Every important man in Beeya Vohra’s life was in the Army, and she would have been too if rules permitted women to join the armed forces when she was young.
Instead – after spending her childhood across India as Army kids are wont to do – she studied English literature from St Stephen’s College in Delhi and then set out wherever her heart took her.
“After my MA in linguistics, I started my MPhil but then I realized academics could wait – horses couldn’t,” says the 55-year-old who now runs a horse-riding academy in a Delhi suburb.
A chance opportunity to train with horses for a year in the UK flagged off a lifelong career for the younger Beeya. She soon realized she loved teaching children to love horses too, and began noticing the calming effects of riding on people with disabilities or special needs.
On her return to India, Beeya got married to an Army officer (no surprise!), and moved to Chandigarh. There she began teaching riding to children and was soon hooked to the profession. After her husband’s retirement, in 2001, she set up her own Beeya’s Riding Facility on a rented farm in Delhi.
The horses found their way to her – abandoned by their owners after growing old or unwanted foals, they often came to her battered and in terrible condition. Beeya and her team of 10 nurtured them back to health and put them to use teaching riding. Today, she has about 35 horses on her facility, from a year to 25 years of age. Some of her students also keep their personal horses at her stables.
Though riding is a hobby for most of Beeya’s students, there are many who participate in championships around India, so she trains them in all the required movements and dressage.
“Do the leg yielding,” she calls out to a teenage student in training for the Junior National Equestrian Championship in Bhopal in late December. To another she hollers, “Turn on the haunches!” A little girl of five rides a pony in the centre, bobbing up and down in perfect form.
“Beeya is just fabulous,” says the girl’s mother, Ambalika Jaisinghani. Ambalika was a rider herself as a child, and had heard of Beeya’s formidable reputation even then. When she had children of her own, she was sure only Beeya would ever teach them riding. Both Ambalika’s kids have been Beeya’s students since they were three years old.
Beeya also trains children with autism or those from nearby slums, and believes there is a huge scope for therapeutic work with horses.
But there are challenges too, as the low fees she charges students doesn’t help to cover the costs of running a large facility. “We’re now cutting down on the rehabilitation of old and wounded horses; we just don’t have the space or the funds,” she rues.
The sun goes down as children ride in circles, one behind the other. Nearby, her workers wet the ground; it’s an activity they have to do every day to settle the dust. A large horse has its shoes replaced. Beeya’s eyes dart everywhere, noting everything: “This is not just a passion. This is my life.”