreleg. This angle shows how much curve there is in the auricular cartilage. Click the image for more detail.

You may trust me when I say horses ears are mobile and can be turned forward, side and back to pick up sounds of interest or to indicate emotion. My observation of the live Rajasthani animals (I want to call them steeds, but none seemed up to the task, sadly.) is that the twisted ears may have a reduced range of motion in comparison to their European cousins.

Or perhaps the continuous honking and beeping of Indian traffic has made their ears tired. Only the Marwaris know.

Now in doubt that “a horse is a horse, of course, of course,”


Image Credit:

Lady with Falcon Leading a Horse

From the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, Museum Associates Purchase (M.83.105.36)

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons