Working Horses, Donkeys and Mules

Working horses, donkeys and mules are part of everyday life in popular holiday destinations around the world, with hundreds of thousands employed in the tourist trade. Like people, animals need a variety of things to make sure that they stay healthy, feel good and are able to work comfortably and productively.

But their physical and emotional needs may be overlooked by animal owners, tourists and tour operators. Exhausted animals often suffer wounds, heat stress, injuries, fear, spinal pain and dehydration as part of this ‘holiday experience.’

Harm is not always intentional. Many owners are under pressure and work their animals hard to bring in a daily income, while tourists may rely on tour operators to make the best decision. If animals are happy and healthy, they can be a vital source of income. This is why it is important to work with owners and tourists/tour operators can play their part too.

What is it?

In tourism, equine animals pull carriages, and carry tourists and luggage around holiday destination hot spots. They are used for short treks to historical monuments or city sightseeing, and also for longer journeys such as multi-day holiday rides or treks.

Every person has the power to prevent a working horse, donkey or mule from suffering during recreational use by making quick, informed decisions on the animal’s condition. The selection of fit and healthy working animals is important for the animals’ well-being as well as the person’s own health and safety.

Equine welfare organisations, like the Brooke are on hand to help caring travellers make responsible choices.

What you should know

Horses, donkeys and mules used in tourism are ‘working equine animals’ because they pull or carry objects and people using their energy and body power. They are an income generating resource (i.e. not pets) for owners. This can mean that the animals are treated, housed and worked in less than ideal conditions. For example, animals that are ill, injured or exhausted are still used for work. Decisions such as allowing overweight or very tall tourists to ride small animals, or overloading carriages with people, can also contribute to poor welfare.

The size and strength of the animals, the distances and terrain they must cover, driving and riding styles, the equipment and healthcare available locally vary enormously from country to country and this makes it extremely difficult to set specific and consistent standards for working hours and maximum weights. For this reason, tourists, tour leaders and owners are encouraged to look at individual animals and contexts to determine whether they are fit for the journey.

Animals give indications of their welfare state through their physical appearance and their behaviour. If the following indicators are present it is advisable to question whether it is appropriate to use the animal.

Is the animal happy and healthy? No if you observe:

  • Apathetic and depressed states: these states are expressed by horses, donkeys or mules whose head is lowered or level with their back (when not eating) and by animals with eyes half closed that are not showing an active interest in either their surroundings or other animals.
  • Lameness/limping: animals with a sore or injured limb may appear to be walking unevenly, moving incorrectly or with difficulty (short or compensated stride) and their head may nod downwards.
  • Closed or watering eyes: animals with painful eye conditions may have closed or watering eyes, be unable to see clearly and may be fearful in new situations or whilst working on busy roads.
  • Breathing with effort/problems: Heat stress and dehydration are medical conditions result when an animal’s body is unable to function normally or regulate under times of increased temperatures. Animals need ways to cool down from the heat gained by being in the sun and from their muscles working. Heat stress can manifest as a combination of head nodding, increase in the speed and depth of breathing, flared nostrils and apathetic behaviour. This indicates thermal discomfort and distress that can be alleviated or prevented by appropriate water intake, ensuring enough time to drink, resting the animal and providing it with shade.
  • Poor (thin) body condition: animals with prominent hip bones, backbones, pelvis or ribs do not have well-covered skeletons and are vulnerable to wounds or injuries. This may be caused by inadequate access to, and intake of, nutritionally balanced foods but may be caused by other human, animal, environmental or resource factors.
  • Sores or wounds: wounds and sores (especially in areas where equipment might rub) have the potential to become aggravated whilst the animal works, causing discomfort and pain.
  • Limb or hoof abnormalities: animals who do not evenly distribute their weight amongst all four limbs may be suffering from pain or an injury. Indicators of a welfare problem may include swelling, frequently shifting weight, pointing or resting a foreleg (normal to rest a hindleg), and/or any observable cracked or misshaped hooves.
  • Being beaten, driven too fast or raced: poor driving styles and animal handling practices including jerking of reins, harsh stops and direction changes, operating at high speeds, whipping and racing. This indicates that people expect too much work from an animal or fail to recognise their experiences or suffering within a working context.
  • Absence of a water or feed source and access to shade: these are basic resources which animals need multiple times per day, especially while working in hot, humid climates.
  • Can it carry/pull my weight? No if you observe: Challenged movement: animals seen stretching, straining, stumbling or staggering during movement are exerting considerable effort – an indication of a potential or existing welfare problem. Similarly, if a cart runs into an animal when it stops, there is a problem.
  • A young animal being used: animals under the age of 3 should not be used as they are still developing.

What you can do

Few people would knowingly put their own holiday enjoyment before the welfare of an animal, but many may be unaware that there are limits to what an animal can do – even animals accustomed to the work type and life. While it is natural to forget your worries and cares whilst on holiday, remember to give animals you use on holiday the same considerations you would back home. They are sentient beings, what you feel is also what animals’ can feel (e.g. thirsty, hot).

If using an animal as part of your holiday experience, it is your responsibility to choose an animal ride on or with a horse, donkey or mule calmly and sensitively Remember your own weight and consider what if it is fair to ask an animal to pull or carry the total, and what distances and speed are reasonable. If riding, consider if the animal is fit and accustomed to being ridden in the manner chosen and reflect on your weight, temperament and ability to ride (beginner vs. experienced).

  • Match sizes – horses and donkeys in developing countries are not always as strong as you might think, so always match your size to that of the animal and ensure that your weight is evenly balanced when riding.
  • Pay a fair price for the ride – encouraging owners to undercut each other only devalues the work of the horse or donkey – and means both owner and animal must work even harder to earn a living wage.
  • One person per animal – no horse or donkey should carry more than one rider. The animal must accept your weight without discomfort and be able to start, stop and move easily. If it stumbles, staggers or appears to be struggling in any way, please get off.
  • One wheel per person when riding in a carriage – two people in a two-wheeled cart and so on. Carriages should be driven at a walking pace only or it can run into the animal when it stops. On steep uphill’s or downhill’s, consider getting out and walking.
  • Take a closer look – it is important to look past the decoration or carriage and choose an animal that is fit and healthy, with a good covering of flesh, rather than prominent hip bones, backbones or pelvis.
  • Avoid using animals with sores and wounds – check places where equipment could rub such as the mouth, shoulders, spine and belly. Wounds might be hidden under a saddle or harness, so if you are concerned, ask to check.
  • Read the comfort signs – a healthy animal will have a high head position, with eyes open and ears forward. It will also stand evenly, so look at all four legs for signs of pain or injury and check for cracked or misshapen hooves.
  • Offer praise – if an animal seems well looked after, please praise the owner and tell him why you have chosen to give him your trade
  • Speak out – if you see an owner mistreating his animal, by riding it hard or whipping it, we urge you not to use their services – and explain why
  • Report mistreatment – if you see an animal being mistreated, consider making a formal complaint to your tour operator, tourist police or the local authorities

Where does this occur?

Hundreds of thousands of working horses, donkeys and mules are employed in the tourist trade in popular holiday destinations around the developed and developing world including (but not limited to) Greece, Spain, UK, Romania, USA, Canada, Guatemala, Cuba, Australia, Indonesia, Mongolia, India, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal.

Links to organisations for further information

This article was contributed by The Brooke