At Work in Morocco

Officials in Morocco say there are an estimated 100 million working horses, donkeys, and mules in developing countries, 27 million of which are in Africa. In the Kingdom of Morocco in Northern Africa, there are more than 1.5 million working donkeys and mules, plus nearly 160,000 purebred or crossbred horses. Most of the purebreds and crossbreds are Arabians and Barbs. While there is a vast disparity in the lives of the "haves" and "have-nots" of the Moroccan equine world, this scenario is typical of developing countries. And the Moroccan government, with help from the private sector, is trying to improve both ends of the equine spectrum.

In this article on the Moroccan horse industry, we'll look at the welfare issues of the working animals and what is being done to help them, and we'll take a glimpse into one of the six National Studs designed to offer stallion services to the country's horse owners to try and improve the bloodlines and quality of those horses.


Michael Crane, DVM, is the technical director of SPANA in Morocco. The initials for the parent group (SPANA), founded in 1923 in England, stand for the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad, but the Moroccan group has a much broader purpose in working with their government, as their name attests: Society for the Protection of Animals and Nature.

SPANA has 10 clinics, one mobile clinic, and three objectives in Morocco:

  1. Provide veterinary care for working horses, donkeys, and mules for owners who cannot afford it.
  2. Provide training for local veterinarians.
  3. Educate the public about basic care and welfare of animals and the environment.

In Morocco, SPANA hires local veterinarians (so as not to compete with their practices) to provide free services to owners whose animals need medical care (horses, donkeys, mules, and small animals). Veterinary students do a three-week training course at one of the hospitals, and there are volunteer veterinarians who come from around the world to spend time working in the clinics and with the mobile hospitals.

One veterinarian halfway through a five-week stint of volunteer work told SPANA, "Probably like all your volunteers, I've found it heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. I've seen an array of horror. A mule hit by a train (and still standing), his vertebrae, tail, and muscles swinging open like a gate! Several aggressive colics (plastic bag obstructions mostly), hobble injuries, ear amputation, revenge attacks, chronic (sometimes criminal) lameness, humerus fractures, busted shoulders, sarcoids, rectal prolapses, hernias, used engine oil and battery acid wound treatments, tetanus, emaciated animals with pressure sores. Life as a working mule, donkey, or horse in Morocco is an exhausting, hungry, painful, and a sad affair, at best! It's not difficult to imagine what it would be like without SPANA; they'd be worked to death, or die first, in quiet agony and passive long-suffering."

Veterinarians who want to volunteer, says Crane, need to speak French (or Arabic), be culturally aware, adaptable, and can be male or female. There is basic veterinary work involved, including minor surgery, but no colic surgery is performed, as the clinics are not set up for those services.

SPANA clinics try to use medications that can be found in the country; it doesn't help to teach a veterinarian to treat an animal with something that cannot be obtained in the future. While some of the equipment is imported, SPANA officials try to use resources that are available in the region.

"We do import some dental rasps, floats, and foot rasps," says Crane. But he emphasizes, "Twenty years ago you couldn't get a farrier's kit in the country, but now you can."

SPANA has overseas veterinarians come to teach courses, and the group also provides training for local farriers. Owners are given courses in animal management, and many schoolchildren visit the clinics' educational centers.

"We want to instill the idea of basic animal welfare," says Crane. In that way, SPANA hopes to influence the care of animals in generations to come.

Crane says that in some North African societies, it is impolite to even mention donkeys or dogs in polite conversation. "Should it be absolutely unavoidable, then any reference has to be followed by 'hachak,' a traditional apology which roughly translates as 'very sorry, I do respect you.' "

Such is the place in society where these animals reside. But, through education, that is changing.

Crane told one story of how dogs and donkeys often have stones thrown at them on the streets, and not always by youths. "Now and again, there are examples that show that attitudes can change," Crane says. "Three young lads found an orphan foal, not much more than a couple of weeks old, wandering the streets alone. No mother could be found, and the foal was lame. Having visited their local SPANA clinic on a day out from school, they carried the foal there for some advice.

"After further attempts to locate the mother had failed, it was decided that hand-rearing was the only option," Crane continues. "In addition, careful care and rest was necessary in light of the lameness. Over the next few months, the three lads were regular visitors to the clinic to see how things were progressing.

Hand-rearing foals is not without its problems, but in this case, all went well and the lameness resolved.

"Changing attitudes is a slow process. In the United Kingdom, we first recognized the need for a society to consider animal welfare legislation back in the 19th Century," says Crane. "Certainly much has improved, and we no longer see emaciated, lame carriage horses on London's streets. Here in Morocco, the younger generations are starting to learn and are even joining in the process of spreading the message."

One of the simple ways that SPANA is making a difference is in the practice of hobbling or staking out animals. In an agricultural country without many fences, it is necessary to keep animals from wandering away, or into the crops. Many owners use thin nylon cord or wire, and nearly every working animal you see has scars on its legs from these practices.

SPANA volunteers and veterinarians are trying to educate owners about keeping their animals sound by giving them soft cotton hobbles made from locally available waste cotton cloth.

Another is the licensing of all the Caleche horses that pull tourist carriages in Marrakech. SPANA instigated a four- to six-month system where the horses' hooves are marked to help with identification and to keep track of their condition. SPANA veterinarians have the authority to hospitalize sick or injured horses. While horses are being checked for health, local police make sure the carriages are safe. Crane says this initiative has been a great success, and all of Marrakech's 300 Caleche horses are now registered with SPANA.

Crane will visit the Western University of Health Science's veterinary school in California in October and will be available to visit other areas while he's in the country (contact him at

Crane wants the world to understand that while huge amounts of money are spent looking at small populations of the world's equids (those owned in developed countries), there is little being done to help the animals in developing countries. He would like to see links formed between developed countries and Morocco that could help the animals in that country progress and survive.

In 2004, SPANA's total charitable expenditure rose by 10% to £2,829,004 ($4,907,190) up from £2,569,933 ($4,457,549) in 2003. Total incoming resources for the year were £3,453,073 ($5,989,355), up from £2,596,370 ($4,503,404) in 2003. Legacies account for nearly 64% of SPANA's income, and 28% comes from annual donations from individuals and groups. Morocco accounts for nearly 31% of SPANA's annual expenditures.

American Fondouk Hospital

Another haven for animal care in Morocco is located in Fez. The American Fondouk (Arabic for shelter or stable) was founded by Sidney Haines Coleman, former president of the American Humane Association, in 1927. This was done at the urging of Amy Bend Bishop, an American traveler who upon her return from Morocco wanted to do something for the working equids of that country. In 1927, she donated $8,000 in memory of her mother to establish the American Fondouk.

After launching and establishing the hospital, Coleman turned oversight of the facility over to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). That organization now has administered the Fondouk for more than 50 years (see or

The American Fondouk is a full-service animal hospital in Fez that treats 50-100 animals per day, and more than 20,000 annually (in 2005, the hospital serviced a record 22,000 animals). Fez is considered the northern capital of Morocco, and it is the cultural and religious capital. The Medina (old city) in Fez is the largest contiguous car-free area in the world, with some streets as narrow as two feet and none wider than 16 feet.

The hospital has a resident veterinarian, Denys Frappier, DVM, who is the director, as well as a blacksmith and eight other employees. There's an on-site laboratory and a surgical facility for routine procedures.

Frappier at one point in his career was the head veterinarian for the Canadian Olympic equestrian team and has participated in six Olympic Games. He originally volunteered for a one-year stint, but was so struck by the plight of the people and animals of Morocco that, 12 years later, he is still working at the Fondouk.

Frappier has said that without the Fondouk, an estimated 7,000 animals would die within three months. In addition to those deaths, countless families would suffer as their means of earning a living would be gone. He remarks that he was struck by the power and importance of the work of the Fondouk.

Scott Coleman, a great-grandson of the founder and a development officer for the American Fondouk, said his family has remained involved in the hospital through the generations. He says, "I think what really drew me to the Fondouk was the impact on people. When we save a mule, we prevent a family from starving. It's wonderful to see this impact and the American flag flying so proudly in Morocco." Following are a few stories related after his recent visit to the hospital in Morocco.

It is common for blinders to be used over the eyes of working donkeys and mules. Occasionally the idea behind the blinders is taken to extremes and the mule's or donkey's vision is almost entirely blocked with a traditional veil over the animal's head. While the locals think this makes the animal look nice, the animal tends to fall down, run into obstacles, and stumble constantly. The Fondouk staff sometimes corrects the problem by putting the veil over the owner's head and having him walk around. "This simple demonstration is usually affective," notes Coleman.

Another simple solution to a lameness problem occurred a couple of years ago when a mule came to the Fondouk with a bad limp. At first glance, says Coleman, it appeared the animal had some sort of ankle problem, but after a brief examination, it was obvious that the problem was due to a rock lodged in the poorly nailed on shoe on the mule's front hoof. The owner told the veterinarian that he didn't believe this should affect the animal. The veterinarian asked the man to take off his shoe, put a pebble in the man's shoe, and asked him to walk around the courtyard at the hospital. The man returned resolute that the rock should not have been a big problem for his animal.

"So, the vet jumped on the man's back and asked him to walk around the hospital again. After only a couple of steps, the man got the point and promised to check the mule's hooves regularly," recalls Coleman.

An unfortunate way of life for working equids in Morocco is the use of sticks (with or without nails) to "encourage" the animal to work harder or faster.

"One of the most depressing injuries that we see are open wounds along the top of the leg and the outside of their stomachs," says Coleman. "Many Moroccans unknowingly inflict serious pain on their animals by using sticks covered in nails to make them move faster. They will repeatedly stick the animal when it doesn't move fast enough or is going in the wrong direction. These wounds can develop any number of problems and almost always become infected. In addition to treating the wounds, the Fondouk staff lectures owners on the effect that this treatment has on their animals."

Donations to the American Fondouk help care for sick and injured animals, and provide preventive health care. Donations are also used to purchase iron bars to make suitable shoes for the animals, to vaccinate animals against deadly diseases (such as rabies), and to eliminate parasites that cause the demise of many animals each year that could have survived if deworming medications had been available. Basic deworming medications cost $6.10 per horse, $4.50 per mule, $3 per donkey, $0.50 per dog, and $0.20 per cat.   

Arabs and Barbs

It's hard not to fall in love with the native African Barb (Berber) horses, which have modified Arab facial tendencies with a stouter, taller body. Wikipedia states, "The Barb is a light riding horse with great stamina. In the hands of a skilled rider, the spirited horse can be handled. It has a powerful front end, high withers, short back, a sloping, narrow croup, and carries its tail low. It is hardy, with clean legs, and small, round, sound hooves."

The World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds states, "The Barb is a light riding horse which originated in the Maghreb region of northern Africa. There are several varieties, including Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian. This is the foundation breed of the West African Barb."

According to the International Museum of the Horse web site section on Spanish Barbs (, "The precursors of the Barb/Iberian horse are attributed to having descended from Equus stenonius, one of the six original types of wild horses known to man. The Barb/Iberian horse was developed by cultures who depended on their horses in everyday life. It is those cultures that have always produced the world's best horses."

Barbs are prized for their stamina, hardiness, and gentle--but spirited--disposition. The Godolphin Arabian, a foundation sire for the modern Thoroughbred, was actually a Barb stallion.

Wikipedia states that the Godolphin Barb "was given to King Louis XV of France by a Moroccan sultan. It is said that he was working as a cart horse in Paris when an Englishman Edward Coke bought him and took him to England. When Coke died, the horse was acquired by renowned breeder Lord Godolphin, who used him for breeding to English mares. The Barb has also been used for creating the Spanish Barb, the American Quarter Horse, the Mustang, the Appaloosa, the Andalusian, and the Lusitano, as well as others. It is now bred primarily in Morocco, Algeria, Spain, and southern France, although, due to difficult economic times in its homeland, the purebred Barb population is decreasing.

 The Moroccan people are descended from warring Arabic nomadic tribes and the Berber locals. The horse has been an important part of their history and culture, and a means of measuring power and wealth. Today the horses are used for many sports, including racing (Thoroughbred, Arab, Barb, and Arab/Barb crosses), shows, and the Fantasia (more on this in a moment). There are about 160,000 horses, 520,000 mules, and 1½ million donkeys in Morocco. The Barb horse is the equine industry's number one export, and there are about 1,000 registered Barbs in Morocco. One local veterinarian described the Barb as follows: "The Barb is our culture, our civilization. Barbs are only found in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Genetic studies have shown our Barbs are still pure (as opposed to some that have been mixed with local or imported horses of other breeds)."

The government instituted a blood-typing program for all purebred horses in 1987. Horses in the Kingdom of Morocco are overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Fisheries, Livestock Division. There are about 10,000 purebred mares covered each year, with about 3,000 registered horse foals and 500 donkeys. The foals are conceived with live cover and artificial insemination, depending on breed restrictions. The government began keeping a database of all breeds in 1992.

There are five regional breeding farms and 57 breeding stations where 300 stallions of various breeds are owned by the government and cover local mares without a stud fee charge in an effort to maintain and improve the bloodlines. Their breeding season starts in February and ends in June. There are also a few private stud farms for racing and sport horses. The regional breeding farms are in Meknes, El Jadida, Oujda, Marrakech, and Bouznika.

The Minister of Agriculture manages all the stud books for Morocco, and all horses have an international passport. Two years ago microchipping of horses for identification was begun.

There are about 500 Thoroughbreds in Morocco used for breeding and flat racing, all of which are privately owned. The government has stallions available for Thoroughbred and half-Thoroughbred breeding programs. There are about 700 days of racing each year in Morocco at various tracks including ones in Rabat (the capital) and Casablanca. There are an average of eight races per day in the country, with half of those for Thoroughbreds. The biggest Thoroughbred races have purses of 25,000 euros (about $30,000).

The Fantasia is more than a sporting event, it is a matter of tradition and honor. Horsemen and women dressed in traditional garbs of their region and mostly riding Barb horses parade to a central grounds (in Marrakech it is Chez Ali) for the event. While it has been commercialized and packaged for tourists, the gist of the event is a reenactment of a wartime cavalry attack.

The main event is Aid el Broud (loosely translated as gunpowder game), which is when a group of mounted horsemen in traditional garb and saddles gallop to the end of an arena where judges are seated in a reviewing stand. They must pull up from a hard gallop and fire their black powder rifles at one time. The riders are judged on appearance and how well they are in unison during movement, stopping, and in firing their rifles. (One local veterinarian said that if for some reason the rider's rifle did not fire, he was required to dismount and walk his horse back in shame.)

Take-Home Message

This is but a glimpse of the horse industry in Morocco, focused on a trip to Marrakech and compiled by talking to those who live and work in the region. While Morocco has long been a destination for Europeans, it remains relatively undiscovered by Americans. There are horseback riding tour companies that feature rides in Morocco, and there are direct flights from the United States to Morocco.

The purebred horses and working animals of Morocco are similar to those in other developing countries. While there is a long way to go to help those animals lead better everyday lives, there are oases of care and relief established to offer that service.

The beauty of the purebred Arabs and Barbs is breathtaking, and the plight of the donkeys and mules is heart-wrenching. This is a country where humans seldom get to visit a doctor (there is on average one human doctor every 75 miles), and a family's survival often depends on their animals. Improving care of those animals is important to them, and to those who love these beasts of burden no matter where they live.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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