A few months ago I climbed aboard a crowded plane in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at 10 at night. Four flights, two continents, and about 26 hours later, I stepped off another plane in Lexington, Ky., where it was only late afternoon. To say I was disoriented is an understatement, especially after crossing 16 time zones in seven days (not a feat I recommend). But what was even more disorienting was the contrast between my ride to the airport one day and my drive home the next.

Working cart horses wait beside the road to Debre Zeit, Ethiopia, in late November 2013.

Photo: TheHorse.com/Stephanie L. Church

In Addis I saw crowds in chaotic streets going about their business, catching public transport to work, errands, or home. Disabled children stood outside the Range Rover, arms outstretched for money; friends visited on street corners, arms wrapped around shoulders. But an important and understated part of the landscape is this: Small horses and donkeys sandwiched between vehicles—all burdened with heavy loads—calmly worked amidst the din. Many of them had sores on their bodies and were generally unthrifty.

Working donkeys in the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that same week.

Photo: TheHorse.com/Stephanie L. Church

On the other hand, in Lexington I encountered almost-empty roads and a ­serene landscape of manicured horse pastures with stocking levels of about two fat-and-sassy horses per 10ish acres. The maintained streets were strangely quiet.

 

I’m no stranger to the contrast; this was my third trip to Africa, and even within the three countries I’ve visited there, I’ve seen both poverty and wealth. But on my former visits I was focused on people. This time, as a delegate at the first Havemeyer International Workshop on Infectious Diseases of Working Donkeys and Horses, I was focused on equids. I suppose I had turned off the “horsewoman switch” on my previous visits, merely noticing the animals without really seeing them.

A Central Kentucky horse pasture near my home in November 2013.

Photo: TheHorse.com/Stephanie L. Church

When I took a closer look at the horses and donkeys, my first instinct was to want to blame (or punch) someone and turn away in disgust. But I resisted, and over three days I watched and listened as 35 brilliant veterinarians—“change agents,” as I like to call them—discussed the many issues at play, deliberating and prioritizing diseases to target and how.

The funny thing is that when you really hone in on Africa’s working equids, you cannot see their struggles without seeing the humans’. Their lives are inextricably linked. If a horse can’t work, a family might lose a few days’ wages at best or become homeless at worst. The equids I saw close up, like the one on this month’s ­cover, were valued by their owners and undergoing treatment for a debilitating fungal disease. The owners did care; they’re just dealing with a lot of problems that my first-world mind has trouble fathoming. Compassion began to overtake revulsion.

It’s been tough to know how to share my experience with you. My goal has been to tell these animals’ stories, giving you a window into a world that’s very different than ours. The bright spot? Some really great people are working to help these equids live better lives with far-reaching impact on entire communities. Who knows—you might want to come alongside them and help, too.


 This column first appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. Learn more about the Havemeyer meeting and what Stephanie learned there in Targeting Disease in Africa's Working Equids.