The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the country's premier paramilitary force, has a department called the animal transport wing that plays an important role in helping maintain vigil in the remote border areas when the use of motor transport becomes difficult. This is made possible with the help of animals such as yaks, camels, horses and mules that are trained to serve troops. Their services are indispensable when it comes to transporting arms, ammunition, clothing, ration and other essential items in inhospitable terrain and under adverse climate conditions in the Himalayan border areas.
A few years ago, not long before my retirement, I, along with my two men, undertook a journey that involved travelling to a remote region of Ladakh. Though the winter wasn't harsh enough, the road to our destination was cut off from the rest of the areas. Our trail was rock-strewn, which started out at high altitude and climbed progressively. It had some steep sections as well with deep valleys on one side and the mighty barren mountains on the other. But what really made our task arduous was the fact that it was a six-day-long journey and our mode of transport was a mule. It was particularly demanding for me because I wasn't used to riding a mule.
I knew that mules can endure hunger and thirst far better than horses and, therefore, are more reliable for long-distance journeys but as soon as our journey began, I had a feeling that I was riding on my luck. The reason why I felt so was because my mule was walking on the outer edge of the trail instead of staying near to the mountainside. So, I asked one of my men about this. The reply was, "Sir, rest assured. Mules love walking on the outer edge but they are sure footed and know how to balance well. You can trust them blindly." Since, the answer came from the most experienced rider among us; it boosted my morale and we continued the journey.
One evening, we were passing through a narrow trail. It was so narrow that it could frighten the life out of anyone. Slipping from the mule's back meant sure death. I was doing fine till I noticed that both my men, including the most-experienced rider, had shut their eyes while crossing a particular section. I was the last to cross the section but as I approached it, my mule stopped and stepped back. Then it again tried and this time jerked a little.
This made my men so panicky that they almost shouted from the other end, asking me to step down from the mule. I told them there wasn't enough space for me to do so. Having ridden a horse on a few occasions, I knew that one should never let his animal sense that one is tense, even if one is. So, I sat patiently on the mule letting him wait for a few seconds. It tried again, and made it. Later, I asked my men what made them so nervous (though I knew the reason). The most experienced rider said, "Sir, you never know with animals."