Equitarianism Takes Off

Equitarianism Takes Off

Photo: Icon Studios Photography/Karen Kennedy

Veterinarians across the globe are working together to improve health care and living conditions for working equids.

In many parts of the world, equids aren't athletes, show animals, or backyard companions, but are instead hard-working partners that literally help put food on their owners' tables, often under wretched, poverty-imposed circumstances.

Now, via a movement called the Equitarian Initiative, veterinarians, volunteers, -donors, animal owners, and like-minded organizations across the globe are working together to improve health care and living conditions for these working animals. This campaign to change the status quo is gathering support, momentum, and results.

The Seeds of Change

For the past 20 years, Jay Merriam, DVM, MS, has been traveling to the Samana peninsula of the Dominican Republic, taking with him veterinarians, vet techs, and students to assist local animal care professionals and equid owners during twice-yearly health clinics.

"Project Samana has been a training ground for me and others, and as our involvement grew and spread, more people began asking how they could get involved," Merriam says.

Those inquiries sparked conversations between Merriam, founder of Massachusetts Equine Clinic, in Uxbridge, and Julie Wilson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, of Turner Wilson Equine Consulting LLC, in Stillwater, Minn.

"Julie and I talked at several AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) meetings; she's someone who's also traveled extensively for similar outreach efforts," says Merriam.

In 2008 those conversational sparks fueled a fire. At the AAEP Convention that year, Merriam and Wilson held an informal meeting on the topic of volunteerism for equine practitioners; they were -astonished to find the room filled to the brim with like-minded colleagues.

"That presentation touched a core of veterinarians wanting to give back," Merriam recalls. "People were really inspired by the thought of getting involved in hands-on medical care, in places where they could make a substantive difference in an animal's well-being. Julie and I started talking and then formed the Equitarian Initiative as a way to create a central clearinghouse, connecting those who would like to get involved with veterinarians already doing this type of outreach. It's a resource that previously didn't exist."

Veterinarians united under the Equitarian Initiative's (EI) mission believe in a world where every working horse, donkey, and mule receives the basic care necessary to have a comfortable, humane life. The 501(c)3 nonprofit currently is focused on training and empowering a team of veterinarians as caregivers to go into the field and work within impoverished communities, improving both knowledge and implementation of proper husbandry techniques. Merriam says they simply try to fix what's fixable.

"We don't train them in the medical aspects of treatment; we focus on the hands-on aspects of health care," says Merriam. "We do things such as removing sarcoids, performing castrations, deworming, and vaccinating for the tetanus that's rampant in these areas."

They also help smooth the way for that medical care to take place, since most countries (thus far the project has traveled to Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Peru) won't allow foreign veterinarians to import drugs and supplies or to practice medicine, no matter how altruistic their motives.

"As an American or European vet, you don't have the necessary licenses to treat animals, and getting those permits for other countries can be a challenge. Plus, it makes a huge difference when you're invited to help versus trying to work where you're not wanted," Merriam advises. "That's why our relationships with local veterinarians, universities, and organizations already engaged in this type of work are essential for fostering any real or lasting progress at the local level."

An Equitarian by Any Other Name

Merriam, who's a member of the renowned dictionary family, says equitarianism--both the word and the concept--is catching on.

"The thing is, we were able to come up with a descriptive term that when people hear it, they know right away what it is," he says. "I now hear my colleagues in Mexico talking about equitarianos; it's happening everywhere."

Educating Owners

One of the Equitarian Initiative's missions is to create sustainable change within the communities it serves, educating owners, veterinarians, and caretakers about basic health conditions and care. Here, Equitarian leaders discuss common health issues with owners. Each illustrated card on the table represents a different ailment. In these sessions the veterinarians ask each owner to place a rock on the picture representing the problem his animal is having, so they can determine what common issues the region has with its equids and where to start with treatment.

In this particular session, almost all the animals need their teeth floated and hooves trimmed. But the owners did not place many rocks on the teeth or feet cards because they didn't realize when an animal was not eating, that a dental problem might be the cause. The equitarians worked to help educate owners on these topics.


Alexandra Beckstett

The term equitarian was coined using the words equid and humanitarian; EI is defining it as one who serves equids with compassion and whose only reward is their improved health and welfare.

Merriam reports that because the word is spreading, he's getting calls and e-mails every single day from people wanting to help. And there's a lot of help needed.

An International Problem

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the world's equid population (including horses, donkeys, and mules) is estimated to be as high as 100 million; that's approximately 10 times the number of horses in the United States. Of that total, 60-90% are working animals that haul crops, supplies, market goods, garbage, or tourists day in and day out. The FAO also estimates that 1% of the world's equine veterinarians are treating 90% of the global equid -population.

In addition, many working equids survive on a minimum of food and care, whether due to poverty, ignorance, or some combination of other factors. Owners often leave minor, correctable conditions to nature for resolution because they don't have ways to fix them. That's why conditions that are simply a nuisance in developed countries can become serious issues when they arise in Third World equids.

"When a horse gets sarcoids here (in the United States), you'll have a veterinarian come out and snip it off, maybe using cryosurgery or liquid nitrogen," Merriam explains. "In other countries they're usually not treated, and within six months they've spread so much they're life-threatening. It's the little things that we take for granted and that we haven't seen in the U.S. in a long time, like instances of horses and donkeys dying of tetanus (that we see in these working equid populations)."

Further, when animals are unable to work due to illness or even death it can put a family or smallholder farmer already at subsistence level directly in the path of catastrophic hardship. But veterinarians with the Equitarian Initiative are seeing signs of change.

Changing Lives

As the EI grows as an organization, so does its collection of success stories.

"At our 2012 Equitarian Workshop in Vera Cruz, Mexico, one woman brought in a donkey with a hernia the size of a basketball," Merriam recalls. "We explained that while we had no shortage of qualified help, this was a difficult surgery. Unfortunately it was determined halfway through surgery to humanely euthanize the donkey."

Merriam and Wilson developed this Equitarian Workshop in collaboration with Mariano Hernández Gil, DVM, MVB, director of the Equine Hospital at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM); the annual program sees 200-400 donkeys daily during the five-day course, so one might ask how important this one little donkey was in the grand scheme.

"The family that owned the donkey would have been financially devastated without it, so when we had to put down the donkey, Hernández Gil arranged to have a replacement from UNAM's own herd taken to them, over four hours away," says Merriam. "Had this donkey not received veterinary attention and been left to die in a not-peaceful way, these people would have been out of luck. It's a situation where we all worked together to make a difference for everyone involved."

Education is another hallmark of EI's programs. "The problem with veterinary schools in the developing world is that they don't go out and develop caseloads," explains Merriam. "When you combine that issue with the fact that many people can't even afford to buy the gas it would take to transport their donkey by truck to the school, you can see how students aren't able to get experience."

But Merriam points out it's a situation that's shifting. "These young vets are very smart and knowledgeable, and they're well-trained didactically even though they don't possess the clinical experience," he says. "It's very exciting to see them so motivated when they go out into the countryside and apply what they've been learning in the classroom to actual hands-on cases."

Touching a Nerve

Concern for animal welfare is not a new concept, but in the past few years representatives of the Equitarian Initiative have seen a rising level of awareness among veterinarians about the working equids of the world and their plight, along with an increase in collaborative efforts to help these animals and the people that depend upon them for survival.

Since its inception, EI has partnered with organizations such as the AAEP and the AAEP Foundation, the Donkey Sanctuary, World Horse Welfare (WHW), UNAM, Asociación Mexicana de Médicos Veterinarios Especialistas en Equinos (AMMVEE), and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA). Merriam reports that these types of partnerships, combined with the commitment and applied knowledge of their trainees (the local veterinarians), create momentum.

"We've spun off about 16 or 18 either new or revitalized projects through Equitarian Initiative trainees, so we're getting a lot of pollination," he says. "While we're creating a template for how to go in and do these projects, there's no real plan, so you can go wherever you find a need and a project you're interested in."

The other part of the EI mission involves creating sustainable change within the communities the veterinarians serve. "If we can educate owners, their veterinarians, and other equid caregivers to do some basic things, including farriery, you could eliminate the majority of issues for these animals," says Merriam, who points out that the barriers to basic care range from cultural to economic.

Future Opportunities

What's next for these equitarians? There's a new website coming this year (www.equitarianinitiative.org)--one that's more user-friendly and will present larger numbers of case studies and success stories. They've already embraced allies who want to help financially, either through online donations or fundraising; one Pony Club chapter in Minnesota has even held a horse show as an EI benefit.

Because the need is great, even simple ideas can prove beneficial. South Dakota State University graduate student Angie Gebhart worked with her local Girl Scout troops and 4-H groups to produce a -Spanish-language coloring book about equid care; it's now being distributed to children during equitarian trips. That might seem a simple way to educate these equid caregivers of the future, but Merriam says he's also seeing how technology is creating opportunities for change.

"I have a picture of a guy sitting on a donkey, holding a cell phone in one hand and guiding the donkey with the other. I'm getting e-mails from my friends in the Dominican Republic, they're sending me cell phone photos of horses with various conditions for review," he reports. "We're on the edge of being able to transform technological tools into something people can use to change their day-to-day lives. Right now I can't imagine having a video conference with a group of individuals in a local village, but it might be possible soon."

Take-Home Message

Merriam reports that the synergy between the organizations represented at the workshop has brought about a climate supportive of change in equid welfare within developing countries. The Equitarian Initiative welcomes people and organizations who see a need and want to make a difference through education, collaboration, and direct aid.


About the Author

Lisa Kemp

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