Welfare in Mexico

Mexico is truly a land of enchantment. Pristine beaches in places with names like Acapulco and Cancun entice visitors, many of them very wealthy, from around the world. Scenic mountains tower over part of the land. Blue skies and balmy temperatures for much of the year erase memories of snow and cold in other parts of the world. But Mexico is also a land of contrasts. There is great disparity between the haves and have-nots. There are many wealthy Mexicans, but there are many more who exist in varying stages of poverty.

Mexico is also the land of the horse and superb horsemen. Vaqueros with hands "as fine as dealers in Reno," as Ian Tyson proclaims in one of his songs, remain among the finest reinsmen in the world.

The histories of Mexico and the horse are inseparable. It was at today's Vera Cruz that Hernando Cortez, the Spanish explorer, entrepreneur, and conqueror, introduced--or more correctly re-introduced--the horse to North America. There were only 16 horses with that first expedition, but ultimately dozens, then hundreds, then thousands were imported from Spain and later from around the world.

In the beginning, horses were vehicles of war. Later they were used to handle vast herds of cattle that were spreading across Mexico in a northerly direction with the birth of the vaquero culture. It was a culture that later was adopted by Americans who became known as cowboys.

While the horse maintains a lofty status in parts of Mexico today, there is also a dark side. Many horses are underfed and others toil daily with injuries that compromise their abilities and induce pain and suffering.

About 80% of the land devoted to agriculture is so rugged that tractors are not practical. Nor, in many cases, are they affordable. Residents of these areas scratch out a living by tilling the soil with horses, donkeys, mules, and their own bare hands.

It is not just in the countryside that horses and donkeys carry out their duties. In Mexico City there exists a baffling anachronism. In a part of this city, horses and donkeys pull carts from door to door each day collecting garbage that is transported to dumps at the edge of the city. They must snake their way through traffic that is so heavy, it must be experienced to be believed.

Again, there is a study in contrasts. A horse pulling a heavily laden cart with garbage might be followed into the dumping area by a new garbage truck that has collected trash in another part of the city. Once at the dump, workers sort through the trash to extract glass and plastic containers for recycling. The rest is left to rot, deteriorate, or be borne away on the wind.

The equines involved in trash collecting face two formidable obstacles in their existence. First, their owners are very poor, and second, the owners know little about equine health and care. If such knowledge was ever part of their culture, it has been lost.

A trash collector on a good day can earn the equivalent of $15. With this money, he must feed his family and his horses. Frequently, both come up short. It is the same with many of the farmers; some are barely surviving.

There is more. In a number of areas, there are markets where there is an exchange of money and goods involving everything from herbal remedies to livestock, clothing, and food.

Again, there is contrast. Most horses that are brought to the markets to be sold as saddle horses look well-fed and cared for, although some carry scars and spots of white hair that attest to ill-fitting saddles. They will command a good price.

Then there is the dark side. Horses that are headed for slaughter often are treated abominably--both before arriving at market and while on their way to slaughter. Some are emaciated. Others are injured. The only goal is to get them to slaughter still breathing, since the slaughter plant doesn't pay for dead horses. If the horse has trouble standing, its head might be tied to one support beam in the truck and its tail to another to prevent it from going down. The trip to the slaughter plant might be in a double-decker cattle truck or it might be in a straight-bed truck so jammed with animals that they couldn't fall down if they tried.

There are few, if any, governmental rules and regulations controlling care and humane transportation of horses in Mexico.

ILPH Offers Assistance

Enter the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) with headquarters in England. It was founded in 1927 by an Englishwoman named Ada Cole, who declared: "If all of these animals could cry aloud with one voice, it would stir the world to do something about it...we must be their voice."

It's a pragmatic organization with goals that change with locale and circumstance; it's not an animal rights group. One of its goals in Mexico, for example, is to raise enough money to establish a small slaughter plant at the San Barnabe market so that horses don't have to be jammed on a truck for a four- to five-hour trip to the slaughterhouse.

The building on site has been made available by the government. The money being raised at the moment by ILPH is to purchase the necessary equipment for slaughtering and packaging the meat.

ILPH has been working in Mexico for 12 years in an effort to improve conditions for all equines. It is joined in its effort by the Donkey and Mule Sanctuary, also headquartering in England. The two philanthropic organizations have formed a partnership with the University of Mexico; funds are dispensed through the university for various projects under way in Mexico.

The partnership has set out to train Mexicans who in turn will teach their countrymen. The ultimate ILPH goal is to move into a place like Mexico, teach, train, help, then leave with native personnel in place to carry on. Achievement of that goal appears to be far in the future.

In November 2004, I traveled to Mexico with ILPH representatives to learn what their project was all about. There were three in our entourage. Representing ILPH was Linda Hams, director of fund-raising and communications. She is an intriguing combination of boldness, candor, and charm, all of which is leavened by a flashing smile that needs little stimulation to show itself. She has instant rapport with Mexican ILPH team members. The other member of the group was Laurence Squire, a free-lance photographer who has heard angry machine gun fire in Afghanistan and barely escaped with his life in Gambia while photographing a major brush fire. His role was to take photos for an article to appear in a major English equine journal, to provide stock photos for ILPH's fund-raising promotions and endeavors, and provide images for The Horse magazine. Thirty-three years of age, the fair-haired Laurence has an innate ability to put his subjects at ease.

The Dump

The first visit is to the rubbish dump. We three wear matching caps and polo shirts bearing the ILPH logo so that we aren't mistaken for interlopers. We travel with an ILPH team, all of them Mexicans trained in Mexico. There are two veterinarians, a farrier, and a veterinary student who is doing her "social service" work. The team leader is Alfredo Lopez Cabonas, DVM. He is quiet to the point of shyness, but one is instantly aware of his leadership capabilities.

In broken English--our Spanish is far more limited--he provides information about the clientele. There are about 700 horses and donkeys involved in the collection of trash; they are stabled at the dumps in huts and shacks. Some 200 people involved with rubbish collecting also live at the dumps, while others live nearby.

The land on which the dumps are located is owned by the government, so the collectors and their families who live there are "squatters" who pay no rent. It is impossible to distinguish between house and stable; both are mere shacks. There is no water at some of the dumps. There is no electricity. There are no bathroom facilities.

There are six stations or dumps, each with its own group of collectors. Collecting territories are guarded fiercely. If a collector infringes on another's territory, the result can be the equivalent of gang warfare.

In one incident, a collector's home and attached stable were fire-bombed. No one was killed, but a horse was horribly burned. He was abandoned by his owner and was found some time later wandering about the station, his back and sides sustaining burns that would have killed the average horse.

Impressed by the horse's will to live, the ILPH team took him to the university's vet school for treatment two years ago; he is still there. His name is Pablo, and he has become something of an ILPH poster child. We would visit him the next day.

The area of Mexico City where horses are used to collect rubbish spreads out three or four kilometers from the dump, Alfredo says. It takes about four hours for a collector to complete his rounds on a given day.

We arrive at one of the stations after a harrowing journey through Mexico City traffic. Normal for them; not for us. The team sets up shop without fanfare or announcement. The collectors there recognize the white van and its logo that represents the three organizations involved.

The goal, says Afredo, is to treat injuries, deworm, and vaccinate on a regular basis. All animals at the dumps are dewormed twice a year--once after the dry season and once after the rainy season. They are vaccinated annually and get a tetanus shot.

Angel Granillo Carmona, tall and introspective, but with a sense of humor, is the farrier. He learned his craft as a trainee in the ILPH farrier program, and now has gained the prestigious position of team member. He will deal with foot problems that are presented. He walks a narrow line--there are farriers who make their living by trimming and shoeing horses at the dumps. He must be careful not to intrude on their livelihood, so he tries to limit his efforts to corrective work.

Normally, the team will visit all six stations each Wednesday. This is Saturday and the team is there because of us. At first, there is little activity as most of the collectors are out making their rounds. Then, they begin returning and business picks up. Horses are examined. Shots are given.

Yadira Texis, who is fulfilling her social work obligation while serving as a veterinary assistant, records information about what is done for each animal. She is solemn, but has a warm smile. She speaks no English and has completed five years of veterinary study at the University of Tlaxcala. In Mexico, students attend college with all expenses paid. Once their studies are completed, however, they must do social service work as a form of repayment. As a veterinary student, Yadira's social work involves helping Alfredo's team. She receives no compensation.

Some of the horses at this station are thin. Others appear to have been well-fed. Almost all of them either have sores along their backs and withers or else display white hair in that area that bespeaks previous injury. The reason for the back and withers injuries is obvious, as harnesses are crude to say the least. We watch a horse being prepared for the day's work; piles of blankets are heaped on its back under a small wooden frame. The squarish metal cart's shafts are fastened in place with ropes or heavy pieces of cloth that go over the pile of blankets and around the horse's middle. Some have collars to which the shafts are attached. It makes little difference because the design of the contrivance dictates that almost all of the pressure, both for pulling and balancing the load, is brought to bear around the animal's middle, just behind the withers. There is no breeching to prevent the cart from surging forward when going down an incline or coming to a stop. Fortunately, the area of the city where the horses work has few hills.

The collectors begin arriving with their loads. Each cart is heaped high with rubbish of all sorts. Attached to the rear of the cart is a huge bag that also has been filled with rubbish. The collector, sometimes accompanied by his children, perches at the front of the load.

One load is so unbalanced, with much of the weight in the rear, that the gray stallion pulling it must keep leaning into the traces when stopped or he will lose his own balance and, one can surmise, be lifted off the ground. The amount of pressure on the underside of the girth is enormous.

Another gray horse appears across the dump, being led toward the team by its owner. It is lame and in obvious pain. The horse is examined by Alfredo, Angel and Alfredo's assistant, Luis Huerta Lopez, DVM. The diagnosis is tendinitis.

The tendons are treated with a solution to decrease inflammation and bandaged. The owner is instructed to remove the bandages at night and put them back on during the day, and to rest the horse.

Prognosis? Alfredo shrugs. Maybe it will get better with rest. Maybe not. The horse is 15 years old. And if it doesn't get better? It goes to slaughter and the owner must buy another horse. Horse dealers come to the stations on a regular basis, Alfredo says. A trained cart horse might sell for the equivalent of $700. An untrained one will bring half that. Either way, when one's income is $15 per day, it is a significant amount.

Alfredo's team works like a well-oiled machine with little discussion. When a horse approaches, Alfredo talks to the owner while doing a routine examination. Yadira draws up a tetanus shot. Luis puts liquid ivermectin into a syringe with the needle removed. Angel checks the horse's feet.

One collector arrives with two unharnessed horses tied to his cart. They have been lacking in energy, he says. Alfredo listens. A liter of fluid is administered intravenously to each horse. It is, Alfredo says, a solution containing amino acids and sugar.

At the end, the collector does something unusual. He offers to contribute money. Alfredo produces a piggy bank and the man ceremoniously drops in some coins. By the sound, the piggy bank is quite empty.

Some of the collectors accept the treatment proffered and don't even bother extending a "gracias" to the team. Others are appreciative and say so. The team's services are offered free of charge.

One of the ongoing problems with the horses at all of the dump stations, says Alfredo, is colic due to enteroliths. The horses are on a limited diet and will eat anything that looks like it might stave off hunger pangs. In the process, they consume a lot of dirt. Enteroliths, those rock-hard masses that form within the digestive system, are the result.

The next day at the university we meet Ramior Calderon Villa, DVM. One of his students says he is "the best equine surgeon in all of Mexico." He is quiet and self-effacing. Ramior has performed some 30 successful colic surgeries on garbage collecting horses to remove enteroliths.

He doesn't speak English, so we express praise through Alfredo. He smiles and nods, appreciating the compliment. How, he is asked, can a rubbish collector afford such a procedure?

He smiles again. "No charge."

The most prevalent problem, says Alfredo, involves sores from the ill-fitting equipment. It is difficult to get them healed when they are exacerbated on a daily basis. Lamenesses also show up with frequency. Some of them are caused by improper trimming and ill-fitting shoes from farriers who have not received proper training. ILPH is attempting to rectify that with courses on farriery (more on this later).

A young man approaches with a bay yearling. It is being led with a rope around its neck and is not the most cooperative. A friend picks up a piece of plastic pipe to haze the horse. The yearling's feet are sorely in need of trimming, but it is obvious that no one has ever picked up one of its hooves before. The yearling wants no part of anyone giving it a shot or having its feet trimmed. Alfredo and Luis step in to help control the yearling.

Angel smiles. "Cuatro hombres, uno caballo." (Four men, one horse.)

The youngster is brought under control. Angel is now dead serious. He steps in and with skill and amazing speed, four hooves are transformed into attractive, balanced appendages. The confused yearling leaves with tentative steps, adjusting to a new feel.

Later, through an interpreter, we praise Angel for his skill and speed. The compliment pleases him, but he shrugs it off. Sometimes when the team visits a village that has no farrier, he says, he might have to trim 50 horses in one day. It goes without saying that a fair number of that 50 probably never had their feet touched before.

Another collector arrives with a bay horse for deworming and a tetanus shot. The bay is not happy, trying to bite and kick anyone within range. The man ties up one hind leg so the procedures can be carried out.

Another arrives with the horse hitched to an empty trash cart. He peels back a bandage on the left knee to reveal a large, deep, open wound. Another horse kicked this one, the man reports. Alfredo treats the wound and applies a sanitary bandage. It is obvious that the horse will have to heal on the job. The good news is that Alfredo and his team will treat the wound on a weekly basis.

The day winds down as the collectors complete their rounds. We head back to the hotel. One is left with the thought that the rubbish collectors are not basically cruel; they just don't know any better. The job passes down from father to son, and they just keep on doing things the same way.


The next day, it is off to the university to see Pablo. Although two years of healing have been involved, much of the burned area is still an angry wound. How much longer will it take to heal? Alfredo guesses maybe another year.

And then? Alfredo looks to Linda for an answer. Some ILPH officials, she says, want Pablo sent to England. She isn't sure that's a good idea. Pablo was born and raised in a warm, dry climate, she reasons, and England's dampness would not be good.

"Do you think we could find a home for him in southern California, just as a companion animal?" she asks.

Pablo was a stallion when he suffered the burns, but had to be gelded as his recovery progressed because his stallion-like behavior was making him difficult to handle.

The San Barnabe Market

The next day is Monday; market day at San Barnabe. The market is about 80 miles away, but it takes us 2 1/2 hours to get through the maze of traffic. Most of the driving time is spent getting out of Mexico City. The team is joined on this day by Cinthia Vargas, MVZ. She has completed her five years of veterinary schooling and will be with the team for three weeks as an intern. She is a godsend. She has been practicing her English since elementary school. She smiles a lot and is eager to be an interpreter.

The market is a two-day affair. Vendors arrive on Sunday to set up their stands or bring in livestock, and the buying and selling occurs on Monday. We pass a group of tethered horses that are nice-looking animals to be sold as saddle mounts.

We head for the place where most of the horses are held; they are in pens on a raised concrete platform. A metal roof covers the stalls and there is water in concrete troughs in each pen. Both the metal roof and the watering containers were financed by ILPH. Before them, the horses stood out in the blazing sun all day, often with no water.

All transactions, Alfredo says, are private treaty. Some horses might change hands five times during a single market day.

The team--armed with drugs, bandages, and equipment--moves to the section where the slaughter horses are held. There is a group of horses in the first pen, but your eyes go to only one. It is an emaciated gray that can barely stay upright. The horse's coat is soiled with urine and manure. Its mane is tangled. Its head droops. The eyes are glazed. Its rear legs are drawn forward. It is in obvious pain and distress.

Alfredo is concerned about a possible fracture. He examines the horse, then plays instructor as Cinthia also examines it. They aren't sure what the problem might be, but they conclude there is no fracture.

"Can't you just shoot the horse and put it out of its misery?" we ask Alfredo. "Sometimes," he replies, "you tell the owner you will shoot his horse and he tells you that if you do, he will shoot you."

If the owner can get the horse to the slaughterhouse alive, he might get the equivalent of $50. If the horse dies, he gets nothing.

The ILPH team has no authority at the market. Their only weapon is the respect in which they are held. Alfredo goes looking for the owner. Perhaps he can convince the man to allow him to put the horse down.

In the end, the owner can't be found. Alfredo decides to administer an epidural analgesic that will ease the horse's pain during its trip to the slaughterhouse. However, he must be careful in the drug used, or the meat won't be fit for human consumption. Alfredo turns teacher again and guides Cinthia, who administers the drug. He checks the gray's teeth--the horse is nine years old.

Down the row of stalls a bit are two pens filled with donkeys. Are they being sold as work animals? No, Alfredo says. They, too, are on their way to slaughter. One of them appears to be colicking. It lies down and rolls. Others are lame. The team goes into the pen and examines them.

A man arrives to haul them away. A horse he had purchased earlier died; the horse was eviscerated on the spot and the entrails still lay on the platform. The horse's carcass is suspended by front and rear legs at the front of the truck box.

The man loading the donkeys wastes no time. He keeps jamming one donkey after another into the truck, even when it appears that it is filled to capacity. The last to be loaded is a lame donkey. He gets behind the animal and pushes it in.

Linda is watching. Her sunny smile is nowhere in sight. She is grim-faced, muttering, "I wish that donkey would kick him in the groin." She knows the rules. It is not for her to censure or condemn. She says nothing for public consumption.

The truckload of donkeys leaves. It is the man's second load. Alfredo explains that they are being taken to a nearby staging area, and when the man has enough for one large truckload, they will go to slaughter.

Horses are being loaded and are leaving. Two young horses are mere rails. It has been a long time between meals in young lives that will end at the slaughterhouse.

It is a quiet, somber trip back to the hotel at day's end.

Into the Country

The final stop for our group is Oaxaca (pronounced Wuh-hock-ah). Oaxaca is both a state and a town. It is south of Mexico City, and there is much history here. Tourists come from many parts of the world to visit Oaxaca because of its historical significance and the mild climate.

There are many villages in the state of Oaxaca, and agriculture drives the local economy. It is here that ILPH has established schools for farriery and saddle and harness making. There is one session offered per year, and each session is divided into four training modules that are spread out over several months. The first module lasts three weeks, and each of the other three modules lasts two weeks.

The training sessions are designed for 10 students in each discipline. The ultimate goal is for them to go forth and use what they have learned about proper hoof care and saddle and harness fit so that equines can be worked without being injured. While the emphasis is on improving living conditions for equines, there can be fallout benefits for the human trainees. Their new skills just might help them earn a better living.

Farriers who complete the course are allowed to keep the tools issued to them when the school opened. The ILPH goal includes developing Mexican trainers to teach the courses. That has been successful in the farrier program. For example, Marco Antonio Torres S. was a farmer scratching out a living on the soil when he enrolled in the ILPH farrier program. He is short and powerfully built, but gentle. He demonstrated talent, and the ILPH team made certain that he progressed. Today, he is the head instructor for the farrier course.

Serving as his assistants are two other Mexicans who are advancing in the ranks; Edmundo Trejo Ceron, formerly a rubbish hauler at the Mexico City dumps, and Alberto Cruz Barrera. ILPH no longer sends a farrier from England to oversee the course.

Marco also has done much to master the English language and often quietly steps in to interpret for his compatriots. When not working with ILPH during training sessions, he is a full-time farrier.

Currently it's a bit different with the saddle and harness making program. The lead instructor is Englishman Chris Garrett, whose crinkled eyes have seen the world from a number of vantage points--biker, truck driver, saddle maker. He bonds with the students, even to the point of staying with them in their dormitory quarters.

"It's just cheaper," he says in deprecating fashion, but you know it's more than that.

He is passionate about teaching the farmers of the area to use harnesses that fit properly and do not sore the horses. "If we can convince them that these harnesses (the ones his students construct) are better, they will realize that a proper fitting harness means the horse can better do its job and stay healthy," he says.

He is developing leadership in his group too, but no one is quite ready to be a Marco.

Overseeing the entire training program for ILPH is team leader Andre Bubear, an Englishman with French ancestry. He is energetic with contagious enthusiasm. Andre doesn't talk in the normal interpretation of the word. He erupts with staccato bursts of speech that resemble machine gun fire. He served as a saddle maker in the British cavalry, and today he is a full-time staffer with ILPH. He's a zealous evangelist for the cause. Prior to the training module that we are visiting, he was in San Salvador overseeing a similar ILPH training program.

Later that afternoon, Andre and one of his assistants presented an outdoor demonstration on saddle fit for university of Oaxaca veterinary students, who were involved in a day-long seminar.

The overall coordinator for ILPH in Mexico is Horacio Chouira, DVM, MS, whose office is at the University of Mexico. He is serious and professional. His master's degree thesis studied tractors vs. horses in rugged agricultural areas. His conclusion was that in many areas, it is more feasible to use horses. One of his jobs is to recruit students for the training programs.

As the students advance through the programs, Marco and Chris say, their enthusiasm grows. With Chris, the final step is the construction of a saddle from scratch. The students become so engrossed in their work that they won't let the day end. Often, Chris says, it is 11 p.m. before they finally agree to put down their tools.

For Marco's farrier students, the successful climax of the training is making a set of shoes and nailing them on a live horse.

There are some equipment drawbacks. For Chris and the saddle- and harness- making students, the lack of modern equipment is planned. What is the point, he asks rhetorically, of teaching them to stitch with a sewing machine when they won't be able to afford one? All of their work is done by hand. The materials used in the harness and saddle making, for the most part, involve that which can be found locally, including leather that comes from a nearby tannery.

For Marco, a second anvil would be helpful. When he and his two assistants are teaching students how to turn a red-hot strap of iron into a shoe, only one can work at a time. The anvil that was being used in the training program had been shipped to Mexico from San Salvador when that ILPH training session ended.

In the early afternoon of that day, we join the students for lunch prepared by two area women who have been hired for the job. Linda is sitting on the other side of the table and down from me. I should have seen it coming. Although her blue eyes are wide and innocent, there is the trace of an impish smile at the corners of her mouth. She leans forward and gains my attention, as well as the attention of others at the table.

"Now Les," she begins in that clipped British accent, "I overheard you talking with Marco about the need for another anvil. It would be a good bit cheaper to ship one from the United States rather than all the way from England, don't you think?"

Hooked. Reeled in. Without warning.

"I'll find another anvil."

The smile flourishes. She leans back. Self-satisfied. "Why, thank you."

An airplane leaves Oaxaca the next morning with me leaning back in the seat, eyes closed and sorting through the sights, sounds, and experiences. The image of the gray horse at the market is difficult to blot out. Time to leave it alone. One way or another, the horse is dead by now.

Positive thoughts. Alfredo and his team are in a village all day treating horses. Mariano, another veterinarian team leader, is in a different village with his assistants doing the same. The surface is only being scratched at the moment for horses in Mexico, but caring people are out there doing something. That is a good thing.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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