A helping hand through a tough life

May 22, 2007

Article © Horsetalk 2007
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The economies of many poorer countries still rely on horse power, not machinery. For countless thousands of horses, donkeys and mules, it's a tough life. A number of groups around the world are working hard to make their plight easier.

Twelve year-old Ramey and his brother Romany, aged ten, don't go to school. For the last six years they've spent their days scavenging rubbish from the streets of Helwan, a windswept town on the outskirts of Cairo in Egypt.

Their widowed mother depends on the meagre income their finds generate when sold on. And, like millions of other poor people in developing nations, the boys rely utterly on their faithful working animals.

Their donkeys Badawy and Bellia haul the boys' cart as they scour the streets. It's a miserable existence: they work two punishing daily shifts, from 6am through searing heat until lunchtime, and again from early evening until midnight. The donkeys are among 600 hauling carts here, for the boys are part of an entire community that survives by refuse scavenging.

Like many working equines, Badawy and Bellia suffer from exhaustion and dehydration. There's often nothing to drink during their titanic seven-hour shifts: other animals must ferry in water from 25km away, and there's not always enough to go round. The boys can't afford to buy them food - instead, they survive on scraps found among the rubbish.


Badawi and Bellia.
As a result, the donkeys are often prone to colic and diarrhoea caused by their diet. Poverty, not just ignorance, makes even caring owners blind to their animals' predicament.

Without animals, the Helwan community would have no viable way to ferry rubbish back for sifting. Like their neighbours, the boys must travel as far as 30km each shift to find enough re-usable items. Motor vehicles are beyond dreams here, where daily income is measured in cents. In any case, most vehicles couldn't cope with the rutted, narrow roads and desert sands.

Vehicles are not an option in many other poor places around the world either. Only horses, donkeys and mules can carry people, food, water, fuel, goods and building materials over mountains - up slopes of 40 degrees and more - across rivers and marshes, over rocky pot-holed tracks, through arid lands and forest.

This is why three billion people depend on animal power as their main energy source, why 95 per cent of all donkeys and 60 per cent of horses are found in developing countries.

This is why dependence on working equine animals is growing - and why charities such as the Brooke - Britain's largest overseas equine welfare charity - works so hard to expand its reach to ever more needy animal communities.


A vet in Egypt checks the teeth of a working horse.
Picture: Dan Abraham
Today, Badawy and Bellia are much healthier, thanks to regular visits by a Brooke mobile vet team to Helwan's rubbish-scavenging community regularly. The team dispense both care to the animals, and advice.

Brothers Ramey and Romany can see the difference in their donkeys and are determined to keep their loyal animal partners healthy.

The story of the Helwan community's dependence on horses and donkeys - and the suffering these animals can endure whilst toiling under incredibly difficult conditions - is universal across many countries.

Whether it is hauling carts in Helwan, carrying heavy loads of corrugated iron in Ethiopia, dragging cart loads of sand and gravel from the rivers of Afghanistan or India, there are literally millions of horses and donkeys toiling in some of the toughest environments across the world.

Despite the challenging jobs that loyal, hardworking horses and donkeys do, and the hardships they suffer, the message is uplifting: that even the hardest-worked can be happy and healthy, if given the care and respect they deserve.


A horse carefully picks his path through difficult terrain in India. Such going makes horses, donkeys and mules vulnerable to accidents.
Brooke mobile teams reach thousands of communities with a practical and tested approach - bringing compassionate care and treatments to animals, and vital education to owners. In return, owners are discovering that cared-for animals, with regular rest, shade and water, are more productive long-term because they are healthier and happier - a message they're eagerly passing to their neighbours.

The Brooke was founded by horse-loving Englishwoman Dorothy Brooke in 1934 as the 'Old War Horse Memorial Hospital' in a dusty back-street of Cairo.

Today, the charity runs a network of mobile veterinary teams and field clinics across nine developing countries, reaching over 500,000 equine animals in need every year - animals that support the livelihoods of over three million people.

The Brooke's 550 overseas staff - all nationals of the countries in which they work - treat equine illnesses and injuries, and nurse casualties back to health. Heat exhaustion, starvation, lameness and wounds caused by beatings - Brooke vets and education workers deal with a catalogue of harrowing cases.

The care they offer is free. And with an average of six people - but sometimes as many as 20 - depending on each animal for an income, the Brooke's work also has profound human consequences.

The Brooke aims to extend its reach from half a million to five million equine animals that desperately need help in the developing world over the next ten years.


Horses dragging sand and gravel from a river in Afghanistan.

More information on the work of the Brooke can be found at www.thebrooke.org