Caring for those that carry the load

Veterinarians use skills to help needy horse owners
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It's easy to forget that an essential component of the workforce in developing countries is horses and donkeys.

In fact, the global population of equids is estimated at 110 million. Of that total, only about 10 million live in developed countries. The rest plow fields or transport goods everywhere from the mountains of Argentina to the deserts of Ethiopia.

Donkey laden with cargo

"Who is looking after the others?" asked Dr. Derek C. Knottenbelt, speaking at the first Equitarian Initiative forum Dec. 6, 2009, during the American Association of Equine Practitioners 55th Annual Convention.

Moderator Dr. Jay G. Merriam said the unofficial definition of an equitarian is "one who serves equids with compassion and whose only reward is their improved health and welfare."

The half-day session was dedicated to spreading the word about projects benefiting the world's equids and improving developing communities that rely on them for subsistence. Such projects work to support vulnerable people, their animals, and their cultural heritage through guided local initiatives that incorporate volunteerism, philanthropy, veterinary care, education, and personal growth.

"The equine side of the veterinary profession was founded in the furrows plowed by working horses. Our migration across the country was driven by horseback, and much of the world today still does (these things)," Dr. Merriam said.

Unintentional cruelty

Little veterinary support exists in Third World countries for equids despite their prevalence. Indigent populations rely on horses in much the same way Americans did hundreds of years ago. In fact, more than 200 million families rely on working equids in sub-Saharan Africa alone, said Dr. Knottenbelt, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool originally from Zimbabwe.

"If you take away people's donkeys, you condemn their lives. They become restricted people," Dr. Knottenbelt said. "They need to have their nomadic, basic, simple quality of life. It's not worse than our lives; it's just different."

Disease, injury, and malnutrition plague these donkeys, yet families don't have another option than to keep the animal going, Dr. Knottenbelt said. If the animal stops working, the family starves, the children can't go to school, and the women and children do the donkey's work.

He explained that the way owners treat their animals may be cruel, but it's not intentional cruelty. They don't know better because they haven't been educated on proper care, Dr. Knottenbelt said. Starvation and overwork are results of poverty, necessity, and ignorance.

Education is a sustainable and effective way to counteract the poor conditions for the animals and the people. Volunteers must be careful, though, to avoid promulgating a certain way of life, because these communities have their own way of doing things and could take offense.

Making a lasting impact

Dr. Tom Juergens talked of similar experiences in his work with the Mongolia Horse Project, through which U.S. volunteers teach modern medicine to local veterinarians in remote areas.

Dr. Turoff attends to a down horse
A representative of the Humane Society VMA Field Services, formerly known as Rural Area Veterinary Services, spoke during the Equitarian Initiative forum. The program offers volunteers the opportunity to help animals in the United States and abroad. Here, Dr. David R. Turoff, an AAEP member and frequent volunteer, attends to a down horse.
Severe saddle sores on a horse
HSVMA volunteers in Guatemala have often encounted severe saddle sores in horses.
Dr. Turoff performs a castration
Dr. Turoff performs a castration on a horse in Guatemala.

Horses occupy a prominent place in Mongolian culture. They are used for herding, transportation, meat, and even milking. They are most famously used in the country's distance races during the festival Naadam, which Genghis Khan started in 1250 to test his soldiers.

During the festival, 200 to 300 horses compete in the 50 km race with children ages 6 to 12 riding on their backs.

Dr. Juergens said the riders don't show a lot of prudence and the temperature can reach 80°F during the race. Not surprisingly, therefore, many horses require medical attention by the end of the race. Fortunately for the volunteers, because horses are so revered, they serve as an excellent teaching model, Dr. Juergens said.

"They love their horses, so veterinarians and herders show interest in learning and a willingness to apply new techniques to horses," he said.

Some of the Mongolian medical treatments used on the horses date back to Khan's time. For example, locals administer "nasal vodka," which involves pouring a few liters of distilled yak milk down the horse's nose, to treat exhaustion or dehydration.

Dr. Juergens said the challenge of teaching Mongolian horse owners is finding methods to incorporate traditional and modern treatments and techniques without insulting their culture.

"You're not going to get trust or relationships that way, and they won't implement what you say. Who are we to come in and criticize them when what they're looking for is just (for us) to help their horse?" Dr. Juergens said.

The volunteers have been successful in putting together seminars and culturally relevant PowerPoint presentations that have been translated into the local language. These have become so popular that the country's veterinary schools use them.

Finally, the Westerners break into teams, traveling the countryside for a few weeks, and individually mentor veterinarians who came to their seminar. Having the volunteers live with Mongolian veterinarians establishes trust and lends credibility.

"They see all sorts of people who show up and hand out money and never come back. When you return a few more times, they wrap their arms around you," Dr. Juergens said.

Getting to the bottom of it

One doesn't have to travel far to help working horses and donkeys, as Dr. Gayle S. Leith from the Arizona Equine Medical & Surgical Centre in Gilbert, Ariz., has proved. She talked about her experiences helping the Havasupai Nation and its animals.

The 600 or so Havasupai have inhabited the Grand Canyon for more than 800 years. They reside in a 3,000-foot-deep tributary with hundreds of horses. They are historically nomadic people, hunting in the fall and winter and farming the rest of they year.

The only way into the bottom of the canyon is hiking eight miles, riding a horse down, or taking a helicopter. Tourism is one of the nation's primary sources of income.

A catastrophic flood in August 2008 changed everything. It caused an estimated $4 million in damages, and the nation's main revenue source, tourism, halted because campgrounds were decimated.

Dr. Leith helped organize humanitarian trips in October 2008 and March 2009.

During the first trip, volunteers neutered cats, administered vaccinations, and examined animals. Horses received dental treatments and vaccinations, and owners were educated in nutrition. Dr. Leith said there was a small client turnout because of poor timing and lack of preparedness.

The second trip proved much more fruitful. Veterinarians performed many of the same procedures but saw more clients and came better equipped.

The efforts made a positive impact, but maintaining those results has proved difficult.

Tourism started again in the summer of 2009, but the Havasupai still had problems obtaining enough feed and medicine for their horses because of a lack of funds. As a result, horses would occasionally collapse on the trail. One time, a tourist took photos of the Havasupai horses and sent them to animal rights organizations, which pressured tourists not to go into the canyon, starting a vicious cycle, Dr. Leith said.

If you take away people's donkeys, you condemn their lives. They become restricted people. They need to have their nomadic, basic, simple quality of life. It's not worse than our lives; it's just different.


The tribe hasn't allowed many outsiders since.

"We're at square one again, trying to start over and establish communication again. We're just trying to stay in contact, waiting for results of local elections," Dr. Leith said.

Making it happen

Throughout the seminar, speakers recommended that the AAEP take a greater role in facilitating equitarian efforts, potentially through a committee acting as a clearinghouse of volunteering information.

"The AAEP needs to be known as the welfare advocates on the international scene, to be a central resource for projects, funding, and supplies," said Dr. Merriam.

He suggested the association could support equitarian internships and student scholarships as well as encourage partner support for supplies and funding. The AAEP Foundation has already financially sponsored some of these projects.

Dr. Joseph J. Bertone, professor of equine medicine at Western University of Health Sciences, said the AAEP should list information about upcoming volunteer trips, with contact information and any religious affiliations.

Outgoing AAEP President Harry G. Werner and Dr. Nathaniel A. White, incoming president, said they supported the idea of the AAEP coordinating such efforts. Dr. White said it was a logical initiative the association could help with; however, the association would first have to investigate the amount of resources it would require.

Dr. Werner said equine welfare is at the heart of the AAEP's strategic planning, and now the association is expanding its conscious vision and definition of what equine welfare is.

"We're going into an area that can use our intrusion, and there's a lot of ground breaking here that has already been done," Dr. Werner said.

See additional AAEP coverage here.