An Equitarian mission

Through a series of weeklong clinics last year, a team of dedicated veterinarians and students worked to improve the lives of horses and donkeys in southern Honduras.
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Through a series of weeklong clinics last year, a team of dedicated veterinarians and students worked to improve the lives of horses and donkeys in southern Honduras.

I have to say, I was impressed.


The small boy held perfect equestrian form as he loped his sleek, little brown mare across the sunny soccer field---a good seat, his heels down, his hands quiet.

But this was no show ring---in place of a saddle, he was seated on an old, torn piece of felt. I went to talk to him as he pulled up. I learned his name was Javier, he’s 12 years old, and he’s been working as a cowboy since he was 8. Every day at 5 a.m. he heads to the hills and moves 60 head of cattle to new grazing areas. He works for his uncle and earns good money, he tells me.

Javier was one of 40 Hondurans who brought their horses to this soccer field in the southern town of Choluteca to receive basic veterinary care. The one-day clinic is set up by Equitarian Initiative, a nonprofit organization established to provide basic care and owner education---all to improve the lives of horses and donkeys in areas where people still rely on them for basic transportation and other work. The horses here today will receive services including medical examinations, vaccinations, dental care and minor surgeries.

This clinic was one of six conducted in towns in southern Honduras during a one-week Equitarian Initiative project in 2015. The veterinary team began working in Honduras in 2011; this was the fourth year they came to the Choluteca area. When offered the opportunity to observe these clinics---traveling with a team of six veterinarians and one veterinary student from the United States---I jumped at the chance.

For me, the trip was a dream come true, and a convergence of all of my personal and professional interests. My childhood dream had been to become a veterinarian, but I’d ended up in journalism and law instead. Over the course of many travels, I’d come to love Central America. And, for the past several years, I had been working on horse welfare matters in Minnesota, including criminal neglect and abuse cases.

In my horse welfare work, I had learned that one of the best ways to help horses is to educate their owners about how to care for them. And that is one of the primary goals of the Equitarian Initiative.

First, in addition to local veterinarians, the clinics work with veterinary students from the Universidad Nacional de Agricultura to provide hands-on training in all sorts of procedures. This year, 20 Honduran veterinary students participated in the clinic, doing everything the veterinarians did, with their supervision.

Second, at every Equitarian Initiative clinic, with every horse seen, veterinarians provide important education and “best practice” counsel for horse owners. From basic nutrition to horse handling, Equitarian Initiative wants to share information with the person who can help the horse the most---its owner. Equitarian Initiative provides all medicine, vaccinations and supplies, and the clinic also hands out donated accessories from the United States, from currycombs to fly masks.

Founded in 2010 by Julie Wilson, DVM, and Jay Merriam, DVM, Equitarian Initiative works in collaboration with World Horse Welfare, a nearly century-old British charity working to end unnecessary suffering of horses, which organizes and coordinates all visits to each village. World Horse Welfare also provides saddlery and farrier services at all Equitarian Initiative projects in Honduras.

A horse owner who comes to the clinic must pay 20 lempiras for each horse. “This is less than one U.S. dollar, but it is important to put value---even if symbolic---on the services we provide,” says Wilson.


Like most people who spend time around pleasure or sport horses in the United States, I am used to seeing sleek, well-kept animals. So it was a bit of a shock to see the condition of many of the working horses in southern Honduras. Horses there are rarely groomed, and some arrived to at the clinic infested with ticks. Adequate nourishment and hydration are also common problems. The average body score condition of horses seen here is 1.5 to 2 on the 9-point Henneke scale. Horses have very little access to grazing and water.

“Horses often have no access to pasture---it is saved for the cows,” says Wilson. “Horses do not hold a high value proposition in the hierarchy of animals. Given the choice of feeding cows that will be used for milk or meat, or feeding the horse, who is often viewed as a mere extension of the cart, people opt for feeding the animals that will feed them.”

Many of the horses have back and flank wounds from ill-fitting harnesses and heavy carts, and overgrown or cracked hooves. “The problems we see are a direct result of people putting too heavy of a load on the horse,” says Adriano Sanchez, a saddler with World Horse Welfare who joins the Equitarian Initiative team to help make better fitting harnesses. “The equipment is not adequate for horses. It does not fit well and is very uncomfortable. The horse owners build the carts and harnesses themselves, with scrap materials, which are not well-suited for the animal.”

At another clinic---in Las Pitas, a mountain town outside Choluteca---95 percent of the animals brought in are donkeys, which are the key to survival in these mountains. People here use them to collect firewood. They load the animals down hard---the more they collect, the better. Firewood is a critical resource for both use in their own homes and to sell. Many donkeys end up with open wounds and sores resulting from carrying the overloaded packs.


While walking in the town, I met 42-year old Lidia, who is heading toward the clinic. We chatted for a while, and I found her to be an incredibly effusive, joyful person. She has lived in Las Pitas her whole life, and she owns three donkeys that she uses to collect firewood. For the past 20 years, Lidia and her husband have lived in a small three-room house, raising six children.

This was the first time Lidia has taken her donkeys to an Equitarian Initiative clinic and it is the first time ever that they received checkups and vaccinations. During a dental examination, veterinarians discovered a large mineral mass in the cheek (sialolith in the salivary duct) of one of her donkeys, which needed to be removed because it had caused a significant wound in her mouth.

The surgery took an hour and a half, but it was important to fully excise it because doing so would maintain the health of the donkey and prolong its life. If the donkey gets too sick to work, replacing it could cost well over $300, an expense the family can ill-afford.

After Lidia was done at the clinic, she graciously invited us to visit her home, and was very excited when we accepted. From the soccer field where the clinic is held, we walk 15 minutes up a rough, rocky mountain road to her house. Lidia proudly escorts us into her small, mud-floor home, which can be no bigger than 500 square feet. The rooms are sparsely furnished, devoid of anything not required for day-to-day survival. There are no beds---the family sleeps in hammocks. And there is no electricity---the battery that powered the solar panel was no longer functioning and cost $300 to replace, another prohibitive expense for this family.

Lidia cooks with a small gas lantern and uses candles to light the house. Several weeks ago a disease killed most of her 15-hen flock, so the three remaining hens are all the family has for food and selling eggs.

As we got ready to leave, I discreetly asked my colleague from the Universidad Nacional de Agricultura if it would be OK to give Lidia $15 to buy a chicken. He gave me an encouraging nod, so I thanked Lidia for her hospitality and passed her the dollars to add a chicken to her small flock. She teared up and thanked me profusely.

We took a photo on her doorstep and said good-bye.


Not all the horses we saw were in poor shape. On the last clinic of the week, 63-year-old Ruben brought his horses Zorro and Chile in for their annual vaccinations. They are among the healthiest we have seen all week, with shiny coats and body0 condition scores of 4.5.

Ruben uses his horses to haul firewood and herd cows, earning about $135 a month. He alternates his use of each---one day Zorro works, but the next day he will rest while Chile works. Ruben grooms his horses every day, and he keeps to a schedule of feeding and watering them. He’s clearly very proud of his horses.

“Part of keeping a horse healthy is being punctual, sticking to a schedule of feeding,” Ruben explained through a translator. “I feed my horses once a day, each morning.”

Ruben learned how to take good care of horses during his 36-year career working on a farm. He saw many who were in bad condition, and it was because of this he developed a consistent practice of caring for the horses. Ruben encourages his fellow Hondurans to keep to a schedule for their horses, but he says many claim they don’t have the time. He doesn’t buy it, and besides, he says, “We can make the time. We must be willing to do this.”

Marta Powers, DVM, a volunteer equine veterinarian from Minnesota, thanked Ruben for his effort to take care of his horses. “Seeing owners who are thinking about their horses’ health is a stark contrast to other owners who view their horse just as a machine,” she says. “Owners like Ruben, as rare as they are, should be proud about what they do. These animals have value, and these owners appreciate that value.”

Powers wishes she had more time to spend with each horse owner she encounters in Honduras: “Unlike my practice at home, I don’t have an hour to talk with each owner, to convey to him that if they give a little more to their horse, the horse will repay them 10 times in their ability to work and reproduce. This is a concept that takes time for these owners to really understand.”


Finally, we reached the end of a grueling week. The long hours---up to 14 hours a day---doing difficult work in the 100-degree heat took its toll, but was so worth it. Altogether the team helped improve the lives of more than 300 horses and donkeys, which in turn helped their owners, too. The work also aided the education of the next generation of veterinarians in Honduras.

“These are very busy days,” said Fernando Joaquín Guardado, a third-year veterinary student from Universidad Nacional de Agricultura. “We work long days, and the weather is very hot. But this opportunity is important to us---this group of veterinarians teaches us so much. And it will help me be able to continue working with horses after I graduate.”

Maria Jose Zuniga, also a third-year veterinary student, was one of several students who helped with the younger horses. “It’s been a long week, and I’m tired, but I have learned so much,” she said. “Just learning how to handle the foals, for instance, was really good for me. They are so aggressive sometimes, and it’s very hard to work around them. I learned how to put my hands on them, calm them.”

As for me, this week has been the trip of a lifetime. Witnessing the hard work, care and dedication all of these veterinarians and students was nothing short of amazing. It was also gratifying to meet so many local Hondurans, each dedicated in his or her own way to improving the lives of their horses. They were, on the whole, very gracious and grateful to receive these services and resources, which would simply not be available to them otherwise. And they had a strong desire to learn what they could to help build a better partnership with their horses. Thanks to the work of Equitarian Initiative, they’re getting that chance.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #471, December 2016.