Aug 082013

Pony Access is the end result of a random visit I made to the St. Pauls Trust City Farm in Balsall Heath, Birmingham back in 2006 ish. I went to demonstrate my safe pony drawn vehicle, the Saddlechariot system, with Henry the pony, for potential inner city farm use.

I wasn’t convinced it would work in an inner city environment, but I am always willing to try something new. Henry and I arrived early, so I took him for a drive around the neighbourhood to calm him down. Ambling along a street, we were both alarmed to hear screams, until we realised that children from the school playground ahead, had caught sight of Henry. As we pulled up next to the chain link fence, a forest of hands came through to stroke, scratch or just touch Henry. Over and over again, I heard “I’ve never touched a horse before!”

Henry at Balsall Heath

If the teachers hadn’t asked me to move on after half an hour, as the children had already missed the first fifteen minutes of the next lesson, Henry would be there still. There are over a million horses in the UK, but for millions of people, they might as well be on the moon.

Beau, a huge, hairy biker at St Paul’s Trust introduced Henry and me to the community and over the next couple of days, and succeeding visits with Henry, and then Obama, I learned how much people love ponies. Henry and Obama have driven all over Balsall Heath, working with Beau and various community groups, meeting endless friendliness, and enthusiasm for meeting, or just seeing ponies.

Ponies cut across all social, political, religious, cultural and ethnic barriers. Henry and Obama were my passport to Balsall Heath. I decided, way back on my first visit to St Paul’s Trust, Balsall Heath, that working with ponies, with people, was what I wanted to do.

In Exeter, in 2009, I had the good fortune to meet a number of disabled people, Ari, Damien, Agnetha, Sarah, Sarah and Bex and with endless support and encouragement from Bookcycle and the equally vital support of Kevin and the crowd from Organic Arts, who got vital funding from Devon County Council’s Aiming High Fund, I built, after many false starts, the iBex Saddlechariot, an all terrain, wheelchair enabled, safe vehicle. John Howson, a blacksmith, an artist and a craftsman turned my messy, but functioning concept vehicle, into something smooth and sleek, and has been helping me improve it ever since.

With the iBex Saddlechariot, Pony Access can take people in wheelchairs along beaches, across Dartmoor, through forests and round towns. We can collect rubbish and recycling with community groups, or timber from forests, or do row crop work on organic farms, or deliver and collect books for Bookcycle, or teach people to drive a pony, all in total safety.

With the iBex Saddlechariot, and what I had learned working with all these diverse groups, Pony Access became a reality.

The other half of Pony Access is training ponies. I had the good fortune to meet Nick Sanders of Rowanoak, in Brecon. Together we hammered out the basic principles of Pony Access training, and argued incessantly about details, before we realised that there are millions of correct routes to almost anywhere. Some take longer, some are harder work, all that matters is that they get there, safely.

Temple Grandin was a massive influence. Her work on Animal Behaviour started a whole chain of research and I have studied the work of many trainers and ethologists. Patricia Barlow Irick and Victor Ros Pueo have shown me lots of ideas, and I have gone off at endless tangents. But Henry, and then Obama, have taught me most.

Pony Access has a very simple agenda. And consequently a very simple training program. We want ponies that will work safely with people. There are endless varieties of work. From taking disabled veterans yomping across Dartmoor, to meeting very small children. And just about everything in between. We use the ponies for the work they find easy. If standing around being scratched is their idea of heaven, then it is easy to take them to a school playground and let them stand and be scratched. If they want to be moving, and exploring new places, yomping across Dartmoor is easy.Testing stability at Dame Hannah Roger's, Seal Hayne.

If I have twenty ponies, and I take them into a competition, only one can win. But I can find jobs for all twenty where each pony will shine, within a varied operation like Pony Access. Pony Access asks ponies to do what they find easy. And easy is low stress, and low stress is safe. And safety is what Pony Access is about.

The next section, Pony Access, why it is different, describes the differences between Pony Access and the traditional horse industry’s approach.

The section after that describes how we do what we do.

Pony Access, why it is different.

Pony Access works with everyone, providing access to ponies and access with ponies.

Since we work with everyone, we work with people with learning difficulties, and with mobility issues. Pony Access works with schools and health professionals who work within an ethical framework, therefore Pony Access needs an ethical framework.

Obama working at Bevern View.

This document is my attempt to answer any ethical questions that arise from Pony Access. It is not a complete document and probably never will be. As we expand, we will discover new problems and new solutions.

Pony Access is being developed on the basis that it is not staffed by Health Professionals or educationalists. Pony Access provides the ponies and the system that makes access to ponies safe. It is up to the teachers and Health professionals to decide what services they require and what the benefits are. Pony Access provides SAFE activities so that the health and educational professionals do not have to work out the benefits against the risks. We remove the risks.

Pony Access uses a vehicle, the iBex Saddlechariot, specifically designed to be safe for those with disabilities and for novices. The instant pony release system ensures the user is not endangered by any silly behaviour, up to, and including bolting, of the pony. The vehicle appears impossible to turn over as you can see.

We do not accept that any level of risk of injury to our clients is acceptable. For the ponies, this means good management and an ethical training system. Pony Access believe that good management and ethical training produce safer ponies, and the evidence supports this belief.

This document addresses the safety implications of various scenarios. The scenarios I describe may or may not be appropriate for any individual. That is a decision for the individual and their therapist or teacher. These are examples of what is possible, and the reasons the activity is safe.

Pony Access’s primary ethical responsibility is “First, do no harm.” (Primum non nocere. )To do this we need a safe operating system, fully compliant with Health and Safety principles. To ensure that we do no harm, we have to compare Pony Access safety with the safety record of the existing horse industry. If we were more dangerous, we would fail the “first, do no harm” test. It is for this reason that we have had to compare Pony Access Safety standards with the existing equine industry in the UK. I specify the UK because I live and work there and understand the system. Therefore what I say may or may not apply to horse practice elsewhere.

Bex enjoying the view in Exeter.

This document is based on Simon Mulholland’s 12 years experience designing and building safe, pony drawn vehicles, and 11 years experience designing and building safe, pony drawn vehicles for the disabled. Over these years Simon has learned from two ponies in particular, Henry and Obama. Experience with Henry and Obama working in schools, inner city areas, and working with people with learning difficulties and mobility issues has produced an understanding of what can be done, and how to do it safely.

Traditional Equestrian Safety

versus Pony Access safety.

Pony Access is demonstrably safe. However any discussion of the Safety of pony or horse based systems has to look at the data from the existing equine industry.

I don’t like making comparisons because it makes enemies, however any new program is going to be compared with existing systems. On the principle of “First, do no harm,” any change to the existing order has to be assessed. If it is more dangerous than the existing systems, it contravenes the “First, do no harm” rule. I might be able to argue greater benefits, so the cost-benefit analysis would be in favour but this is a complex and uncertain route. Instead I have used cowardice as a design tool and developed a vehicle and operating system that keeps me safe.

Pony Access looks at all risks as unacceptable. Pony Access uses safe vehicles, safe systems.

The safety record of the traditional equestrian industry is not good. Pony Access is not part of the traditional equestrian industry because we don’t want to be traditional, we insist on being safe. But to understand the Pony Access safety systems, you need to understand the risks inherent in the current equestrian industry. Pony Access has removed all these risks from their own operations. The following catalogue of death and injury is all avoidable using Pony Access principles.

Professor Nutt in Nutt, D. (2008). “Equasy — an overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms”. Journal of Psychopharmacology 23 (1): 3–5.

This paper describes the risks of Equacy which “stands for Equine Addiction Syndrome, a condition characterised by gaining pleasure from horses and being prepared to countenance the consequences especially the harms from falling off/under the horse.”

Professor Nutt’s data states that Equacy (riding horses) has 30 times the risk of acute harm to a person compared with MDMA, commonly known as Ecstacy. He quotes a one in ten thousand risk of acute harm to a person from Ecstacy, and one in three hundred and fifty from riding.

A less scientific article titled Three-Day Eventing, Horse Sense: Three-day eventing is the ultimate test of horse and rider claims that eventing “is the world’s most dangerous mainstream sport, suffering more fatalities among participants than football, boxing and motor racing combined.” (Global Traveller 2007 Three-Day Eventing. Richard Newton.)

Richard Newton’s article was written in 2007, and the article is in praise of eventing. The annual death toll of 11 from eventing ( is seen as a reason to watch the “sport”. In contrast Formula One had managed 13 years without any deaths in 2007, and Formula 1 attracts millions more viewers. Formula 1′s safety record still stands at the start of January 2013. Safety is achievable. Traditional equestrian activities don’t seem to be interested in achieving it.

Pony Access does NOT involve riding. Riding is too traditional to change, and the risk of death or injury is present from the second you get on top of the animal for the first time. The reason is simple. A fall from height. Once you are on top of a horse, the only way off is down. Getting off a moving horse while riding astride is not easy, so in case of accident, the rider tends to fall head first. According to Professor Nutt’s data, in some shire counties, riding is a greater cause of head injuries than road traffic accidents.

Pony Access does not provide riding in any form because we cannot see a way to make it completely safe. By contrast we can make driving the iBex Saddlechariot pony drawn vehicle completely safe, and we can make working with ponies on the ground safe, so that is what we do. By not riding, we instantly eliminate all riding related safety problems.

Pony drawn vehicles.

Pony Access uses the iBex Saddlechariot system. This is a pony drawn vehicle designed by a coward, me, to be safe. Before I explain what makes it safe for wheelchair users, driving on their own, across rough terrain, we need to look at the historical data about traditional Carriage driving risks.

Traditional carriage driving is dangerous. Two ladies with no connection to equestrian activities have died as a result of carriage driving in the last two years. One was a passenger on a tourist carriage on Sark where the horse bolted, went up the verge and overturned the carriage killing Dora Jufer and injuring 8 others. If they had been using the iBex saddlechariot safety system, nobody would have been injured, Dora Jufer would not have been killed.

(BBC News, 6July 2012.

In 2011 a lady visited her local park in Suffolk and died after a horse hitched to a carriage bolted and crashed into spectators at an event in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Carole Bullett would be alive if the iBex Saddlechariot system had been used.

(BBC News 20 June 2011.

There are no safety systems to cope with a bolting horse in traditional carriage driving. This fact is demonstrated in the 2012 Risk Assessment for The North East Driving Trials Limited, a competitive carriage driving society.

Appendix A


1) Introduction

By far the highest risk is the HORSE which is an accident waiting to happen.

Runaways by a horse or of a horse attached to a vehicle are very serious and all reasonable precautions must be taken to prevent this happening. This is stating the obvious and equally obvious is the preventative measure…… we just leave them grazing happily in the fields !!!!

(North Eastern Driving Trials Ltd Health and Safety Manual January 2012. p10)

That is all there is about bolting horses with vehicles attached. We leave them in the field or ignore the problem. The 58 page document points out frequently the risk of loose horses with vehicles, and suggests that if the air ambulance is called for an accident Drivers may wish to uncouple the horse(s) from their carriage and they should be allowed adequate time to re-couple after the helicopter has departed. (North Eastern Driving Trials Ltd Health and Safety Manual January 2012. p49)

Therefore Carriage driving experts acknowledge that a horse out of a vehicle is massively less of a risk than one in a vehicle, but assume that there isn’t any solution, because there isn’t a TRADITIONAL solution.

The iBex Saddlechariot was designed to cope with a bolting horse and a wheelchair using solo driver. It does it safely.

First we must look at the hazard, a bolting horse. The definition of a bolting horse states (of a horse or other animal) Run away suddenly out of control: “the horses bolted”. Three factors run throughout all the definitions, suddenness, speed and lack of control

The reason for bolting is simple for the horse. If it is scared its natural instinctive behaviour is to run very fast, away from threats. Horses are open country animals, so they run to open space. A wide, empty horizon is safety.

The horse doesn’t hang around thinking about bolting. To be an effective defence against predators, it needs to be instantaneous, and when running away from a threat, there is only one speed, as fast as possible.

Controlling a bolting horse is a contradiction in terms. A bolting horse has got out of control. A good horseman may be able to get the animal back under control but this will take time and luck, neither of which are available.

Training cannot eliminate basic instincts. If a pony or horse panics, it runs. The only way to stop it is brute force. No single person can stop a panicking pony, let alone a horse.

If you add a vehicle to a bolting horse, the situation is many times worse. The vehicle follows the panicking animal, panicking it further. The animal doesn’t consider the width of the vehicle, and will go through gaps that a horse will fit through but which the vehicle won’t. The vehicle is therefore banging and bouncing, further scaring the animal. This creates a positive feedback system, the faster the horse goes, the faster the thing follows him, making more and more noise and crashing into his sides and so on.

A vehicle and horse can total over a ton in weight easily, moving faster than Usain Bolt, and unable to manoeuvre or avoid obstacles or people. The results are described in the two accident reports above.

Pony Access uses the iBex Saddlechariot. The driver has a rip cord. When anything goes wrong, or when it looks like there is a risk something might go wrong, the driver pulls the ripcord and the animal is released instantly. If the animal is bolting, the vehicle stops following it. If the bolting animal aims for a gap wide enough for the animal to fit through, it fits through without a vehicle mashing anything in its way. The animal will avoid people, and objects, and aim for open space where it can see any approaching threats. Once it reaches a suitable place it stops, and pretty soon starts grazing.

The first thing the animal does, if it is allowed, is to remove itself from the vehicle. It does not hang around mugging the passengers of stealing the driver’s mobile. Heading for open space is the natural instinct of a plains living prey species. There are still risks from a bolting pony, but using the rest of the Hierarchy of Controls, the risks can be reduced to minimal. Using small ponies, not attaching metal shoes, careful pony selection, non violent training methods and all the principles discussed in the next section.

What about the driver and any passengers? Releasing the animal, applies the brakes. The driver is sitting on what has become garden furniture. The animal has departed at speed. The major risk is boredom. At least with passengers, he has someone to talk to.

The instant release system can be operated by the driver and by any helpers on the ground who can all have a ripcord. A remote control release system is available so an experienced person can oversee the activity, maybe with trainees, and still operate the safety system from a distance.

Pony Access can provide all terrain access for those with mobility problems, and provide an entry level, equestrian activity, in complete safety. I have only discussed the most serious hazard, the bolting horse with vehicle attached, but the answer to most problems is the same, release the pony and the problems of a pony drawn vehicle are removed. The risk assessment, details all the other factors which Pony Access has considered and made safe.

A bolting horse with a vehicle attached is the most dangerous scenario. With Pony Access, this is not a risk.

Pony Access as an educational/mental health resource.

People like ponies, they enjoy contact with them, stroking them, brushing them, leading them around and interacting with them. This is believed to have major benefits, but we need a comprehensive risk assessment, to know whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

Again we start with the historical risks. To do this we have to look at the safety culture of the traditional equestrian industry.
According to “A review of the human-horse relationship “ published in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science 109, 1-24, 2008.” states “Despite a long history of human-horse relationship, horse-related incidents and accidents do occur amongst professional and non professional “horse persons”. Recent studies show that their occurrence depend more on the frequency and amount of interactions with horses than on the level of competency, suggesting a strong need for specific research and training of
humans working with horses.”
If the level of competence has no apparent bearing on the level of accidents, it suggests there are major problems in the traditional equestrian industry, defining competence. Further on in the same study they note that “for vets working with horses;that the tendency to be injured was more related to the degree of exposure to horses (increasing number of equine patients for vets who didn’t work exclusively with horses) than to experience: the practitioners who did not own a horse were less often kicked by horses. The same conclusion was reached in other studies performed in Switzerland”
Vets who are not horsey, and not owning a horse is a simple definition of horsey for a group who have the skills and contacts and earning levels to keep and afford a horse, are less likely to be injured than horsey vets.
Clearly something is very wrong with safety principles in the horse industry if experience has no increase in safety, and if ownership of a horse increases the risk of accidents among trained professionals when working with other horses.

When safety is mentioned, the traditional horse industry focuses on hard hats. This may look like a sensible approach to safety, but in modern Health and Safety circles, Personal Protective Equipment, PPE, which includes hard hats, boots, gloves etc, is considered to be the last resort when all other safety systems have failed.

Health and Safety specifies that BEFORE you use PPE, you must try all the methods that come before PPE in the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls.

We need a quick digression to establish what hazards the hard hats are protecting you from. You cannot use motorcycle helmets on horses despite their ability to cope with the Suzuki Hayabusa road speeds of 300kph. Equestrian hard hats are different and are tested on a horse shoe shaped anvil, in addition to the standard tests.

Snell Foundation – Helmet Development and StandardsAn Excerpt From; “FRONTIERS IN HEAD AND NECK TRAUMA Clinical and Biomechanical” N. Yoganandan et al. (Eds.) OS Press, OHMSHA (c) 1998

The use of a horseshoe shaped anvil suggests the horseshoe is a hazard.

The American Medical Equestrian Association confirms the point. And states The equestrian hazard anvil has a deep and sharp design, meant to approximate the angle of a horseshoe or a jump standard edge.

(American Medical Equestrian Association. February 1996 Vol V1, Number 1 Why Not Use A Bicycle Helmet for Horseback Riding? )

Health and Safety, (HaS) is very clear about hazards, and the process for dealing with them. The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls is the global system used by HaS professionals. If you are not familiar with the principles of HaS, click this link for the information.

The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls insist the first approach is to try removal, as the iBex Saddlechariot does with a bolting pony. The hazard is a bolting pony, pulling the ripcord removes the hazard of a bolting pony in a vehicle.

Horseshoes clearly can be removed. Horses are born without them, and millions of them live and work without metal nailed to their feet. The Manual of Horsemanship produced by The British Horse Society and The Pony Club (1966 p209, 1993 p217) states,

Working Unshod.

This is quite a feasible proposition provided work on hard gritty roads or flinty tracks is avoided. Not only is there a saving in shoeing charges and visits to the forge, but an unshod pony is more secure on every type of surface and hence more surefooted. Furthermore, the injury resulting from a kick is materially lessened.”

Ponies without shoes are clearly safer than those with shoes. They are more surefooted, and one of the factors that scares prey species more than anything is losing their footing. (Temple Grandin. Animals in Translation. 2005 p268.)

The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls states that the first thing to try is removal of the hazard, or “elimination”. Removing the shoes removes the requirement for special equestrian hard hats.

If the horse has a foot problem and the vet says it needs shoes to protect its feet, what then?

The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls states that before trying Hard Hats, which are Personal Protective Equipment, (PPE), and the least desirable and final option, you should try substitution. Is there anything other than a lump of metal that can protect the horse’s foot?

My pony wears Old Mac Hoofboots, which have been on the market for years, and compete against a whole range of rubber soled, fabric upper, trainers for ponies and horses. These do not have the risks of injury associated with steel sharp cornered horseshoes. Substitution also seems to remove the need for special equestrian hard hats.

Using Personal Protective Equipment (helmets) specifically designed to protect against a hazard, horseshoes, without trying any of the methods detailed in the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls, breaks every rule of Health and Safety Policy.

Pony Access policy is simple. We do not use metal horseshoes, considering them to be knuckledusters for horses.

We try to leave hard hats were they belong in a professional attitude to Health and Safety, as a last resort. When clients are driving on the iBex we use Bicycle Helmets to BS EN 1078:1997 as agreed with our insurers. The vehicle has hard surfaces, balance across rough ground may be tricky, a hard hat makes sense to protect against any unforeseen problems. We use hard hats to cover any hazards we can’t predict, not to solve problems that are clearly obvious and to which there are simple answers.

The reasoning behind horseshoes and specially tested helmets is odd, and seems to contravene Health and Safety policy. The traditional horse industry attitude to whips, is just as odd, and again seems to contradict basic Health and Safety policy.

The Jockey Club, now renamed the British Horseracing Authority, insists that whips are a safety feature, therefore Personal Protective Equipment, and therefore by definition, a last resort when all other ways of controlling the hazard have failed.

They stateIt is the policy of the Authority, as set out in the Rules of Racing, that a jockey is required to carry a whip and that its use is optional.”

The Rules reflect the policy of the Authority that the whip can be used in racing only for safety, correction and encouragement – anything else is unacceptable as  far as the sport is concerned.”  Use for ‘safety’ would include using the whip to assist in avoiding a dangerous  situation.”

This research suggest otherwise. Whip use and race progress are associated with horse falls in hurdle and steeplechase racing in the UK

“Results: The risk of falling was significantly associated with whip use and race progress. Horses which were being whipped and progressing through the race were at greater than 7 times the risk of falling compared to horses which were not being whipped and which had no change in position or lost position through the field.

Conclusions: This study has identified whip use and the position of the horse with respect to others in the field as potential risk factors for horse falls.”

(Whip use and race progress are associated with horse falls in hurdle and steeplechase racing in the UK Article first published online: 5 JAN 2010 DOI: 10.2746/0425164044868387 G. L. PINCHBECK*, P. D. CLEGG, C. J. PROUDMAN, K. L. MORGAN, N. P. FRENCH

If the whip is a safety device, instructions for its use as Personal Protective Equipment should exist. I can find no trace anywhere of advice on using the whip as a safety device. There are no tests of the effectiveness of different whips as Personal Protective Equipment that I can find.

I have read all 117 pages of “Health and Safety in the Racing and Breeding Industry. Guidelines on Good Practice August 2007” and the 2010 edition and it doesn’t mention the whip or its use, anywhere. Since this document is endorsed by the British Horseracing Authority, and the National Trainers Federation, and the Thoroughbred Breeders Association , the National Stud, the Stable Lads Association and the British Racing School and the Northern Racing College, and is endorsed by the Health and Safety Executive, if the whip is a safety device, it would be mentioned, discussed and the best practice for using it would be described.

It isn’t.

It isn’t just the Jockey Club who insist on the whip, the British Horse Society insist you bring one to exams, this is their checklist.


Before you leave home, check you’ve brought the correct whips, spurs, hats, gloves, body protectors, paperwork (booking letter and membership card; at a Stage 2, exam you may be required to show the Chief Assessor your Riding and Road Safety certificate), pens, pencils and reference books.”

The Pony Club test ten year old children to see they know how to Hold the reins correctly and carry a whip in either hand.” (

I can find no instruction from either the BHS or the Pony Club how the whip should be used as a safety device. I only know my pony is absolutely terrified of whips, and panics when he sees one.

In racing, research shows whips are a possible cause of accidents. Racing has no known training system for the whip as a safety device, yet it is compulsory. Horses are known to react to pain by accelerating, which is why people use whips on racehorses. There seem to be no safety benefits from rapid acceleration in any intelligent use of a horse. The British Horse Society and the Pony Club insist that people carry them. The Pony Club test children as young as ten years old to see they can carry a whip, but provide no information how they may be used as a safety device.

This seems to contravene all principles of Health and Safety. I will revert to whips later, to discuss the positive safety benefits of not allowing whips or any other weapon to be used.

The horse industry’s attitude to helmets and whips apparently contravenes the most basic principles of Health and Safety. It makes no sense to insist on head protection against a hazard that is unnecessary for most animals. It makes no sense to insist that everyone carries a whip which is clearly associated with increased risks for those who are disqualified for not carrying one.

The lack of logic in the traditional horse industry extends to council advice to equestrian businesses on Health and Safety.

Let’s look at the advice and see how it can be improved.

Gosport Borough Council issue guidelines to Riding establishments with copious information on electrical risks, Hazardous substances, dust etc, but very little on the major risk, horses. Here is the information and advice they do give.

3. Horses
Horses are large, heavy and unpredictable animals but risks can
be reduced by taking the following steps:

  • Providing adequate training for staff.
  • Ensuring competency of handling through training, qualifications and experience.
  • Observing recognised methods of horse restraint.
  • Providing suitable personal protective equipment (safety footwear, protective headgear etc.).
  • Good standards of general horse handling (loading/unloading;han
Oct 262010

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness ( My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ ( I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.


Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Apr 272010

At the end of March I left the dismal weather in the UK for the sunny Gambia to present at the first Pan-African Conference on Working Equines. The conference, entitled ‘Better Management, Improved Performance’ was organised by the World Association for Transport Animal Welfare and Studies (TAWS) in association with The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). Speakers and experts with experience of working in The Gambia, Mali, Mauretania, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Sudan attended for the 2 day seminar and then a field trip to the GHDT head-quarters.

The opening talks set the scene, describing the changing management systems of agriculture in The Gambia and the changing roles of cattle and equines in this sector. Dr Touray (Chairman of the Gambian Vet Council) explained that in the 1930s there were 30,000-40,000 cattle and now there are an estimated 425,000, a reflection of the intensification of cattle farming.

Thirty years ago, horses and donkeys were rare in The Gambia, with oxen providing the majority of the draught power, but now 87,000 cattle and equines are used for this purpose. There are now 25,000 horses and 40,000-50,000 donkeys in The Gambia working hard helping to plough fields, carry water and other loads on their backs or draw carts. [I nearly said ‘pull carts’ but one of the first lessons when you start learning about working horses is that they don’t ‘pull’ carts – they ‘push’ into their harnesses to move the cart. There are fun ways you can show this practically but they don’t work so well on paper…]

Introducing Equine Expertise to the Gambia

The dramatic and relatively rapid increase in the number of equines used in transportation and agriculture in a country with little experience of managing and caring for equines has resulted in welfare problems. Ill-health of the animals can be catastrophic for the farmers dependent on them as they can often only afford a single horse or donkey.

The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT) was set up in 2002 with the principle aim of improving the health and welfare of working equines and, in turn, reducing the poverty of their owners. It became apparent to the organisation that although animal health workers were taught extensively about livestock health and management, there was a lack of equine-specific training. The GHDT partnered with The Gambia College School of Agriculture to address this, and in 2008 and 2009 16 students were selected to be taught additional modules in equine health and management. The extra modules were funded by the GHDT, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (RCVS) Trust, the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Trust, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and the Donkey Sanctuary.

After the graduation ceremony, the students attended the seminar as professionals to learn from presentations and to participate in the exchange of ideas on the two central themes of management and prevention.

The Threat of Disease

The GHDT has been working in The Gambia since 2002, and in the eight years of providing basic veterinary support at the nearby markets, they have come across a range of diseases, some of which were previously unknown in The Gambia.

Some highlights from the presentations on disease:

  • Some of the diseases are really gruesome. For example, African Horse Sickness (AHS) is caused by a virus spread by midges and causes equines to cough up frothy fluid from nostril and mouth, and fluid buildup in the lungs. It is a highly infectious, distressing and deadly disease. Epizootic lymphangitis is another highly contagious disease; a fungus causes the lymph vessels to stand out, then nodules form along them, which then turn into abscesses exuding copious amounts of pus – gross. Strangles, a disease horse owners in the UK will be familiar with, has emerged as a significant problem. Jamie Gartsides presented lots of practical ideas on how this disease can be managed in rural settings as encountered across Africa.

  • GHDT had been reporting cases of equines with an unknown neurological disease with a high mortality rate. The horses can be seen to pace restlessly in circles. Laura Peachey (RVC) described research into the cause of the disease – most likely to be cerebral trypanosomiasis. Further work is needed to identify the specific strain involved and to provide appropriate treatment.
  • Most projects working with equines in developing countries include a de-worming programme. Chris Proudman (University of Liverpool) explained that research involving people in rural African communities has showed that ‘worms’ are not in the top five concerns to owners with respect to their donkeys and that owners do not recognise the signs of heavy parasite burden. The best way to control worms is the same world-over – a combination of faecal removal and strategic use of de-wormers. He reminded us that 80% of worms are in 20% of the hosts so when you do worm counts it is important to do this for all horses that live together. Faeces collection ‘poo picking’ was highlighted as an excellent method of preventing transmission, and in Africa this has additional economic benefits as faeces can be sold for fuel, fertilizer or even used as barter!
  • Between one third and one half of the world’s human population has no access to basic surgery, and for animals access is even less available. However, in his presentation Patrick Pollock (University of Glasgow) described how it is possible to perform many procedures under basic field conditions. Fortunately, many procedures can be done with the equine standing and sedated and with the use of local or regional nerve blocks. Indeed such techniques have several advantages and are therefore ideally suited to areas where standard surgical facilities are not available.
  • Another presentation that explored low-tech practical solutions was Alex Thiemann’s (The Donkey Sanctuary) appraisal of traditional solutions for the treatment of wounds and other conditions. Thiemann explained that the majority of the world’s population of working equines is located where access to modern/Western medicines and high-tech diagnostic equipment is limited, either by cost or availability. However, simple remedies and techniques can be effective and also empower local people to use their abilities successfully. Recipes were provided for alternative oral rehydration fluid, pain relief and wound treatments, and Thiemann revealed the secret treatment for donkeys that come to the Donkey Sanctuary with poor appetite and how to reverse hyperlipemia – copious amounts of ReadyBrek! Thiemann explained why some traditional treatments work – for example, sugar paste for wound treatment is an ancient Egyptian/Greek remedy that is still used in parts of Africa- the main action is antibacterial and can be especially useful for infected wounds.

Prevention Through Education

The need for education of owners to prevent some of these diseases and problems resulting from poor care was an ongoing theme and formed the focus of some of the presentations on the second day.

Some of the presentations had already described how communities can provide useful information about how common diseases are and what the local methods of treatment are. In my presentation I explained how WSPA (The World Society for the Protection of Animals for who I work) has been changing our approach to involve communities also in the solution. Our work to improve the welfare of horses in developing countries used to focus on providing treatment where it would otherwise be unavailable. We funded mobile clinics so that vets could reach the animals in need. However, this is very expensive, does not reach all the animals who need us and also we used to spend a lot of time patching animals up. We were more interested in really making a difference to the lives of equines, not just in treating their wounds but in making sure their needs, physical and mental well-being, were met. I have been trialling ways of working with communities that depend on working equines for their survival focussing on changing the way they are kept – e.g. through fun activities and discussions considering all the things a horse needs, and nurturing changes in their care. Using examples from my work in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Uruguay and The Palestinian Territories I explained what we have learnt about working in this way and shared some of our exciting results. For example, in Cambodia owners have been making their stables much bigger so that the ponies can lie down properly and get proper rest, and in Uruguay incidences of colic decreased by 74% as a result of owners clearing grazing areas of rubbish so preventing horses from eating plastic bags.

Other educational programmes running across Africa were described. For example, Amadou Doumbia (SPANA) explained that most of the problems faced by working equines in Mali are because of the way they are managed and worked. SPANA devised training programmes for representatives of groups of owners about how to care for their animals. The results were impressive – in one project area mortality reduced from 62% to 5%, and wound incidence from 42% to 11%, highlighting that education can lead to improved welfare.

Putting Theory into Practice

The two-day seminar was followed by an optional extension to the GHDT base in the village of Sambel Kunda, 230 km and an 8 hour journey from the comfort of the conference hotel. Here delegates got a taste of how horses and donkeys are kept in rural areas.

There were some practical demonstrations. Ann Varley led a lively session in which some bemused horses and donkeys were painted (it washed off afterwards!) to show their skeletons and then to demonstrate how harness design should enable maximum comfort to the animals and maximum efficiency.

Anyone who thought that learning about cart design would involve donkeys doing the work was in for a surprise as Professor Hovell harnessed people to the carts so that delegates could truly feel the difference between the effects that different designs had on the ease of drawing a cart.

Making a Difference

As eloquently summarised by Heather Armstrong (GHDT) “Horse and donkey owners across Africa face significant challenges to keep their animals in good condition to work productively. Some of these challenges can be overcome with simple changes in their management and some challenges are more difficult to deal with. Equines are vital to the economy of the country and they and their owners deserve our support. It is essential that Gambians are taught about how to care and manage these animals and GHDT has been working to achieve this.”

The conference brought together delegates whose work spans many countries in Africa and provided an opportunity to learn from each other and to consider how to best work in often challenging field conditions. The practical demonstrations were particularly memorable and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more horses and donkeys across the world might shortly find themselves being painted!

Many organisations are working help the equines that work so hard for people all around the world and donations are always welcome. Some examples:

By Suzanne Rogers, The World Society for the Protection of Animals (

Jan 222010

Whilst at a trade show early in 2009, I got chatting to a lovely lady called Vicki who was manning a stand on behalf of the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). It had always been an ambition of mine to be involved with charity work abroad. After explaining that I, along with my business partner, run a small business teaching children how to see the world from a pony’s point of view, Vicki mentioned that my work could come in handy and to get in touch with the charity director. A few days later, after an hour long phone conversation, I was signed up to go to Gambia for two weeks in December 2009. My journey was soo amazing it has taken me a few weeks to process it all in my own mind, and it’s been harder still to condense it down in to a short article, but here it is…

After a six hour flight, an overnight stay in the capital, a three hour wait for a ferry, a six hour car journey, two 45 minute boat journeys and several wee stops in a prickly bush, we approached the small village of Sambel Kunda in West Africa. The journey to our destination could only be described as epic. We arrived in the pitch black and could hear the commotion before we could see anything. It was over whelming, the whole village were out with drums and whistles; they were dancing, clapping and singing. The children were chanting ‘welcome, welcome, welcome’ and I heard one man say repeatedly ‘Heather is here and she has brought her friends’…wow… we had arrived!

In the early morning sun the following day, there was the first opportunity to get a good look at where we were. The charity have a large two storey house that caters for the large groups of volunteers that visit throughout the year. Overlooked by the house’s balcony are two large paddocks where the donkeys and horses have a good run around and stretch their legs before the sun gets too hot. 30 degrees would be considered a cool day! A short walk away is another yard for all the stallions.

22 of us have left the cold behind to come to Sambel Kunda and offer help in any way it’s needed. Among them are – a vet, veterinary nurse and a small team whose sole purpose is to build a playground next door to the local school. I have come as prepared as I can be with lots of teaching notes, visual aids and lots of laminated pictures to show the children.

The first week of our stay is dedicated to the ‘Horse & Donkey Show’, which is an annual event. We spend the first few days sorting out all the tack that has been kindly donated by people in the UK. Then we put up marquees, bunting and notice boards. It’s the night before the show and we already had competitors arriving. There are no luxury horse boxes here; some people have to get their horses and donkeys across the river and some have walked for two days to get to us.

Show day gets off to a flying start with the secretary’s tent inundated with competitors. Some horses and donkeys have just a thin piece of rope around their necks or through their mouths, this is swiftly removed and they are sent off to their show ring sporting a new soft head collar. With such a large group this year, there is plenty of help for judging classes, stewarding, running the tack stall, first aid stall and manning the veterinary tent. The vet is busy all day treating various injuries, giving wormers and advising people to visit the dentist and/or farrier who are also on hand all day. The day is a resounding success, we see lots of horses and donkeys in beautiful condition, we have a fabulous write up in the main Gambian newspaper and the Donkey Club boys get to show off their new game of ‘Donkey Ball’ to a huge and excited crowd.

It takes another day to put everything away, and once the volunteers for the first week are safely on their way home, it’s on with the general running of GHDT. There is plenty to do at the GHDT, not only is there on-site wound checks needed on various animals, but the GHDT also travel to 10 local schools to teach children about the care of horses and donkeys, and to lots of markets each week to treat any sick or injured animals.

Going out to the local Lumo (market) is where the harsh reality of the Gambia hits you. The days are long, hot and extremely dusty. People queue to see the vets and staff and we see everything from horrific injuries to illness and disease. The weeks cases included; a horse with a septic tendon sheath; a horse with a badly swollen and broken penis; maggot infested wounds; burns; sores from poorly fitted and ill maintained harness; rubs and sores from tethering and abscesses. Lots of horses had a heavy worm burden and levels of emaciation I have never seen. It sounds horrendous, but once you are there in the thick of things, you quickly get past the shock and have to just accept the reality of the place and get on with the job of patching them up as best you can and sending them on their way.

The charity is very well known in the area, so sometimes on the way back from markets people would call and ask us to stop in on their compound on our way through, which we willingly do. There is currently a neurological disease affecting many horses and donkeys in Gambia. It is not yet known what causes this but it’s most often fatal. I saw one such case with a little bay horse that had been down on the ground for three days before the owners called the GHDT staff. Generally speaking Gambian’s don’t believe in putting things to sleep on religious grounds, but when they could see how much this little horse was suffering, they agreed. It was a distressing experience and I fought every ounce of my being not to cry for him, but I was blown away by how professional and swift the GHDT staff were in dealing with the situation. They have received superb training from UK vets and they come in to their own in situations such as these. In order to learn more about this disease they had to take samples from various parts of his body, which is a job no one enjoys, but without these samples they don’t have a hope of finding the cause.

Each evening everyone came back to the house and we filled each other in on how our days went. It’s not the easiest thing for such a big group of strangers to suddenly live together, but we came together brilliantly. From making each other laugh over dinner, to looking after each other when a tummy bug worked it’s way round us. We took it in turns making the tea and keeping the gas powered fridge stocked with beer (what a luxury that was!).

During this trip, I quickly realised that all the things I had prepared to teach and show children were just not suitable. Even things that are so basic for us here in the UK, like providing ‘Fibre, Friends & Freedom’ are not appropriate. Gambians can’t offer an environment where their horse or donkeys have friends as they have a working animal, not a pet and they often struggle to support the one they have They can’t offer the animal freedom; when they are not working they are usually tethered to a pole within the family compound. In terms of Fibre, they offer them what there is available, which is a hay so coarse that you snap each piece like a twig.

It also quickly becomes clear that you can’t come to the Gambia and tell people what to do. It is far better to do things, let people see the benefits it brings and they’ll soon follow suit. As an example, I stood talking to a young boy about his donkey at the show, I gently stroked the donkey’s ears and neck and the donkey promptly leaned against me and fell asleep. Within a few minutes I had a group of children with me all eager to have a go and even starting to argue over who got to stroke the donkey.

Two weeks suddenly seemed like two minutes; I’d just about got used to the heat and dust, understood what is needed from an education point of view and begun to appreciate the sheer scale of it all, before I found myself boarding the plane to come home.

My experience in the Gambia has left me questioning so many things that go on in the UK. For example, if injuries like the ones we saw were sustained in the UK, the horse would be put to sleep without hesitation. As mentioned above animals are rarely put to sleep in the Gambia and not only do they recover from their injuries; they recover extremely well and go back in to work, even from broken legs. It makes you think that perhaps we are too disposable with our horses here. Amazingly, they also recover from these injuries with little medical intervention, including pain relief. The charity relies on vets volunteering from the UK and often has to manage for several weeks without one present. They also rely on drugs donated from the UK, so once they run out there’s nothing else to offer.

I found the behaviour of the animals very interesting. You will see a lame horse, trotting down the road, pulling a fully laden cart, with rubs and sores all over him from the harness, but he doesn’t spook, nap or attempt to flee. They stand calm and still whilst you treat what must be painful injuries. They are resigned and accepting of their life where there’s never a mutual groom, a good roll or frolic in the sunshine with a herd of friends, but can they miss or crave something they’ve never had?

Another interesting thing is that the children ride on the rump of the donkeys and we all told them to sit forward. As soon as they did this, the donkey would dip his head to the floor, drop his shoulder and deposit the child on the floor! To be fair, the donkey doesn’t seem to mind the child sitting so far back and will walk, trot and canter on command. So, were we right to tell them to move? From the look we got from the child on the floor, I think perhaps he was OK as he was!

There are two people I met who cannot go unmentioned. The first is Heather Armstrong who runs the charity, a woman for whom there is no commendation high enough for what she does. She oozes a calm and radiant energy and yet works so incredibly hard. She is constantly organising the next set of volunteers, ensures they have a safe (albeit long) journey and are well prepared for the task and environment ahead of them. She has to negotiate with officials, village elders, local dignitaries and the Gambian Government to continue her work or bring in something new. She organises training for the staff and teachers to keep them motivated and up to date so that they can offer the best possible care. She spends her year travelling to and from the UK (which as described above is no mean feat), she keeps everything running smoothly and is always so thankful of any small gesture offered to her charity. Along with other members of her family, Heather has dedicated her life to improving the lives of the horses and donkeys of the Gambia and of the Gambian people by sponsoring their education and aiding their health care. As I tried to take stock of everything around me I found it hard to imagine what their lives would be like without Heather and her charity.

The second person is Anna, an angel on earth if ever there was one. Anna is from the UK and is in her second year of volunteering there. She has to be so many things all at the same time. She has to be a nurse to sick and injured animals, a nurse to sick and injured people, she has to be a diplomat, book keeper, teacher, mother and mentor – she is a shining star; not only to the GHDT but to so many people and animals of the Gambia who have been taken under her wing. Nothing seemed to phase Anna and she never ran out of patience even when she must have heard her name called 100 times from people, all wanting something from her.

I have been humbled to tears during this trip; by the people I met and worked with, by the spirit and will of the horses and donkeys and I’m so very proud to have been part of this project if only for a very short time.

By Joni Caswell.

For more information on the Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust and to see photo’s of the amazing playground everyone worked so hard to build, please check out . GHDT are also on Facebook.

For more information on the school sponsorship programmes, please check out