Working Equids in Developing Regions of the World: How Can We Help This 80% of the World’s Horses, Donkeys and Mules?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2019
C. Heleski
Ag Equine Programs/Animal and Food Sciences, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA

The importance of working draught animals in developing areas of the world is often overlooked. Based on world equid population statistics,2 of the approximately 55 million horses, nearly 84% are used for work in developing countries; of the 41 million donkeys, ~98% are used for this purpose; and of the 13 million mules and hinnies, ~96% are used for performing work in developing countries. According to some estimates, 98% of the world’s equine veterinarians work on a mere 10% of the world’s equine populations. It is understandable that most equine veterinarians would work in developed areas of the world; however, there is tremendous working equid suffering taking place that merits our attention. For people who have not yet worked with livestock in developing parts of the world, the inevitable question comes…. Why help the animals when the people are often suffering? It has been our experience that when working animal welfare is enhanced, it subsequently enhances the well-being of their respective families. Furthermore, there are environmentally friendly aspects to supporting the sustenance, possibly even the growth, of draught animal usage in developing countries where efficiency may be best captured through use of lower rather than higher forms of technology.

The author first became intrigued by working equids in 2000 during a conference in southern Brazil. Since then, her experiences with these amazing animals have taken her on 10 different “adventures” to five different countries to learn as much about working equid welfare as possible. Literally thousands of animals have been assessed in terms of welfare and behavior measures; detailed evaluations have been conducted on approximately 25% of these equids (e.g., body condition score, an equid’s response to a person’s approach, lesion scores, questions to the owner about care, etc.) Situations have varied from animals in urban dense areas where handlers have a hard time acquiring feed for their equids and animals rummage in trash piles for food, to extremely rural situations where a donkey may be the only way for a child to get to school; they’ve varied from mistreated mules working in brick kilns who are so aggressive it is hard for handlers to remove their harnesses1 to beloved horses who appear to receive food before their human companions do.

Welfare challenges across these locations have been surprisingly similar. For example, common animal-based measures of concern: low body condition scores, insufficient hydration, harness/saddle/tethering lesions, and lameness are all commonly seen in these locations. In southern Brazil,4 we observed that 74% of surveyed horses were “thin” or “very thin” (≤3 on the Henneke 1–9 scale); in Mali,3 41% of surveyed donkeys were “thin” or “very thin.” Work-related lesions (e.g., harness lesions, knee lesions from falling when overburdened) are frequently observed (ranging from 40% in Malian donkeys to 96% in Brazilian cart horses). A recent trip to rural villages in Mexico found open lesions on 50% of the equids: lips (due to bit fit or misuse), chin groove (due to metal, prong style curb straps), forerib area (due to harsh cinch materials, poor saddle fit) and withers (due to poorly fitted harness/saddle or overloading). Noticeable lameness is another problem (≥ Grade 3 on the AAEP lameness scoring system; 30% in Brazilian cart horses, 17% in Malian donkeys). Resource based measures that are often noted: Lack of nutrients, lack of water, insufficient parasite control, inadequate vaccination protocols and poorly designed carts/harnesses are all common issues (e.g., 0% of surveyed owners of Brazilian cart horses were providing salt, dewormer or vaccines).

In many cases, reactive care has been the common intervention strategy; i.e. NGOs working to help treat wounds, deworm, provide vaccines. Only recently have proactive intervention strategies started gaining a foothold; e.g. providing educational programs on proper feeding, behavior, humane training, and fostering local community harness makers and farriers. Implementation research is needed to assess the efficacy of various welfare enhancement protocols.


1.  Ali, Ahmed B.A., El Sayed, M.A., Matoock, M.Y., Fouad, M.A., Heleski, C.R., (2016) A welfare assessment scoring system for working equids—A method for identifying at risk populations and for monitoring progress of welfare enhancement strategies (trialed in Egypt). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 176, 52–62.

2.  Heleski, C.R., McLean, A.K., Swanson, J.C. (2015) Ch. 17 Practical Methods for Improving the Welfare of Horses, Donkeys and Other Working Draught Animals in Developing Areas in Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach, 2nd Ed., edited by Temple Grandin, CABI, Wallingford, UK.

3.  McLean, A.K., Heleski, C.R., Yokoyama, M.T., Wang, W., Doumbia, A., Dembele, B. (2012) Improving working donkey (Equus asinus) welfare and management in Mali, West Africa. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7, 123–134.

4.  Zanella, R., Heleski, C.R., Zanella, A.J. (2003). Abstract and poster. Assessment of the MSU Equine Welfare Intervention Strategy using Brazilian draught horses as a case study. Proc. 37th International Society for Applied Ethology Meeting. Abano Terme, Italy.


Speaker Information
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C. Heleski
Ag Equine Programs / Animal and Food Sciences
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY, USA

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