The majority of the problems with working equines in The Gambia result from a general lack of education and the fact that horses have only been used in The Gambia for a relatively short period of time – approximately 30 to 40 years. This means that there is no history of horsemanship and the people are still learning how to manage their animals properly. Couple this with the fact that The Gambia is a hostile environment for equines – tropical diseases such as Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness in humans) are prevalent, food is scarce, biting insects are more than plentiful and the weather conditions are difficult to live and work in. There is extremely limited veterinary care available.
It isn’t uncommon to see injuries to horses and donkeys mouths in The Gambia due to inappropriate bits being used, or because rope is tied through the animal’s mouths if the owner is unable to afford to purchase any bit at all. During a recent trip whilst driving through one of the towns I saw a donkey pulling a cart and I winced at the sight of his mouth being pulled hard against with the rope that was going through it by a young boy on the end of the reins. My first initial thought was how sad and painful it was to see this, but almost immediately it took me back to thoughts and images from the week before. Only that week I wasn’t in The Gambia - instead I was at Burghley Horse Trials.
Whilst photographing horses during the dressage phase at Burghley I sadly saw many top class event horses with very similar expressions on their faces to the donkey that got me thinking in The Gambia. Except the owners and riders of these horses have almost certainly had the privilege of an excellent education and invest huge amounts of money in taking care of their equine counterparts – quite the opposite to the average equine owner in a developing country.
One of the joys of being involved with the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust is the fact that the Gambian people are so keen to learn, and when provided with knowledge about equine care and an option of better, kinder equipment to use 99% of the people are desperate to put them into practice immediately to create a better life for their animals. After all, their lives depend on their working animals – without them they cannot farm and they have no transport so there is a great motivation to do what is better for their animals as it will also be better for them. And I ponder whether this is not true for our equestrian athletes – surely their horses would perform better and win more prizes for their riders and owners if their welfare was more carefully considered?
So many people will see images of equines from charities such as the GHDT and find them distressing and many don’t hold back on social media in expressing how horrific it is that the animals are in poor condition. They are often quick to judge the owners without considering how difficult it is to take good care of your animals when you are unable to even provide lunch and dinner for your own wife and children on a daily basis. They express how horrific the welfare of those poor animals is and how fortunate our horses in the UK are in comparison.
But honestly, I beg to differ. In The Gambia, mares and Jennys are allowed to roam freely during the months that it isn’t farming season – from October until July. The animals from each village gather together to create a herd and can be seen enjoying their freedom, running through the bush together, expressing natural behaviours and simply being equines. At night they return of their own accord to their respective compounds where they are fed and watered. Stallions and Jacks are usually tethered when they are not working, sometimes out in the bush and sometimes under a shelter in the family compound. Though they are not free to roam they have 360 degree visual access to the outside world and are often kept under the same shelter as other equines or farm animals such as sheep, goats or cows. They do work hard, pulling carts often for a number of hours in the hot sun and this is tough, especially when they don’t get a huge amount to eat, but they have a freedom of movement that many UK horses can only dream of.
In comparison many UK horses, and particularly competition horses, are kept in a small stable for most or all of the day, isolated from other equines, rarely or occasionally allowed to socialise freely with others of their kind. If they are one of the lucky ones with turn out, often this involves being turned out on a small square of over-grazed grass, separated from other equines by rows of electric tape with little or no enrichment and not enough space to run or frolic. Despite the extensive history of horsemanship in the UK many horses are still trained using archaic and painful practices whilst being fed diets full of grains which the equine body is not designed to deal with. Despite our excellent education system and a wealth of fantastic equine research on aspects of management, welfare, equipment and equine needs we continue to ignore much of this advice, choosing to follow archaic ‘traditions’ instead of utilising education for ours and our equine friends benefit. Routinely we still fall back on the stronger bit and tighter noseband to cover up ridden problems rather than dealing with the underlying cause.
We have to accept that equines in the UK have a somewhat different set of welfare concerns to those in The Gambia and other developing countries, but does that make is ok for us to judge owners from poorer countries? We certainly would be worlds ahead of where we are now if we enveloped new knowledge with the enthusiasm of Gambian equine owners. Does it mean that our horses are lucky because they suffer a different set of problems? Personally, I would argue that the answer to that is no, but feel free to tell me what you think!