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A Healing Hand For The Horses Of The Goddess

This month thousands of poor Indian families arrived with their horses and donkeys in Jaipur at the temple of the Hindu goddess Kalkani Matha - the goddess of equines - for a dramatic 300-year old festival.

For the people, the colourful annual celebration is always a welcome break from grinding poverty. For their animals all too often it means exhaustion and suffering - but this time teams vets from the British-based charity Brooke Hospital for Animals were standing by to offer free treatment, advice and training in equine care.

Horses and foals, some taken from their mothers only days after birth, arrived by truck. Donkeys arrived on foot, malnourished and often lame, accompanied by their owners or donkey dealers from poor villages.

The festival takes place at Luniyawaas, a village 30 km from Jaipur, India, on the Hindu festival of Dussehra, just before Diwali. The fair is a tradition passed from generation to generation of equine owners.

Joy Pritchard, Brooke's Veterinary Advisor has just returned to the UK from the fair, and reported a growing problem. Dealers now offer dozens of foals, taken abruptly from their mothers, for sale to anyone who will pay the price.

Pritchard recalls "Foals, some as young as 15 days old, barely able to survive without their mothers' milk, are tied up side by side in long lines. They have no choice but to nibble at the piles of dried grass placed in front of them, or chew in vain at each other's manes. When the sun moves round from behind the temple where they are tied, there is no respite from the heat and dust except a quick drink of water given whenever the owner remembers them. All to often they are forgotten. We wormed all the foals, treated wounds and tried to put pressure on the dealers to offer water more frequently.

The foals are Rajasthan's famous Marwari breed, bays and prized skewbalds, with curved ear tips. The lucky ones will be bought outright. Others will be bought by speculators or even 'in bulk' by a middle-man, to be re-sold at the same trading fair or, worse still, packed into lorries and moved on around the state from sale to sale. Under these conditions many will die from malnutrition, poor immunity, diseases caught from so many other stressed foals, or fractures and injuries sustained during transport.

For 5,000 rupees (£60) you can buy a thin little bay colt, destined for the tonga taxi carts of Jaipur's busy streets. A bright skewbald filly which may be used as a future 'marriage horse' to carry Rajasthani grooms to their weddings, costs 8,000 rupees.

Pritchard promises: "The dealers have brought them from so far afield that it is nearly impossible to prevent this trade in tiny foals, but Brooke will be putting pressure on the Luniyawas fair committee and other fairs at which we have a presence to set a minimum age at which animals can be bought and sold at fairs in India."

Brooke Hospital for Animals had a mobile equine clinic present for the four days of the fair and treated more than 1,200 horses and donkeys. We have provided and maintain four permanent water troughs that are crucial to the hundreds of other horses, mules and donkeys at the fair. Our vets gave free treatment to all equines and our farriers re-shoed animals as necessary. We replaced inhumane hobbles and ran workshops on equine care and welfare. In particular, we targeted children and young people using traditional Indian puppet shows, games and quiz competitions to educate them in equine care.

Every new owner of a foal went home having received foot care and grooming training and with a clinic card, telling them where to bring the foal for any treatment needed in the future. Those foals that survive and remain in the area will have the assurance of free veterinary care from Brooke for their entire working lives.

There are an estimated 2.5 million working equines in India. These animals are usually the only source of income for their poverty-stricken families and work under extreme conditions of heat, pain, exhaustion and illness. A combination of economic, social and cultural factors, including lack of education, superstition and poverty, result in unnecessary pain and suffering for these animals.

The Brooke Hospital for Animals was founded in 1934 to improve the condition and well-being of equine animals overseas by providing free veterinary treatment for the working horses, donkeys and mules of some of the poorest people in the world and by advising and training their owners and users. We are the only organisation dedicated to providing veterinary treatment for working equines, alongside training owners, to bring about lasting change.

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