The plight of an emaciated two-year-old African horse who survived against the odds has resulted in the foundation of the first horse and donkey charity in The Gambia.

The instigators, two British sisters who grew up in The Gambia, which is one of the poorest and smallest African countries, already have an impressive track record in animal rescue.

Stella Marsden set up the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust in the River Gambia National Park in 1979, while Heather Armstrong ran a riding schoolwith 35 horses, many of whom were rescued, during her time in Africa and continues her welfare work at her smallholding in Surrey.

Stella returned to England after a visit to The Gambia last June and showed Heather a photograph of a skeletal horse she had been called out to see (pictured). He was so weak he was unable to stand and had burns where he had fallen onto a fire. Stella gave the owners advice on how to make him comfortable while she fetched a vet to put him down, but it took five days. She did not expect to find him alive and was amazed to see the horse, since named Lazarus, grazing on her return. She bought him as the owners were too poor to keep him and “The Boss” is now The Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust’s mascot.

Heather, who has set up the British-based fundraising-arm of the charity, said: “There never used to be any horses in The Gambia because of sleeping sickness, but drought in the Sahara meant horses were brought south for food and the numbers have increased 10-fold in the past 10 years. This means there is a huge shortage of knowledge.”

The Trust estimates many of the 17,500 horses and 33,000 donkeys are suffering through ignorance.

“Another problem is that there is not enough fodderto get through the dry season and the peasant farmers need the horses to work at their hardest just before the rains start, by which time they have nothing to feed them,” said Heather.

The sisters have managed to obtain support from The Gambia government’s head of livestock and the Canadian government has expressed interest in supporting the pilot project, which is already underway with the building of an equine hospital.

The International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH) has also indicated that it may be interested in joining the project in two years’ time. Despite the sympathy, none of these major bodies has given financial support as yet and Heather is urgently seeking help to raise her target of £50,000.

“Our aim is to train locals to look after their horses and we hope to persuade British farriers and saddlers to combine a holiday with running workshops,” she said. “We want to help horse owners to become as self-sufficient as possible by using readily-available remedies, such as aloe vera.”

The charity initially plans to employ a vet with three assistants and provide a 4×4 with an ambulance trailer and eventually hopes to train four to five paramedics.

Anybody wishing to help can contact The Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust at Brewery Arms Cottage, Stane Street, Ockley, Surrey RH5 5TH (tel: 01306 627568) or email: gambiahorseanddonkeytrust@hotmail.com.