Between 300m and 600m working equines across the globe help the world’s poorest people survive, yet the link between their roles needs greater understanding, say leading equine charities.

Nearly 200 vets, farriers, charity representatives and experts from 27 countries met in the UK last week (2-4 July) to share ideas on how to improve this understanding at the seventh International Colloquium on Working Equids. The event was hosted by World Horse Welfare, with input from SPANA, The Brooke, The Donkey Sanctuary and World Animal Protection.

One of the key themes was to develop awareness of the interdependence of working equine welfare and human development.

“It is imperative that we start at this basic level,” said Roly Owers of World Horse Welfare.

“The tragedy is that working equids seem to be largely invisible in many of the countries where they are relied on the most — too many governments, universities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human development organisations do not recognise their contribution.”

Speakers across the three days highlighted the varied roles equids play in communities around the world. Working equines can ensure babies’ survival by transporting pregnant women to medical assistance and relieving the physical burden of the parents’ work. Mules carry metals that provide families with an income, while horses carry children to school.

“We cannot expect working equids to be a central priority to all people at all times but we can insist that they are never completely forgotten,” said Dr Joy Pritchard of The Brooke.

Professor Derek Knottenbelt added: “If we removed working equines I think the global economy would collapse.”

Prevention is better than cure

The colloquium also focused on the importance of veterinary care and prevention rather than cure of disease.

“Cure is limited by the availability of drugs and expertise,” said Prof Knottenbelt.

“Why do we have so many horses dying of preventable diseases? It’s scandalous. Horses shouldn’t be dying of rabies and tetanus.”

He added that some western governments want to protect themselves from contagious diseases, but need to be less self interested.

“[They don’t want disease] but does this mean they care about the animals or people? Probably not. We need to identify the veterinary problems and make them preventable.”

Learning from each other to move forward

Roly Owers said the initial challenges were to take what charities have learned from research, put it into practice and to help to build a compelling case for governments, universities and human development organisations that working equids are vital for human livelihoods.

Sam Chubbock from the charity added: “Some welfare issues are similar across the world [infectious diseases, neglect] but some are very different. By sharing experiences and solutions, we can learn an incredible amount.”

“It went extremely well,”  added Roly.

“Many delegates learnt horse knowledge and pledged that they would take this to their home countries and test it out there. Others vowed to share data in future so that a collaborative effort against disease and injury can be formed going forward.”

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (10 July, 2014)