Editor's Note: I wrote this post at the conclusion of my trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last Friday.

Today is the first time I’ve had a chance to slow down enough to ponder what I’ve seen and heard this week during the First Annual Havemeyer Workshop on Infectious Diseases of Working Equids. Aside from days packed full of idea- and information-sharing, and evenings spent connecting with fellow delegates, the Internet has been spotty, making logistics for delivering words, images, and videos to my team in Lexington fairly challenging. (I nearly stood up and did a little dance in the middle of a meeting each time a video would upload before the power flickered off again!)

But now that I have some time (and a reliable Internet connection!), here are some first impressions that I’d like to share with you.


I only wept three times this week: once during a PowerPoint presentation, once on a bus, and … no, wait, twice on a bus.

As one of my new friends from The Brooke said during my initial bus cry, “If what you just saw didn’t upset you, you should be worried.”

We had just left the facilities that SPANA (Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad) and The Donkey Sanctuary run in Debre Zeit, about an hour-and-a-half drive from our home base this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Here at these facilities, staff workers for the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) treat working donkeys and horses from the community, advise on and provide preventive care, and teach equid owners and cart drivers proper animal husbandry.

All of these services are desperately needed.

Local owners, at my new friend Nigatu Aklilu’s request, had brought five horses to SPANA’s facility so that the veterinarians with my group could see cases of epizootic lymphangitis (EZL). We leaned in to get a closer look at swollen, crusty, iodine-stained limbs that we rarely—if ever—see in our home countries. The diminutive horses—I’d call them ponies, but they were far from the rotund Thelwell sort that “pony” normally conjures up--stomped quietly at flies in the warm afternoon light, waiting patiently as we marveled at their condition.

Horses stand patiently after treatment of their epizootic lymphangitis lesions at the SPANA veterinary facility in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com 

This fungal infection is a major cause of illness, loss of use, and abandonment of working horses in several developing countries. It’s a fungal disease that causes large areas of weeping wounds and swollen, filled legs. Dr. Gina Pinchbeck of the University of Liverpool is studying EZL, trying to confirm method of fungal introduction—likely in sores from ill-fitting harnesses. She explained in a presentation the day before that EZL is treatable, but the lancing and the iodine treatments are time-intensive and healing can take months, which is sometimes impractical and stifling for families who rely on these horses for their livelihoods.

And we’d learned the day before in Nigatu’s talk (the PowerPoint presentation I spoke of) that often these animals are left in the streets once their condition is too poor for them to work. 

I found the condition of these animals startling. It's a stark contrast to the types of veterinary conditions we see in our sport horses in developed countries.

Photo: Dr. Paul Morley/TheHorse.com

With permission I took photos as a cart driver applied---quite tenderly--his little gray horse’s harness, made both from found materials and true pieces of saddlery. The horse leaned and swayed as the man tightened straps against his bony shoulders, a sort of empty resignation lingering in his eyes.

The horse leaned and swayed as his owner applied his harness. Notice the blinkers fashioned from found materials--makeshift equipment such as this often causes equine eye injuries.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com 

Four of the horses went home that night, either driven like this one or led.

The final one stayed behind for euthanasia, the fungal infection too extensive to treat, legs too swollen and painful to make further treatment humane.

We turned away from the corrals, and while our visit grew more lighthearted as we learned about SPANA’s and The Donkey Sanctuary’s educational efforts, equipment development and provision at low cost, and preventive care, I wasn’t able to fully let go of what I’d just seen.

The forelimbs of the little gray who was euthanized after we left.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com

As we left the facilities, I walked back toward the bus and Dr. Paul Morley of Colorado State University called me over to show me a four-inch-long, lopsided chunk of conveyer belt rubber, strewn with rusty nails (yes, I’m current on my tetanus booster). He explained that a horse’s foot was mostly likely trimmed to fit this shoe—if you looked around at the equids standing about, yes, that’s what you saw: a shoe set far back on the foot with the toe mostly gone, a sort of unglamorous platform shoe.

He handed the shoe to me as a souvenir and reminded me that these owners aren’t intentionally causing these health problems in their animals—lack of resources, education, or just plain bad luck (sometimes horses just get sick) play significant roles, and most everyone in the workshop was already playing a part in trying to improve the welfare status of these animals. And this meeting was devoted to building a priority list and plan of action to further improving their state.

Four horses trotted by in the road as we boarded the bus—in various states of soundness. The drivers smiled and waved as they headed home at dusk—they are not cruel people. They are doing their best.

I climbed on the comfortable bus, a safe wall of glass and metal separating me from the reality that is very different than my own. Joy Pritchard, my friend from The Brooke, echoed many of Paul’s sentiments, and I began reviewing my photos from the previous two hours, keeping myself busy so I wouldn’t cry.

But then I saw this photo and the tears came. This young man brought his horse to the clinic for care—the best thing he could’ve done. And he and his horse needed to get home somehow.

This young man guides his horse home from treatment at the SPANA veterinary clinic in Debre Zeit.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/TheHorse.com 

Not all my experiences were this saddening, and I encourage you to keep watching my blog and TheHorse.com for information from this conference and the positive directions these researchers, veterinarians, and NGOs are moving that will ultimately improve welfare for working equids worldwide.