It’s an unseasonably warm and quiet holiday season here at my parents’ little farm in Central Virginia. Exciting changes in family members’ lives mean there aren’t as many people bustling about the house this year. And for a girl who loves tradition, wistfully remembering banter over coffee in the mornings, along with trudging out in the cold, coats thrown carelessly over pajamas, feeding carrots to fuzzy horses/ponies/Minis on frigid Christmas mornings, this holiday feels a little "off." (I was sitting outside, barefoot, on Dec. 22 … really?!)

But the holiday season isn’t necessarily about adherence to an established routine, and it surely isn’t about my comfort. I won’t get into a dissertation of the reason for the season here; after all, this is a blog on horse health. Indeed, this time of year has different meanings for everyone, but one thing we can all agree on is there’s a shared element of “goodwill toward men” written across our hearts this time of year. And recognizing where that goodwill needs to be directed can involve some discomfort … another reason Christmas feels a little off for me this year.

A man harnesses his horse after treatment at SPANA's veterinary center in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.

Photo: Stephanie L. Church/

Just over a month ago I was in Ethiopia, learning about the challenges working donkeys and horses and their owners experience in developing nations at the Havemeyer meeting. My teachers, in effect, were/are individuals on the front lines researching and treating the animals’ health issues, educating their owners, and organizing funding for supporting various aspects of their welfare. (You’re going to read/watch/see/hear more of what came out of this trip in the coming months.)

Admittedly, the information can become very clinical and academic when contained in power point presentations … but then seeing the hardworking animals in person, many of them in dreadful condition, adds an element of acute discomfort, unease … something I’ve had a hard time forgetting. People go to jail for animals found in this condition in developed countries. But different issues are at play in these societies, and you can’t simply point a finger in blame to ease your own discomfort; there are complicated technical, social, and institutional impediments to improvements and change for these animals’ lives.

Thankfully, such unease spurs people to action: I love that among this group, and overall throughout the industry in the past few years, I’ve see a trend of equine veterinarians committed to figuring out ways to make lasting change and not just haphazardly throwing money at a problem. They’re turning outward from their own pursuits, making a difference not only in the lives of working horses and donkeys but also their owners.

So this Christmas I’m going to highlight several organizations whose people I have visited with in recent months, people who are diving headlong into the discomfort of dealing with big problems and figuring out the logistics that will make a real difference. It’s not too late to donate to their efforts in honor of a family member for the Christmas holiday—many of these organizations have creative ways of supporting working animals (Adopt a donkey, provide veterinary care, etc.). You can also like these groups on Facebook/follow the on Twitter so you can keep up with their efforts in your social media feeds. Personally, I made donations in honor of my editorial team members to three in this list.

And if working donkeys (as snuggly and adorable as they might be) or horses aren’t your charitable “calling,” please make a donation to the equine charity of your choice this holiday season.

As I pull out a pair of brightly colored Christmas socks (looks like the temperatures just might be beginning to drop after all) and my quiet days here at the farm are sprinkled with texts and emails from friends and family both locally and afar, I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas. I pray that this holiday is magical and/or memorable for you in ways you might not expect, and that any discomfort you experience may only be the kind that gives you an irresistible urge to help others, whether four-legged or two. I’d love to hear about ways you gave back this Christmas in the comments section below.

Merry Christmas from my family's herd to yours.

Photo: Steve Church/

NGOs I visited with at the Havemeyer meeting (based mainly in Europe, but helping animals in a variety of countries):

The Brooke
An international animal welfare organization dedicated to improving the lives of working horses, donkeys, and mules in some of the world's poorest communities. It provides treatment, training, and animal health and well-being programs across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The Brooke's Facebook / Twitter

The Donkey Sanctuary
An international animal welfare charity, based in the U.K., working to protect and care for donkeys and mules.
Facebook / Twitter

SPANA (the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad)
Across Africa and the Middle East, SPANA clinics treat donkeys, horses, mules, camels and livestock across Africa and the Middle East. They just finished an effort outfitting working donkeys in Botswana with reflective ear tags for safety.
Facebook / Twitter

World Society for the Protection of Animals
A group working directly with animals and with the people and organizations that can ensure animals are treated with respect and compassion.
Facebook / Twitter

World Horse Welfare
An international horse charity improving the lives of around the world through education, campaigning, and hands-on care.
Facebook / Twitter

Organizations based here in the States, but also helping animals in a variety of countries:

The Equitarian Initiative
A group of equine veterinarians and caregivers looking to provide education, leadership, and assistance to the working equid and, by extension, their families. Many involved veterinarians take trips to help animals on the ground in developing countries.

Veterinarians paying it forward with a company that works a bit like TOMS shoes; purchase supplement for your animals and they give supplement to working equids in need. They also work to educate caregivers on the ground in developing countries.
Facebook / Twitter

The FullBucket team and friends visit at the 2013 American Association of Equine Practitioners' Convention in Nashville, Tenn.