Volunteers Luke Edwards and Helen Braid from Leahurst Equine Practice at the University of Liverpool recently travelled to Lesotho to support World Horse Welfare at an equine welfare clinic in Semonkong. Luke shares his experience in his report:
In late September 2019, my colleague Helen Braid MRCVS and I flew to Lesotho to assist at a veterinary clinic for the working equines of the Semonkong district.
Before the clinic Lesotho was a country, I had vaguely heard of but certainly could not point out on the map. I soon found out that the “Kingdom in the Sky” is a small country, surrounded by South Africa. It is highly mountainous, very beautiful and has the highest, lowest point of any country in the world. Nowhere is lower than 1000m above sea level and Semonkong was at 2500m altitude. It is also very poor, ranked 160 out of 189 countries in the UN Human Development Index, with an average life expectancy of 48 years, the population having been devastated by HIV, with up to 25% of the population being infected.
A large proportion of the population survive by subsistence farming and everywhere we went, we saw small flocks of sheep or Angora goats or cattle being herded by men or boys clad in the traditional garb of a woollen blanket, woolly hat or balaclava, and gumboots.
The indigenous Basuto culture places a high value on horses, but we soon realised that that horses were not luxury items or status symbols, but real working equines. With few of the locals owning vehicles and with some villages being inaccessible except by foot or horseback, the use of horses for transport and donkeys as beast of burden is a crucial part of Lesotho life. Driving through the town of Semonkong, we met more equines on the road than cars, and most of tin-shack shops had a horse tied outside. Watching a group of Basuto men, trot into town, dismount and tie their horses to a hitching rail, before entering the trading post was like being in some kind of western movie.
The Clinic was organised by the Semonkong Hospital Project, a Christian organisation dedicated to providing human and veterinary healthcare to the district. World Horse Welfare had assisted the project for a number of years and their regional project coordinators, Penny Ward and Kabelo Nkoane accompanied us from Johannesburg airport to Semonkong. Penny and Kabelo proved excellent hosts and looked after us very well.
The actual clinic was based in a sheep shearing shed at the edge of the town and was a large and well-organised event. Apart from us, there were three South African vets, a group of final year veterinary students from the University of Pretoria, a group of Animal science students from the University of Lesotho, local World Horse Welfare workers and a group of Christian volunteers. The students slept on-site in improvised dormitories and ample food and coffee was provided by a kitchen run by volunteers.
The clinic was split into three “departments”. One group treated goats/sheep and cattle, another local dogs and the third group the equines. Naturally, we were allocated to the equine group under the care of Dr Hildegard Setzkorn, a very experienced and hard-working equine vet from Johannesburg. The students rotated between the groups.
On the first day we soon saw why World Horse Welfare had approached BEVA for assistance with the clinic , when we arrived at 7:00 am there were already at least 200 equines waiting outside for treatment – and the clinic was not due to start for another hour and a half!
During the clinics the World Horse Welfare staff, assisted by students ran the “medicine” clinic – worming horses, vaccinating them for tetanus and giving multivitamin drenches. Dr Hildegard, Helen and I were the “surgical” clinic – which meant castrations. For the next three and a half days, we castrated every horse and donkey that came our way.
Castrations were done under standing sedation. Dr Hildegard supplied us with medetomidine, which neither Helen nor I had used before. At 20mg/ml concentration we were advised to use anywhere from 0.03-0.05ml intravenously per pony! There was a steep learning curve to this and although we got the hang of the drug, initially our patients either seemed fully awake or just fell over. The sedation also seemed very long acting, with ponies still being sleepy an hour after we had finished the surgery in some cases. After some discussion Helen and I came to the conclusion we preferred detomidine…
Donkeys seemed to resist the medetomidine more and the standard practice was to give 0.15ml intravenously, before casting the donkey with ropes and carrying out the castration in lateral recumbency. Donkeys were left to recover on their own and on some occasions the clinic looked like a battlefield with “dead” donkeys lying everywhere.
We assisted by the final year vet students, some of whom admitted having virtually no experience handling horses. They were all very keen, helpful and quick learners and we were able to teach them the castration procedure and supervise them carrying it out themselves, for which they were very grateful. September is early springtime in Lesotho and the temperatures varied from single figure, first thing in the morning to around 25o C around Midday. Combined with clear blue skies we thought this was perfect weather for castrating. The students did not agree – being used to temperatures at least 20o C higher. “Doctor, I am SOO cold” was a common complaint – much to our amusement.
The local Basuto ponies were small, scrawny but clearly very tough. They seemed very obedient when ridden and very calm when left to their own devices – the clinic had large numbers of horses (including stallions) in a small area, but inter-horse squabbles seemed quite rare. However handling them on the ground was very different - with many of them being very fractious .and wary of people. The locals also did not seem as competent handlers, as they did as riders and worryingly quite a few of them received nasty kicks or strikes during the clinic. It was also disconcerting to look around during the castration to find the owner – who was supposed to be holding the horses’; head- had let go of the lead rope and was on his hands-and-knees beside you, trying to get a better view of the procedure.
Part of the reason the animals reacted so badly to handling was the Basuto custom of looping the lead rope or chain around the horses’ lower jaw and tongue, so that it tightened whenever the lead rope was pulled. The horses clearly found this aversive and the fact that the more they struggled the tighter the rope got only created more problems. Many of these ropes (or metal chains) were very long and ended in a metal stake, which allowed the owner to picket the horse out on pasture. When the horse was led, the excess chain was wrapped around the horses’ neck.
Lesothons are very keen on racing and some of the horses were of thoroughbred type. These, we were told had probably been “acquired” from South Africa.
After three and a half days, we ran out of drugs, and the clinic came to a close. We had castrated over sixty colts and stallions, including a cryptorchid, removed a third eyelid and dealt with numerous saddle sores. The “medicine team” had treated over 2000 equines. When allowing for livestock and dogs treated, over 9000 animals had been examined.
We returned to Roma, home of the University of Lesotho, where we stayed overnight. On the way we visited the impressive Maletsunyane waterfall- a 200m drop into a canyon.
On the final day, we gave some lectures to a small group Animal Science and Masters Students at the University. The University campus was very pretty but also very quiet. We learnt that the Government had not paid the students their regular stipend and this had led to rioting and the burning down of the Graduation Marquee! As a result, most of the students had been sent home.
Finally, we said our goodbyes and caught our flights back to rainy Liverpool.
The whole experience was fantastic and seemed to benefit everyone. We got a chance to see another country and culture, the local vets got someone to share the workload, the students got valuable experience and teaching and of course, the local animal owners got free veterinary care. This is important in a country where people’s survival depends on their animals. There is good evidence that the clinic is helping – the condition of the animals and the incidence of saddle sores has much improved over the years the clinic has run.
I would strongly recommend any one thinking of volunteering for one of the Trust projects to do so. It may seem like a “busman’s holiday” – but when horses and horse people are involved it becomes a pleasure and is an experience not to be forgotten
We would like to thank BEVA trust for sending us, World Horse Welfare (especially Penny Ward and Kabelo Nkoane) for looking after us in country and the Semonkong Hospital Project for hosting the clinic. Finally, we would like to thank our colleagues Ben Curnow MRCVS and Jo Ireland MRCVS for holding the fort whilst we were away.