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The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust

NEWS - Read Vicki's write-up of the Gambia Trip 2009  
Another fascinating account has been written by Joni Caswell in her Gambian Experience.
Also Vicki's write-up of the Gambia Trip 2007 

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The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust was set up in November, 2002 and is run entirely by volunteers.  Our locally employed staff receive small salaries and our manager works for a 'volunteers' wage, which is all we can afford at present.

Our aim is to reduce rural poverty by increasing the productivity of working horses and donkeys through welfare and management education.

We hope eventually to have equine support teams of well trained farriers, harness makers and paravets throughout the country, and to encourage the local people to grow and use 'natural' medicines such as aloe vera.  The Gambians are amongst the poorest people in the world, and we feel it would be very beneficial to them if they could make full use of of free home-grown medicine, rather then having to pay for imported drugs.

In the short time we have been working in The Gambia, huge strides have been made and in the area surrounding our HQ; the animals are looking much better and the owners are very happy at the improvement.

We have the full backing of The Gambia Government and the President of The Gambia, and requests are being made for our help in all areas of the country.  With enough support, this could be an extremely successful project and we would like The Gambia to become the equine welfare showcase of Africa.  We are collecting pony and cob sized bridles, bits and headcollars and if anyone would like to help with either equipment or donations, we may be contacted on:
gambiahorseanddonkeytrust@hotmail.com, or you can visit the website which is
www.gambiahorseanddonkey.org.uk, or you may phone us at 01306 627568.

We are always open to ideas, suggestions and advice on horsecare and fundraising, if you feel you can help at all.  Would like to become a county representative, for example?

Heather Armstrong
The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust

 
Read Vicki's write-up of the Gambia Trip 2009

 

The Gambia Trip

7th - 14th December, 2007

Vicki writes:

Well what a fabulous experience we had!

Firstly, I would like to thank everyone for their donations of tack and veterinary supplies, which is still very much an on-going project with regular shipments being sent out directly.  Something we noted from first hand experience was the vital need for head collars, particularly of Pony and Cob size, as we ran out rapidly at the shows, showing the need for a constant supply to alleviate the rope through the mouth and around the leg issues of which we saw a lot.

Secondly, we would also like to thank those very kind people who helped us exceed our target on the Just Giving site, created by Sally.  It is terribly generous and the money will be used exactly where it's needed in The Gambia.  Unlike many of the bigger charities, all the money goes straight to where it's needed most with nothing wasted on administration/advertising etc.: we saw usage of this first hand.

The winning stallion

The donkey club boys

Both Heather and Stella, the Horse and Donkey Trust and Chimp Rehabilitation founders, have done amazing work over the years, which is mind-blowing to see and their achievements are incredible.  Wherever we were in The Gambia they were widely known and loved by all.

We met up at Gatwick at some horrible time in the morning only to find our flight was delayed which meant we didn't get into Banjul until late in the afternoon.

On arrival in Banjul I was pleased to get through the rather chaotic customs with the wormers I had stashed in my bags; nobody seemed very bothered we were carrying a ton of medical supplies through between us!  Thank goodness, although we did have an official letter to ease us through just in case.  Chaos ensued as we waited for our bags and headed to our mini bus whilst being madly accosted along route, by determined, but very friendly, Gambians.  We piled in and headed for Cape St Mary, where we were to stay the fist night before heading off very early to the ferry the next morning. We stayed at a hotel called The African Heritage where we had a comfortable but short night's sleep.  Our bags had gone on ahead to ensure they got on the ferry so we packed what we needed in our rucksacks and set off very early to the ferry the next morning.

Proud Donkey Club boy

The winning Mare in Chamin

The weather was warm and sunny but at 5.00 a.m. there was a slight chill in the air.  Arriving at the ferry port in the dark was a little unsettling, but our worries were unfounded as we hung on to our back packs and where whisked through the crowd of people onto the awaiting ferry.  Some fab views of fishermen in the early morning sun as we crossed.  To travel to Sambel Kunda is along bumpy route if you stay on the side of the river we needed to be on, so we crossed the river which meant we got onto a tarmac surface, which halved the journey time the other side of the river up country.

This was real Africa, the hustle and bustle, the smell and colourful, friendly locals made you realise you were really here.  A big culture shock for some of us but others who had been to similar places before knew what to expect.  This is true Third World stuff.

We headed through villages and small market towns along the way.  I think we were of as much interest to the locals, particularly the children, as the sights along the way were to us.  We passed many a cart pulled by a very thin lame horse trotting for miles along the tarmac with ropes through their mouths and heavy loads.  A lot of these areas haven't yet been reached by the charity, but the effects are being seen very visibly in the areas nearer the head quarters and at the markets that the GH&D vets visit to offer advice and care.

We were heading for a village called Chamin for their and our first show that had been coordinated for this area and after a few hours driving we got to the village.  Once we left the tarmac, we hit the bush tracks that 90% of the Gambian roads are like off the beaten track.  It was hot, dry and dusty, but our little bus did well considering the weight of us all and our luggage and the very dodgy sounding springs that Sal, Ann and I were sitting over…..  As we headed further down the road a police car, all lights blazing, came from behind and passed us.  Then we were met by a ridden escort of local lads galloping along in front of us on their horses for a ridden welcome, truly fabulous.  Once we turned a corner into the village outskirts we were met by hundreds of children and adults, singing waving and welcoming us in a way I have never seen, or expect I will ever see again.  We were all emotionally overwhelmed and everyone was in tears as were overcome with the hospitality we were shown.  When we pulled up in the centre of the village by the school, it was quite incredible, children, adults, donkeys, horses, foals, all in some sort of 'organised' chaos, Health and Safety officials would have had heart attacks!  Horses and donkeys everywhere, barbed wire around the arena!  Toddlers and babies running about, stallions, misbehaving male donkeys, dogs, and the noise hustle and bustle will never be forgotten…

Cute local kids form Sambel Kunda

Sal with a youngster

In the midst of all this, we were welcomed by all the elders and dignitaries and we shook everybody's hands.  We were then guided towards the shaded area which had been set up, along with all the schools desks and chairs, for all the spectators to sit under.  The school sung the national anthem and then several songs of welcome, which were beautiful.  I had to feel rather sorry for the children who were in school uniform standing in the boiling midday sun singing to us….they didn't seem to mind too much.

The show took place, Sal and I were judging the mares, there was a class for stallions, mares, female donkeys and male donkeys - nothing is gelded so this caused rather a lot of excitement as you can imagine.  We tried to keep it in some sort of organised chaos, but at various times we thought all hell would break loose.  At one point two very randy donkeys decided to have a punch up whereupon everyone went flying and the Gambian man holding the donkey stallion was dragged along with all the kids laughing their heads off!!  What a sight… Hilarious if it hadn't been so potentially dangerous however we soon put all our sense of fear out of our minds and got on with the job in hand.

The stallions generally looked OK but the idea was we placed the horses in best condition and with the best conformation first, this bit was particularly hard as we saw very few with anything near half decent conformation.  Their back ends were very weak and cow hocked, and we are not sure if this is because they are put into work as very young foals pulling carts, and being ridden is not uncommon, breeding or poor nutrition or a combination of all three.  Time will tell on this, and the very poorly foals taken on in Sambel Kunda will be interesting projects as they are from the same 'type' of stock with a poor start in life. However these foals are being left to grow and develop as 'normal' foals would, so time will tell to see if these problems are caused by human intervention, they're too young or the problems are genetic…..

Anyway, whilst judging we were thoroughly inspecting for any injuries, signs of illness, worms, etc. and referring the poorly ones to see the vet, Laura, who was onsite doing her duties.  Most of the injuries were related to being tethered by the fetlock, or harness sores, lots of ticks, general cracked poor feet and skinniness.  After Sal and I had finished, Laura the vet had a massive queue for those needing treatment and, with help from the Gambian staff, all were seen to in some sort of order.  One poor foal had a huge cut on the top of her foreleg, which in the UK firstly hopefully wouldn't have got to a manky stage, but also would have been stitched up or operated on, but here it wasn't an option so it was cleaned up as best as possible, given and antibiotic shot and covered in aloe vera gel, which certainly seems to be a cure all out here.  It's a plant that people are being encouraged to grow for medical purposes for human and animal alike.  It certainly helped some bad injures; I just hope this particular foal recovers as she was stunning.

Something we discovered was that a lot of the horses and donkeys aren't given names, they are just a horse or donkey, and when you ask the owners their name they sometimes look at you as if you are mad.  The charity are trying to encourage the people to name their animals, particularly the children, as they are the ones who look after the animals as they feel this makes it more personal with the hope that they will see them as a living being with feelings, rather than just another nameless beast of burden.  It seemed to be working especially with the children who seem keen to learn in most areas, one little boy named his donkey mare and foal Vicki and Sally….a nice touch we thought.  I will try and find a picture of them.  We found that Sally is also an African name so Sal was very popular not only for her stunning looks but also her African name.  I am sure when we go back this year people will all remember her!

A young stallion who caught my eye

A rather poor looking stallion in Sambel Kunda

There were loads of animals there all waiting their turn in the show, which was fabulous.  Of course, nothing like this has ever been done before and everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves; the Gambian H&D staff interpreting what was being looked for so trying to educate as well.  We asked the ages of a lot of the horses and then looked in their mouths to discover that the owners were saying they were a lot older than they usually are.  Maybe they knew they shouldn't really work them so young, who knows, some were only yearlings and obviously in work as well as most of the mares being pregnant or with small foals at foot.  This gave Sal and me more potential heart attacks as many of these foals seemed to be drawn to the barbed wire fencing or were tied to it.  However, amazingly enough, when they became tangled in its loose threads they seemed to extract themselves pretty well without our interference.  In fact, when we both saw the animals getting themselves in all sorts of tangles and hurried to help, we found this made things generally worse as they are not used to people helping and seemed to panic less when left to their own Houdini devices.  However, I'm sure some horrific injuries are had and maybe they weren't brought to see us that day …who really knows.  The charity is reaching those who want to be helped and their 'lucky' animals.  Many continue to suffer I expect.  This is mainly through lack of knowledge and trying to survive with a hand to mouth existence rather than wanton cruelty: this became more and more clear to us.  Daily survival for people is hard enough so the animals undoubtedly play second fiddle.  However, as the whole idea is that as they depend on their animals for farming and transport, if they care for the animal better (often using very basic knowledge) it has a longer productive and hopefully more comfortable life.

As we were on our way up country to the HQ in Sambel Kunda, we didn't have all the headcollars, etc. with us but I gave out what I had in my suitcase to the most needy.  Consequently, taking the rope out of one poor donkey's mouth and giving the child a headcollar to lead from instead, the little blighter then proceeded to tank off with his boy in tow…this then causes other issues to come to the forefront.  Training and handling of the animals would help considerably, however one step has to be made at a time as this is a massive job for the future once other more pressing issues have been helped…

Something that struck Sal and me watching the little kids riding (all boys not sure where all the girls were?) was how good they were.  No saddles or bridles, bar a bit of rope, and full pelt galloping about all over the place.  Balance to die for!  They could have taught us over here a hell of a lot on how to really ride and stay on.  It was incredible to watch.  A lot of the horses had foals so when the boys got on and galloped off the foals scattered and tried to keep up with their mums.  One ran the wrong way and straight into the wire but miraculously seemed to extricate herself and the boy came back with her mother and off they cantered.

It also made you realise our horses don't know the meaning of hard work.  These horses work 12 + hours a day, non-stop, day in day out, whether in good or poor condition with none of the luxuries of quality feed that we have.  Also, a lot of problems are seen with dehydrated horses.  Water is available, as most villages have a well or a pump, but it seems hard to educate people that horses need water regularly especially in that heat, probably more important than food at times.

In the wet season in The Gambia, the mosquitoes are hideous, but everything grows like crazy so the horses are all out ploughing, etc.  When the dry season comes, the farm horses are turned out to fend for themselves and graze where they can.  I guess they are the lucky ones as the draft horses in the towns work relentlessly carrying their loads to and from markets, etc.  They're also the only means to transport for many people.

I digress however, once we had judged all the classes, leaving lots of happy smiley people with huge rosettes, we had to head off further up country to reach the HQ in Sambel Kunda before nightfall.  We drove for another few hours taking in the fabulous scenery.  We arrived at a small town - can't remember the name …where we met Faldi, the boat man, and gave him his new outboard motor.  He was thrilled and moved to tears and couldn't thank everyone enough.  It's his livelihood and meant he could continue to help the charity.  Heather and Stella have known Faldi for a lot of years and know how much he has to offer the conservation of the area whilst keeping an eye out for people breaking conservation rules on the river.

We transferred all our stuff to the two boats that came to collect us.  After the hustle, bustle and heat of the day the river offered a release from the chaos and offered complete tranquility and unrivalled beauty as we headed up river to the chimp camp, nature reserve and Sambel Kunda.

After our trip up the tranquil River Gambia we arrived at Badi Mayo the amazing chimp camp for refreshments.  The chimps could be heard on the islands as the sun was setting - stunning: by this time it was getting dark and whilst some of us were riding in the Land Rover to the Horse and Donkey sanctuary, the rest of us (the younger ones of the group) waited for one of the guys to come and get us being!  Myself, Sal and Alex were picked up by the old ambulance and after much struggling, pushing and getting covered in gravel and dirt it made its way back up the steep hill with us and took us to the Horse and Donkey Project, by now it was pitch black with many sounds of the wild echoing about us.

We settled into our rooms and all sat by candle light until far too late chatting about the day's adventures and looking forward to seeing the Horse and Donkey HQ/yard and meet the staff, local villagers and horses in day light.

Sal and I shared our room and were kept awake most of the night by a variety of animal noises and as soon as it got light the cockerels started doing their thing and dogs started barking and the local women pounding grain and that was it, we were awake.  It was a coolish but bright morning and we looked out from the house onto the fillies galloping about the yard like loonies, closely followed by the small herd of female donkeys.  All these animals were at the H&D camp due to various medical conditions and rescue scenarios, most of the ones that are/will be well enough will be integrated back into a useful working life to help the community.  For obvious reasons, the female animals are kept away from the stallions.  We also met various other animals who seem to have made the camp their home, including some rather lovely Gambian dogs and gorgeous Gambian cats and some not so lovely goats, one particular male took rather an aversion to me and the another one over at the stable yard was the best 'guard goat' I have ever met!!

Once we were all up and dressed, we headed over to the stable yard to meet the staff and the stallions and of course the one and only Lazarus - my, what a gorgeous boy he is too.  Absolutely incredible to see how he is now from when Stella found him near death and was trying to find a vet to put him to sleep; he defied all the odds and is a truly stunning looking horse.

All the stallions looked in fine fettle and with glossy shiny coats a fabulous example of the fact that horses can look good in these harsh conditions with a bit of care and attention.  All of them had come from hideous and hopeless backgrounds and the charity has turned them from near death into healthy working equines that set a fine example of how a healthy horse should look.  They are now put to work around the village and lead useful productive lives whether it be ploughing or carrying loads on their carts for the villagers; they are also used for training for harness and cart fitting, etc.  All the horses can be ridden too and although we didn't ride out this time, as we had plenty to be doing, it was nice to see their honesty and versatility.  We spoke to the vets at the time, Laura and Michelle, who was doing a sterling job in patching up horses and donkeys, both those brought to the centre and also spending a lot of time out and about at local markets offering help and advice where needed.  Theirs is a daunting, hectic, frustrating and also at times upsetting, job but alongside all the local staff things are obviously changing for the better.  Most importantly, the local villagers are behind the project all the way, as they are seeing massive benefits to the community through The Horse and Donkey Project and The Chimp Camp, not to mention the building of the health centre and the school with the continuing support from the projects and the generous people who get involved in all these areas of Sambel Kunda.

We had a couple of days to get our bearings and put everything in place for the second show in Sambel Kunda.  We all got involved from a meeting with the local headmaster, planning how this was all going to work - putting up some rather wonky gazebos, making and putting up bunting in the GH&DT colours and stringing masses of balloons up.  I didn't realise how much fun a child can get from a simple balloon and even the rubber that it leaves once it has burst!  Things our children here just don't appreciate!

Sal and I spent some time wandering about the village and meeting the local people and especially the children who were wonderful and very creative.  One little boy had made his amazing spectacles from grass and it had Sal and I in stitches at his ingenuity of what can be made from blades of dry grass.

The local boys who seem to take responsibility for the family's animals on most occasions clearly 'love' their donkeys.  Proof of this was seen when we were invited into one village compound by a young boy called Cali - it was just incredible.  The donkey had its own little paddock and beautifully made hut with thatched roof for protection from the flies and sun.  The effort put into caring for his donkey was incredible, so much so he had been given a very troubled donkey and its foal to look after by the charity, after his own donkey had died from natural causes a month or so previously.  A big responsibility for a young boy but one he had undertaken with utmost care.

So the day of the Sambel Kunda show beckoned, and after we had set everything up for a 11am start it took a while for people to arrive, of course unlike our shows when everyone turns up in their horse boxes, everyone came on foot, horseback or donkey cart, so it took a long while to reach full capacity.  We set up a tent where people could come for vet treatment, worming, head collar, bit and harness fitting and this was taken up with gusto.  Sal and I helped with weight tapes and worming and referring any horses and donkeys we thought needed medical help to the vets, generally they were in good condition due to most of this area having the access to H&D as they do, although many had travelled miles to come to the show.  There were several horses that we would have been proud to have owned if we were in the UK so the standard was generally a lot better than we thought it would be, thank goodness.  There were a few people riding foals, which was a bit shocking as they can't have been more than 6 months old and with a rider on them even if they were bare back, you can see how the development/physical problems start!  All we could do was offer advice but if they are the family's only means of transport there isn't too much you can do, re-education is the key.  Four or five stunning, well-cared for stallions arrived, they had no signs of scaring or wounds which was nice to see, and Anne explained to the crowds what it was we were looking for and why we had chosen the horses we had.  Sal and I judged the female animals over in a separate ring to keep them apart for obvious reasons.  We had lots of animals to judge and, as we'd seen in Chamin, the mares were in not such a good state as the stallions.  Unfortunately these good stallions only have poor mares to cover but hopefully in time the standard of mares will improve and so too, in time, the general quality of the Gambian horses.  I think a lot of the physical problems of the horses are caused by poor nutrition and overwork at too young an age.  If they could leave the horses until they were at least 2 years old, at the very minimum, before they are in work then I'm sure they would be physically in generally better shape.

The show ran well and in some sort of organised chaos, we ran out of head collars to give out so this is as ever something desperately needed to get rid of the horrible ropes and some of the even more barbaric bits that seem to appear now and then.

The work the charity is doing is incredible and to have the privilege to be able to go and see first hand is one of those 'once in a life time' experiences.  We will both be back out later this year for the 2008 shows and it will be great to see how much more things have moved on since last December.