Apr 272010
 

At the end of March I left the dismal weather in the UK for the sunny Gambia to present at the first Pan-African Conference on Working Equines. The conference, entitled ‘Better Management, Improved Performance’ was organised by the World Association for Transport Animal Welfare and Studies (TAWS) in association with The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). Speakers and experts with experience of working in The Gambia, Mali, Mauretania, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Sudan attended for the 2 day seminar and then a field trip to the GHDT head-quarters.

The opening talks set the scene, describing the changing management systems of agriculture in The Gambia and the changing roles of cattle and equines in this sector. Dr Touray (Chairman of the Gambian Vet Council) explained that in the 1930s there were 30,000-40,000 cattle and now there are an estimated 425,000, a reflection of the intensification of cattle farming.

Thirty years ago, horses and donkeys were rare in The Gambia, with oxen providing the majority of the draught power, but now 87,000 cattle and equines are used for this purpose. There are now 25,000 horses and 40,000-50,000 donkeys in The Gambia working hard helping to plough fields, carry water and other loads on their backs or draw carts. [I nearly said ‘pull carts’ but one of the first lessons when you start learning about working horses is that they don’t ‘pull’ carts – they ‘push’ into their harnesses to move the cart. There are fun ways you can show this practically but they don’t work so well on paper…]

Introducing Equine Expertise to the Gambia

The dramatic and relatively rapid increase in the number of equines used in transportation and agriculture in a country with little experience of managing and caring for equines has resulted in welfare problems. Ill-health of the animals can be catastrophic for the farmers dependent on them as they can often only afford a single horse or donkey.

The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT) was set up in 2002 with the principle aim of improving the health and welfare of working equines and, in turn, reducing the poverty of their owners. It became apparent to the organisation that although animal health workers were taught extensively about livestock health and management, there was a lack of equine-specific training. The GHDT partnered with The Gambia College School of Agriculture to address this, and in 2008 and 2009 16 students were selected to be taught additional modules in equine health and management. The extra modules were funded by the GHDT, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (RCVS) Trust, the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Trust, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and the Donkey Sanctuary.

After the graduation ceremony, the students attended the seminar as professionals to learn from presentations and to participate in the exchange of ideas on the two central themes of management and prevention.

The Threat of Disease

The GHDT has been working in The Gambia since 2002, and in the eight years of providing basic veterinary support at the nearby markets, they have come across a range of diseases, some of which were previously unknown in The Gambia.

Some highlights from the presentations on disease:

  • Some of the diseases are really gruesome. For example, African Horse Sickness (AHS) is caused by a virus spread by midges and causes equines to cough up frothy fluid from nostril and mouth, and fluid buildup in the lungs. It is a highly infectious, distressing and deadly disease. Epizootic lymphangitis is another highly contagious disease; a fungus causes the lymph vessels to stand out, then nodules form along them, which then turn into abscesses exuding copious amounts of pus – gross. Strangles, a disease horse owners in the UK will be familiar with, has emerged as a significant problem. Jamie Gartsides presented lots of practical ideas on how this disease can be managed in rural settings as encountered across Africa.

  • GHDT had been reporting cases of equines with an unknown neurological disease with a high mortality rate. The horses can be seen to pace restlessly in circles. Laura Peachey (RVC) described research into the cause of the disease – most likely to be cerebral trypanosomiasis. Further work is needed to identify the specific strain involved and to provide appropriate treatment.
  • Most projects working with equines in developing countries include a de-worming programme. Chris Proudman (University of Liverpool) explained that research involving people in rural African communities has showed that ‘worms’ are not in the top five concerns to owners with respect to their donkeys and that owners do not recognise the signs of heavy parasite burden. The best way to control worms is the same world-over – a combination of faecal removal and strategic use of de-wormers. He reminded us that 80% of worms are in 20% of the hosts so when you do worm counts it is important to do this for all horses that live together. Faeces collection ‘poo picking’ was highlighted as an excellent method of preventing transmission, and in Africa this has additional economic benefits as faeces can be sold for fuel, fertilizer or even used as barter!
  • Between one third and one half of the world’s human population has no access to basic surgery, and for animals access is even less available. However, in his presentation Patrick Pollock (University of Glasgow) described how it is possible to perform many procedures under basic field conditions. Fortunately, many procedures can be done with the equine standing and sedated and with the use of local or regional nerve blocks. Indeed such techniques have several advantages and are therefore ideally suited to areas where standard surgical facilities are not available.
  • Another presentation that explored low-tech practical solutions was Alex Thiemann’s (The Donkey Sanctuary) appraisal of traditional solutions for the treatment of wounds and other conditions. Thiemann explained that the majority of the world’s population of working equines is located where access to modern/Western medicines and high-tech diagnostic equipment is limited, either by cost or availability. However, simple remedies and techniques can be effective and also empower local people to use their abilities successfully. Recipes were provided for alternative oral rehydration fluid, pain relief and wound treatments, and Thiemann revealed the secret treatment for donkeys that come to the Donkey Sanctuary with poor appetite and how to reverse hyperlipemia – copious amounts of ReadyBrek! Thiemann explained why some traditional treatments work – for example, sugar paste for wound treatment is an ancient Egyptian/Greek remedy that is still used in parts of Africa- the main action is antibacterial and can be especially useful for infected wounds.

Prevention Through Education

The need for education of owners to prevent some of these diseases and problems resulting from poor care was an ongoing theme and formed the focus of some of the presentations on the second day.

Some of the presentations had already described how communities can provide useful information about how common diseases are and what the local methods of treatment are. In my presentation I explained how WSPA (The World Society for the Protection of Animals for who I work) has been changing our approach to involve communities also in the solution. Our work to improve the welfare of horses in developing countries used to focus on providing treatment where it would otherwise be unavailable. We funded mobile clinics so that vets could reach the animals in need. However, this is very expensive, does not reach all the animals who need us and also we used to spend a lot of time patching animals up. We were more interested in really making a difference to the lives of equines, not just in treating their wounds but in making sure their needs, physical and mental well-being, were met. I have been trialling ways of working with communities that depend on working equines for their survival focussing on changing the way they are kept – e.g. through fun activities and discussions considering all the things a horse needs, and nurturing changes in their care. Using examples from my work in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Uruguay and The Palestinian Territories I explained what we have learnt about working in this way and shared some of our exciting results. For example, in Cambodia owners have been making their stables much bigger so that the ponies can lie down properly and get proper rest, and in Uruguay incidences of colic decreased by 74% as a result of owners clearing grazing areas of rubbish so preventing horses from eating plastic bags.

Other educational programmes running across Africa were described. For example, Amadou Doumbia (SPANA) explained that most of the problems faced by working equines in Mali are because of the way they are managed and worked. SPANA devised training programmes for representatives of groups of owners about how to care for their animals. The results were impressive – in one project area mortality reduced from 62% to 5%, and wound incidence from 42% to 11%, highlighting that education can lead to improved welfare.

Putting Theory into Practice

The two-day seminar was followed by an optional extension to the GHDT base in the village of Sambel Kunda, 230 km and an 8 hour journey from the comfort of the conference hotel. Here delegates got a taste of how horses and donkeys are kept in rural areas.

There were some practical demonstrations. Ann Varley led a lively session in which some bemused horses and donkeys were painted (it washed off afterwards!) to show their skeletons and then to demonstrate how harness design should enable maximum comfort to the animals and maximum efficiency.

Anyone who thought that learning about cart design would involve donkeys doing the work was in for a surprise as Professor Hovell harnessed people to the carts so that delegates could truly feel the difference between the effects that different designs had on the ease of drawing a cart.

Making a Difference

As eloquently summarised by Heather Armstrong (GHDT) “Horse and donkey owners across Africa face significant challenges to keep their animals in good condition to work productively. Some of these challenges can be overcome with simple changes in their management and some challenges are more difficult to deal with. Equines are vital to the economy of the country and they and their owners deserve our support. It is essential that Gambians are taught about how to care and manage these animals and GHDT has been working to achieve this.”

The conference brought together delegates whose work spans many countries in Africa and provided an opportunity to learn from each other and to consider how to best work in often challenging field conditions. The practical demonstrations were particularly memorable and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more horses and donkeys across the world might shortly find themselves being painted!

Many organisations are working help the equines that work so hard for people all around the world and donations are always welcome. Some examples:

By Suzanne Rogers, The World Society for the Protection of Animals (SuzanneRogers@wspa-international.org)

Jan 222010
 

Whilst at a trade show early in 2009, I got chatting to a lovely lady called Vicki who was manning a stand on behalf of the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). It had always been an ambition of mine to be involved with charity work abroad. After explaining that I, along with my business partner, run a small business teaching children how to see the world from a pony’s point of view, Vicki mentioned that my work could come in handy and to get in touch with the charity director. A few days later, after an hour long phone conversation, I was signed up to go to Gambia for two weeks in December 2009. My journey was soo amazing it has taken me a few weeks to process it all in my own mind, and it’s been harder still to condense it down in to a short article, but here it is…

After a six hour flight, an overnight stay in the capital, a three hour wait for a ferry, a six hour car journey, two 45 minute boat journeys and several wee stops in a prickly bush, we approached the small village of Sambel Kunda in West Africa. The journey to our destination could only be described as epic. We arrived in the pitch black and could hear the commotion before we could see anything. It was over whelming, the whole village were out with drums and whistles; they were dancing, clapping and singing. The children were chanting ‘welcome, welcome, welcome’ and I heard one man say repeatedly ‘Heather is here and she has brought her friends’…wow… we had arrived!

In the early morning sun the following day, there was the first opportunity to get a good look at where we were. The charity have a large two storey house that caters for the large groups of volunteers that visit throughout the year. Overlooked by the house’s balcony are two large paddocks where the donkeys and horses have a good run around and stretch their legs before the sun gets too hot. 30 degrees would be considered a cool day! A short walk away is another yard for all the stallions.

22 of us have left the cold behind to come to Sambel Kunda and offer help in any way it’s needed. Among them are – a vet, veterinary nurse and a small team whose sole purpose is to build a playground next door to the local school. I have come as prepared as I can be with lots of teaching notes, visual aids and lots of laminated pictures to show the children.

The first week of our stay is dedicated to the ‘Horse & Donkey Show’, which is an annual event. We spend the first few days sorting out all the tack that has been kindly donated by people in the UK. Then we put up marquees, bunting and notice boards. It’s the night before the show and we already had competitors arriving. There are no luxury horse boxes here; some people have to get their horses and donkeys across the river and some have walked for two days to get to us.

Show day gets off to a flying start with the secretary’s tent inundated with competitors. Some horses and donkeys have just a thin piece of rope around their necks or through their mouths, this is swiftly removed and they are sent off to their show ring sporting a new soft head collar. With such a large group this year, there is plenty of help for judging classes, stewarding, running the tack stall, first aid stall and manning the veterinary tent. The vet is busy all day treating various injuries, giving wormers and advising people to visit the dentist and/or farrier who are also on hand all day. The day is a resounding success, we see lots of horses and donkeys in beautiful condition, we have a fabulous write up in the main Gambian newspaper and the Donkey Club boys get to show off their new game of ‘Donkey Ball’ to a huge and excited crowd.

It takes another day to put everything away, and once the volunteers for the first week are safely on their way home, it’s on with the general running of GHDT. There is plenty to do at the GHDT, not only is there on-site wound checks needed on various animals, but the GHDT also travel to 10 local schools to teach children about the care of horses and donkeys, and to lots of markets each week to treat any sick or injured animals.

Going out to the local Lumo (market) is where the harsh reality of the Gambia hits you. The days are long, hot and extremely dusty. People queue to see the vets and staff and we see everything from horrific injuries to illness and disease. The weeks cases included; a horse with a septic tendon sheath; a horse with a badly swollen and broken penis; maggot infested wounds; burns; sores from poorly fitted and ill maintained harness; rubs and sores from tethering and abscesses. Lots of horses had a heavy worm burden and levels of emaciation I have never seen. It sounds horrendous, but once you are there in the thick of things, you quickly get past the shock and have to just accept the reality of the place and get on with the job of patching them up as best you can and sending them on their way.

The charity is very well known in the area, so sometimes on the way back from markets people would call and ask us to stop in on their compound on our way through, which we willingly do. There is currently a neurological disease affecting many horses and donkeys in Gambia. It is not yet known what causes this but it’s most often fatal. I saw one such case with a little bay horse that had been down on the ground for three days before the owners called the GHDT staff. Generally speaking Gambian’s don’t believe in putting things to sleep on religious grounds, but when they could see how much this little horse was suffering, they agreed. It was a distressing experience and I fought every ounce of my being not to cry for him, but I was blown away by how professional and swift the GHDT staff were in dealing with the situation. They have received superb training from UK vets and they come in to their own in situations such as these. In order to learn more about this disease they had to take samples from various parts of his body, which is a job no one enjoys, but without these samples they don’t have a hope of finding the cause.

Each evening everyone came back to the house and we filled each other in on how our days went. It’s not the easiest thing for such a big group of strangers to suddenly live together, but we came together brilliantly. From making each other laugh over dinner, to looking after each other when a tummy bug worked it’s way round us. We took it in turns making the tea and keeping the gas powered fridge stocked with beer (what a luxury that was!).

During this trip, I quickly realised that all the things I had prepared to teach and show children were just not suitable. Even things that are so basic for us here in the UK, like providing ‘Fibre, Friends & Freedom’ are not appropriate. Gambians can’t offer an environment where their horse or donkeys have friends as they have a working animal, not a pet and they often struggle to support the one they have They can’t offer the animal freedom; when they are not working they are usually tethered to a pole within the family compound. In terms of Fibre, they offer them what there is available, which is a hay so coarse that you snap each piece like a twig.

It also quickly becomes clear that you can’t come to the Gambia and tell people what to do. It is far better to do things, let people see the benefits it brings and they’ll soon follow suit. As an example, I stood talking to a young boy about his donkey at the show, I gently stroked the donkey’s ears and neck and the donkey promptly leaned against me and fell asleep. Within a few minutes I had a group of children with me all eager to have a go and even starting to argue over who got to stroke the donkey.

Two weeks suddenly seemed like two minutes; I’d just about got used to the heat and dust, understood what is needed from an education point of view and begun to appreciate the sheer scale of it all, before I found myself boarding the plane to come home.

My experience in the Gambia has left me questioning so many things that go on in the UK. For example, if injuries like the ones we saw were sustained in the UK, the horse would be put to sleep without hesitation. As mentioned above animals are rarely put to sleep in the Gambia and not only do they recover from their injuries; they recover extremely well and go back in to work, even from broken legs. It makes you think that perhaps we are too disposable with our horses here. Amazingly, they also recover from these injuries with little medical intervention, including pain relief. The charity relies on vets volunteering from the UK and often has to manage for several weeks without one present. They also rely on drugs donated from the UK, so once they run out there’s nothing else to offer.

I found the behaviour of the animals very interesting. You will see a lame horse, trotting down the road, pulling a fully laden cart, with rubs and sores all over him from the harness, but he doesn’t spook, nap or attempt to flee. They stand calm and still whilst you treat what must be painful injuries. They are resigned and accepting of their life where there’s never a mutual groom, a good roll or frolic in the sunshine with a herd of friends, but can they miss or crave something they’ve never had?

Another interesting thing is that the children ride on the rump of the donkeys and we all told them to sit forward. As soon as they did this, the donkey would dip his head to the floor, drop his shoulder and deposit the child on the floor! To be fair, the donkey doesn’t seem to mind the child sitting so far back and will walk, trot and canter on command. So, were we right to tell them to move? From the look we got from the child on the floor, I think perhaps he was OK as he was!

There are two people I met who cannot go unmentioned. The first is Heather Armstrong who runs the charity, a woman for whom there is no commendation high enough for what she does. She oozes a calm and radiant energy and yet works so incredibly hard. She is constantly organising the next set of volunteers, ensures they have a safe (albeit long) journey and are well prepared for the task and environment ahead of them. She has to negotiate with officials, village elders, local dignitaries and the Gambian Government to continue her work or bring in something new. She organises training for the staff and teachers to keep them motivated and up to date so that they can offer the best possible care. She spends her year travelling to and from the UK (which as described above is no mean feat), she keeps everything running smoothly and is always so thankful of any small gesture offered to her charity. Along with other members of her family, Heather has dedicated her life to improving the lives of the horses and donkeys of the Gambia and of the Gambian people by sponsoring their education and aiding their health care. As I tried to take stock of everything around me I found it hard to imagine what their lives would be like without Heather and her charity.

The second person is Anna, an angel on earth if ever there was one. Anna is from the UK and is in her second year of volunteering there. She has to be so many things all at the same time. She has to be a nurse to sick and injured animals, a nurse to sick and injured people, she has to be a diplomat, book keeper, teacher, mother and mentor – she is a shining star; not only to the GHDT but to so many people and animals of the Gambia who have been taken under her wing. Nothing seemed to phase Anna and she never ran out of patience even when she must have heard her name called 100 times from people, all wanting something from her.

I have been humbled to tears during this trip; by the people I met and worked with, by the spirit and will of the horses and donkeys and I’m so very proud to have been part of this project if only for a very short time.

By Joni Caswell.

For more information on the Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust and to see photo’s of the amazing playground everyone worked so hard to build, please check out www.gambiahorseanddonkeytrust.co.uk . GHDT are also on Facebook.

For more information on the school sponsorship programmes, please check out www.sssgambia.co.uk