Responding to the end of the age of horsepower
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2009:
Responding to the end of the age of horsepower
Commentary by Merritt Clifton
Completing a defacto “trade” of star players, the Brooke
Hospital for Animals, the world’s largest equine aid charity, on
May 4, 2009 announced the appointment of Peter Davies as board
Davies, director general of the World Society for the
Protection of Animals since 2002, succeeds North Carolina Zoo
director David Jones, who had served as interim Brooke chair since
the November 2008 death of predecessor Hilary Weir.
Succeeding Davies at WSPA will be Mike Baker, chief
executive for the Brooke since June 2001.
All trades are billed as likely to help both teams. Only
time will tell what this one achieves, but it is possible that this
one moved players into new positions well suited to their experience.
Baker, previously in management roles with the British Union Against
Vivisection and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is more a
career animal advocate on multiple fronts than a horse enthusiast
taking on a broader field. Davies, previously director general for
the Royal SPCA, is a horse enthusiast with a global perspective.
Both Baker and Davies have already been helping the
developing world to meet the many challenges presented by the
accelerating transition away from use of horses, donkeys, and mules
for farm work and transport. The job ahead is nothing less than
easing the largely voluntary dissolution of the second largest and
oldest of all of the animal use industries, after raising animals
The U.S. and Canada made transition away from equine use
relatively gradually during the first half of the 20th century.
Western Europe achieved the same transition during the same decades,
but with two major hiccups, as both World War I and World War II
depleted the regional horse population, never to recover either time
to the numbers preceding the conflicts.
Unfortunately, the North American and European humane
communities of the early to mid-20th century were too overwhelmed to
do much more for displaced equines than to document what happened.
Using fewer working equines will prevent animal suffering in
the long run, as many millions of sentient creatures are replaced by
machines. During the transition, unfortunately, more horses,
donkeys, and mules are likely to be abandoned, abused, neglected,
and trucked to slaughter under horrific conditions. Foals will have
declining value, so will be increasingly mistreated or just killed
The working conditions for equines still in service will
become ever harsher, as more roads are paved, more motor vehicles
spew hot exhaust into the animals’ faces, watering troughs are
removed from crossroads as obstacles to speeding cars and trucks,
and the remaining equine users–usually the poorest of the
poor–overload and overdrive the animals more, in a losing struggle
to economically compete with mechanized transport.
As equine use decreases, accidents involving equines
increase. Motorists typically do not understand animals’ needs and
abilities, and kill and injure many in collisions.
Stones flung up by speeding tires often blind working
equines–a problem that was little known before animals shared the
roads with cars, but is now endemic to the lives of working animals
the world over.
Equines tend to get used to the passage of motor vehicles
relatively easily, but only by overcoming their instinct to bolt at
the rapid approach of something large approaching from behind. Those
who spook are among the first culled as team owners downsize.
Not to be overlooked is the pass-down factor, frequently
noted by early 20th century U.S. humane commentators. The most
affluent people in a community get motor vehicles first. They then
sell or give away their working animals to people who formerly could
not afford them. Inevitably the transition to motor power includes a
transition from teamstering being a well-paid and respected
profession to being an occupation of the underclass.
The last operators of horse-drawn vehicles selling
vegetables and dairy products in U.S. cities, the last Romanian
gypsies collecting scrap in horse-drawn wagons, and operators of
carriage and pony rides are often seen as survivors of long
traditions of an equine-centered life-style. Many actually have
little background in animal care, and are heirs to work abandoned by
the families who formerly did those jobs, back when the work was
much more lucrative. Thus animal care degenerates at the same time
that the working conditions for animals deteriorate.
The last and most brutal part of the phase-out of working
equines is that tens of thousands are transported to slaughter in
unsuitable vehicles, often for huge distances, since equine
slaughterhouses and consumers of horse meat are relatively few in all
parts of the world.
Often the drovers hauling the horses have little if any
awareness that horses have higher centers of gravity than cattle and
pigs, so fall much more often if the vehicles suddenly slow or turn;
that horses need to stand upright, not ride in double-decked
vehicles that force their heads down into unnatural postures; and
that horses should ride facing backward, not forward, to avoid
injuries both in transport and in unloading.
Horses suffer from the same neglect and mistreatment that
afflicts all livestock in transport. Then the killing may be done
at facilities unsuited to horses, by personnel using antiquated
methods, recently documented in undercover videos of horse slaughter
in Mexico and eastern Europe.
Most of the largest, most populous nations in Asia, Africa,
and Latin America, with the greatest numbers of working equines,
are now either at or fast approaching phase-out. This occurs in two
stages. The first is when equine use rapidly declines relative to
human population. The actual numbers of working horses, donkeys,
and mules may level off, or even modestly increase, but as ever
greater shares of the workload are done by motor vehicles, both the
economic and physical environments become less conducive to
continuing to use equines.
The second phase is a steep drop in the actual numbers of
equines. Societies relying on equines for farm work and transport
usually sustain equine slaughter industries, to dispose of animals
who are too old, ill, or badly injured to be economically
productive. During the end phase of equine use, fewer equines fit
those definitions, but users and former users begin selling healthy
animals to slaughter, until the equine use industries contract to
little more than recreational use.
Then, as societies become more affluent, more horses may be
raised for riding and racing, as in the U.S., which had only 2.4
million horses in 1961, when farm and transport use had effectively
ended, but now has about 9.2 million.
1961 was the first year for which the United Nations Food and
Agricultural Organization assembled statistics on agricultural animal
populations worldwide. The numbers for the most populous nations
that have cooperated with the FAO effort from the beginning show the
trend since then, as well as the magnitude of the challenge ahead:
Nation Million equines Equines/humans
1961 2008 1961 2008
Brazil 5.5 5.9 1/14 1/33
China 14.1 15.1 1/44 1/83
Egypt 15.3 3.1 1/ 2 1/21
India 2.4 1.4 1/18 1/82
Mexico 7.0 9.6 1/ 5 1/12
Pakistan 1.0 4.3 1/47 1/40
The Brazilian, Chinese, and Mexican equine populations have
all slightly increased, but have declined by half relative to the
workload needed to sustain their respective societies. The Egyptian
equine population, 97% of them donkeys, has fallen from the largest
on record anywhere to a normal level for an agrarian society in the
developing world. Only Pakistan relies more on equine labor today
than 48 years ago.
The fourfold increase in the number of working equines in
Pakistan may reflect a decrease in the use of bullock carts, long
the primary mode of transport throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Bullocks were abundant because the dominant Hindu culture inhibited
slaughtering healthy bovines for meat, and to this day do much of
the work done elsewhere by horses, mules, and donkeys.
Pakistan, mostly Muslim, separated from India in 1947.
Cattle slaughter has increased in Pakistan ever since, while bullock
carts have nearly disappeared.
Mumbai U.S. consul Henry D. Baker reported in 1914 that motor
vehicles already appeared to be replacing bullock carts in urban
India, but lack of domestic oil reserves and lack of foreign
exchange inhibited the transition for another 80 years, until India
became a global hub of electronic communication.
Since then, Indian use of motor vehicles has increased at
the rate of 20% per year, use of equines and bullock carts has
plummeted, and what to do with surplus male calves has become one of
India’s most vexing and politicially charged problems. Indian milk
production is comparable to that of the U.S., but milk yield per cow
is so much less that Indian cattle birth as many as 10 surplus bull
calves for every one born in the U.S.
All of the same issues associated with the transition from
equine use to use of motor vehicles are involved in the transition
from using bullock carts. The economic and cultural issues differ,
however, since horses, donkeys and mules have little religious
significance in most of the world, and are deliberately produced for
work, whereas bullocks are a byproduct of milk production plus
cultural resistance to slaughter.
Rural regions of eastern Europe still relied heavily on
horses for farm work and transport until after the collapse of
Communism in the early 1990s. Cruelty in the export of horses to
slaughter subsequently became an internationally publicized scandal
in nation after nation, moving from those closest to horsemeat
consumers in Belgium, France, and Italy to those farther away.
Most of eastern Europe is now close to completing the
replacement of working equines with motor vehicles, as the numbers
from Poland most clearly show:
Nation Million equines Equines/humans
1961 2008 1961 2008
Poland 2.7 0.3 1/11 1/130
Romania 1.0 0.8 1/19 1/28
Ukraine 1.0 0.6 1/43 1/77
The transition in Romania has gathered momentum since Romania
was admitted to the European Union in January 2007.
Gandhian economists, in particular, have predicted for
decades that eventually declining global oil reserves will force a
return to greater use of animal power, but even where the actual
numbers of equines are still about what they were in 1961, breeding
enough to re-establish the ratios necessary to provide for the
present human population would take many years.
Producing an adequate fodder supply to sustain a return to
animal power would be harder still. Most fodder crops can also be
used to feed humans, to feed animals raised for meat, or to
manufacture biofuels, and these uses are all considerably more
lucrative. As gasoline prices soared in 2008, the cost of feeding a
donkey became higher per mile traveled in most of the developing
world than the cost of fueling a motorcycle–especially if the
motorcycle ran on ethanol.
Such ratios wobble with the world economy. Replacing equines
with motor vehicles is likely to progress much more rapidly in some
nations than others, and may still take decades in the poorest parts
of Africa and Latin America. But easing the lives of equines in the
nations where the transition is coming fastest is challenge enough.
ANIMAL PEOPLE president Kim Bartlett has initiated three
projects working toward that end in the past three years.
The first ANIMAL PEOPLE equine aid project, begun in January
2007, is a mobile clinic serving the donkeys and horses who toil
along the highway between Delhi and Agra, India. The clinic is
staffed and operated by Friendicoes SECA.
The second project, begun in September 2008, enables Jakarta
Animal Aid to treat carriage horses and teach their drivers proper
The third project, begun in January 2009, is relief outreach
meant to assist all of the animals who were isolated by warfare in
Gaza, carried out by the Palestine Wildlife Society and Let The
Animals Live, of Israel. In practice, the program has mainly
helped horses and donkeys.
ANIMAL PEOPLE also funds the salary of African Network for
Animal Welfare founder Josphat Ngonyo. Ngonyo’s work in recent years
has included coordinating a vaccination drive to stop an unusual
rabies outbreak among donkeys in the Kenyan crossroads city of
Isiolo, and treating and feeding the donkeys and other animals who
were displaced by deadly rioting in several parts of Kenya during