More than 100 million horses, donkeys, and mules around the world spend their days working for a living: not necessarily working on their sliding stops, tempi changes, or jumping technique, but working to provide their human families with a means of transportation and a source of livelihood. These equids represent not only the family horse but also an animal that is a major player in the global agriculture market.

Unfortunately, these animals don't always receive health care that meets the standards many veterinarians or horse owners would consider acceptable. But a group of veterinarians ("The Equitarians," led by Jay Merriam, DVM, of the Massachusetts Equine Clinic) has taken on the task of helping these working horses, mules, and donkeys. In turn, they're helping the animals' owners. Merriam described this movement at the 2010 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore, Md., and explained how veterinarians and equine enthusiasts in general can become involved in the mission.

The horse owning families in the developing world view their animals through a different lens, and it's not always rose-colored. They rely on them for work and transport in ways a developed world can't imagine. For instance, children ride them to school. If the children can't get to school and learn to read, they are forced to go to work at an early age instead.

With the support of the AAEP, The Donkey Sanctuary, Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and the University of Mexico (UNAM), a week-long Equitarian Workshop was held in Vera Cruz, Mexico, in October 2010. The purpose was to train practitioners to work in field conditions with actual communities where working equids are the source of work and survival. Twenty-six veterinarians from North America and an equal number from Mexico joined with the faculty of the UNAM veterinary school to teach and serve. Some key components of the session were learning to interact with indigenous communities and to see, identify, and treat many health conditions unique to equines living in tropical conditions.

"A struggling horse owner in the developing world has to make a living and support his family on less than we spend on lattés," Merriam pointed out. "But he knows his animals and wants the best (for them)."

Merriam recalled one case in Samana, Dominican Republic, when a mule with a scrotal hernia (that was easily the size of a volleyball, he added) was presented for surgery.

"The team assembled and repaired (the mule) on the grass in the middle of the town square," Merriam said. "As the animal recovered, the owner approached and said his thanks, and remarked 'I am old, my family feeds me, and if I die, they will survive. But if the mule dies, we all die.' The man had not been able to pick coconuts for several weeks, but was soon back to work."

The Equitarians, in addition to providing health care for the working equids, aim to teach the owners about proper daily care for their horses and how to provide basic health care. To do this, they are continuously looking for veterinarians to travel to Third World countries and assist with the effort. Additionally, Merriam said, time in the field is essential for local caretakers and veterinarians to develop and hone their veterinary care skills.

"The AAEP recently established a working equids initiative with the British Equine Veterinary Association that will become a central source for connecting member veterinarians with ongoing projects, as well as allow donors of supplies to direct them where they are needed," Merriam explained. "They have also joined with six other organizations to support the Equitarian Workshop and similar educational endeavors on an annual basis.

"Clinical skills and expertise get better with practice and field training," he added. "Organizations working in developing countries need skilled, practiced hands to both perform and teach required procedures," and veterinarians traveling to these areas can provide guidance to these local caretakers.

Merriam credits some of the Equitarians' success to the fact that they meet the specific needs of a community (rather than only providing one type of assistance on a global scale), and they take the time to develop trusting relationships with horse owners. He added that many equid owners return to the clinics each time the Equitarians visit their community. Some owners even travel miles--often by foot--to bring their horses to the clinics.

"There is a need for veterinary care, parasite control, and nutrition (for the 100 million working equids worldwide)," Merriam concluded. "Education of caregivers, veterinarians, and health care workers is the key to improving the lives of these animals and their families."

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More