Jay Merriam, DVM, is an equine practitioner at the Massachusetts Equine Clinic, in Uxbridge, Mass., specializing in sport horse lameness. He is the founder of Project Samana, a charitable health care project in the Dominican Republic for working horses and mules.
What exactly is an "equitarian," you ask? Since I'm a descendant of the dictionary family and, thus, "empowered" to make up my own definitions, I'll explain: An equitarian is one whose only reward for providing medical or humane services to needy horses is the satisfaction of a job well done. There are millions of our equine friends worldwide who could use such a person.

In December 2008 veterinarians interested in some of the worldwide equine welfare projects--both ongoing and proposed--gathered at the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) convention in San Diego. We wanted to identify and coordinate existing projects and find out what the AAEP could do to support and assist those people and projects in need.

Joe Bertone, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, of the Western University of Health Sciences, in Pomona, Calif., outlined the status of working horses all over the world. The United States has approximately 10 million mostly pleasure horses, with maybe a million considered working horses. The number of working horses in the rest of the world has been estimated as high as 100 million. This number might include show and pleasure horses, but there could be 60-90 million horses (including donkeys and mules) working every day around the world to provide some sort of living for their owners.

Many suffer from malnutrition, overwork, and lack of fundamental health care. Just like their owners, they are vital in the transport of basic materials. (Where did that coconut in your candy start its trip? On the back of a donkey in the Dominican Republic, maybe?)

equitarian

The author assists an owner in the Dominican Republic who uses his mule t gather coconuts and bananas daily to support his family.

There are many groups providing care for and help to these animals, but these equids' needs are not romantic or compelling in the way that the plight of an injured racehorse or show horse gets headlines.

Cultural differences often provide a window into these animals' needs. These equids are vital, but they're not pets or family. They must be replaced often, but usually at the cost of a year's income. When injured, rest is out of the question and veterinary care unavailable. And the needs are not going away. There is no such thing as an "unwanted horse" in the Third World.

In San Diego I presented a proposal on which the AAEP Foundation will act that will assist the various groups in working together on getting drugs and supplies into various regions because of governmental red tape and local jealousies. The problem of matching willing donors--like the major drug suppliers and pharmaceutical companies--with groups willing to apply them is a significant one.

The altruistic desire of many veterinarians to "give back" is often short-circuited by requirements of long-term service, cost, or simply the pressures of keeping a practice together while away. Students who want to help are stymied by debt, lack of knowledge of available programs, and time constraints. But the group meeting at the convention showed without a doubt that the profession stands ready to help share the gift of healing with the world.

A half-day program at the 2009 AAEP convention featured several of the groups represented.

Meanwhile, veterinarians need to collect and identify the various groups within the profession that are serving horses in need. We need to match willing participants with willing donors, partners, and hosts. We need to leverage our professional strengths and resources to help horses and their owners in need. Please inform us of a group or project that should be included in the groups. If you know of donors or potential partners, please share their information as well.

View our temporary Web site for Project Samana at http://web.me.com/jgmerriam.

The health of many families in the Third World depends directly on the health and strength of their animals. The support of the AAEP for young veterinarians starting their careers on an altruistic path will be a source of pride and strength for us all. The idea of "giving back" the gift of healing all veterinarians possess will resonate for generations to come.

Originally published in the June 2009 issue of The Horse.