Brazilian Cart Horse Care a Focus for MSU Researcher

When Camie Heleski, PhD, MS, traveled to Brazil to attend a conference in 2000, she noticed that the horses used to pull carts transporting people throughout the country's villages appeared frail and their hair looked brittle and dull. The animals also displayed lesions on their bodies where dry sweat would build up under their leather harnesses.

In Brazil cart horses are used for transporting goods to markets and carrying recyclables from the streets, such as plastics and metal scraps, to be sold to recycling centers for profit. Cart horses are often used by Brazilians who can't afford vehicles.

When Heleski, coordinator of the Michigan State University (MSU) horse management program, returned home from the conference, she made a commitment to improving the welfare and quality of care for cart horses in Brazil. She formed a research team made up of colleagues and students. In 2003, she returned to Brazil with her major professor, Adroaldo Zanella, DVM, PhD, and his brother, Ricardo, to begin formally assessing the treatment of cart horses and conducting one-on-one interviews with horse owners.

"The welfare of these horses could be dramatically improved without spending a lot of money simply by teaching the owners how to properly care for their animals."
–Dr. Camie Heleski
Heleski said most of the owners valued their horses but just didn't know how to take care of them.

"Owners weren't providing these horses with the proper nourishment," Heleski said. "You could be driving along in the city or through the suburban areas when all of a sudden you would see these shabby-looking horses coming towards you down the road."

Another factor the researchers considered when assessing how the animals were cared for is southern Brazil's high average temperatures.

"It's easy for the animals to become dehydrated in hot weather, so it's really important to provide the animals with ready access to salt blocks and plenty of water," Heleski said.

Many of the horses were also infected with parasites and needed to receive deworming treatment.

Brazilian boy and his horse

A Brazilian boy waits to have his horse examined at a clinic outside of Porto Alegre.

Heleski traveled to Brazil again in 2006 with six students and a colleague, Russell Erickson, PhD, to work directly with cart horse owners, teaching them how to improve the lives of their horses.

She said several organizations funded the trips to Brazil, including the Humane Society International, the Michigan Horse Council, Friends of the Horse Teaching and Research Center, and the Department of Animal Science at MSU. Students also collected money to pay for the trip by conducting fundraisers.

In addition, the students created caretaker manuals--printed in Portugese--to teach the horse owners how to care for their animals properly. The manuals encouraged owners to give their horses more access to grass and water, and it also included information on preventive practices such as deworming and wound care. Some of the students' fundraising money went toward purchasing dewormers to give to some of the cart horses during their trip.

"The welfare of these horses could be dramatically improved without spending a lot of money simply by teaching the owners how to properly care for their animals," Heleski said. "The Brazilian cart horse owners were very friendly people, and they were kind and appreciative for the information we gave them."

Ultimately, Heleski hopes this project will result in longer, healthier and more productive lives for the cart horses, which will also benefit the people who depend on the animals to make a living.

"Everybody should want these animals to live a better life," Heleski said. "Working together with the horse owners to teach them how to care for their animals is a win-win situation. The owners become more knowledgeable about caring for animals and can share what they have learned with other horse owners, and the horses benefit by being able to live a more fulfilling life."

Heleski, a faculty member in the MSU Department of Animal Science, is a member of the Animal Behavior and Welfare Group (ABWG). The mission of the ABWG is to apply sound scientific principles to assess the roles that management and environment play in animal behavior and welfare. Research focuses on developing solutions to practical problems faced by the animal industries and assisting industry with implementing these solutions in socially responsible and sustainable ways.

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