Moving Mountains, One Mule at a Time

April 14, 2014
By Angie Gebhart

"Packing up the mountain": The ruggedness of terrain in Peru attests to the strength of both equines and humans inhabiting the region.
Angie Gebhart

I stared at the tumble of ropes in front of me and then let my gaze follow them to the thirty mules lined up on the side of a hill, rawhide riggings and strings entangled around nearly every one of their opinionated, stomping legs. The majority of the equine population of usually-quiet Mollepata, Peru milled around anxiously while eyeing our vaccinations and bottles of dewormer. Our task seemed insurmountable for just a moment, but then quickly became possible as our team filled up more syringes with vaccine, began assigning each furry horse, mule, and donkey a number, and dove into the work we love, providing veterinary care for working equids in communities where there is no other access to care.

Building a Strong Foundation

Although on this 2013 HSVMA-RAVS trip to Peru we treated around 1,350 equids, at the end of each day the work seemed anything but “done.” In Peru, where equines are necessary for the transport of everything including tourists, children, luggage, corn, and building materials, there was no shortage of patients. If success breeds success, then the HSVMA-RAVS program is building a rock-solid foundation. Part of HSVMA-RAVS’ success is achieving acceptance of our work in each community through education, both formal and informal. In Peru, we found that most owners are willing to accept our best judgment as long as it is easily-explained, positive for their horse, and economically feasible. Lifelong horse owners’ smiles lit up as they donned headlamps and peered inside their animal’s mouth for the first time ever, observing just how far back their horse’s teeth reached. Kids and adults alike gathered to watch castrations, grimacing or leaning in farther to take it all in. To well-established veterinarians with much practical experience, it can be difficult to imagine not accepting dentistry as a necessary service to equines or underestimating the value of an antibiotic injection. But perhaps this is because we forget that, somewhere along the line, someone kindly taught us to understand these very same things.

Examination. Treatment. Education. Communication.

A group of animals arriving at one of our campsites, ready for an evening of rest and veterinary care the following morning. Animals, especially the mules, are commonly blindfolded while handled.
Angie Gebhart

Our daily routine involved interacting with animal owners and explaining the benefits of each service, especially to skeptical owners. A young boy was apprehensive about allowing us to check his young horse’s recent castration site even though obvious signs of severe infection were present. The well-meaning owner assured us that it was simply still healing. After a half hour of discussion with the owner, he finally allowed us to sedate and palpate more completely. As the horse was lying comfortably anesthetized and the owner could visibly see the extent of infection that was being treated, he quietly asked if he could bring another horse he owns that was in the same condition to receive our help too. He peered over our shoulders, making sure we took the same considerations for his second horse and did everything the same way. It was clear to us how much his horses meant to him.

We also met owners who specifically requested the educational handouts we offered, who would have fought to be sure their horses received the medical treatments or who were hungry to begin a career in veterinary medicine. One owner even recommended he rest his own horse for one month – quite a sacrifice in an economy dependent on pack animal tourism! We met an obviously talented young horseman who quietly voiced to us his dreams of attending veterinary school. He will be returning to work with us on a future trip. Kids stayed long after dark to play games about horse care – even when discussions broached the topic of eerie garrapatas ("ticks!") -- and proudly boasted their newfound knowledge of the importance of green pasto ("grass"). Drawing pictures at the farrier station to illustrate internal hoof structures or engaging in public health discussions about strangles infectivity at a community charla ("meeting") were all proof that a common goal exists: We all want what is best for the horse, even though perceptions of the best way to achieve this are culturally intertwined and sometimes sensitive.

Owner reading the handout
A horse owner takes special interest in a horse care handout printed in Quechua by the pro-animal nonprofit "Vida Digna" from Lima, whose support and presence is irreplaceable to the trip each year.
Angie Gebhart

Every Little Bit Helps

As our Peru trek drew to a close, veterinarians and students alike were eager to find more opportunities to contribute, and felt that next year’s RAVS trip to Peru couldn’t come soon enough. Having just helped provide veterinary services in a community where roads don’t exist and a 15,000 foot pass separates it from the nearest town, we couldn’t help but wonder how many other communities went without veterinary care. It was somewhat overwhelming to think of the opportunities to help that exist in the world. Surely the human power exists, yet too often the lack of sustainable resources and developmental infrastructure limit us in being able to deliver the services and education in communities that have no access to veterinary care.

It is times like these in which I am reminded of the reverberations just one single action can create. Every drop of water helps to fill an ocean. Every rock is necessary to build a mountain. Spending a few extra minutes to clarify a diagnosis or share rationale behind a procedure can make all the difference in the world. And, in my opinion, no good deed goes unnoticed. Not even in a herd of mules.

Angie with local children who stayed all day watching procedures and playing in the soccer fields, and would beg to stay late to finish their coloring books or play game after game of "memoria."
Mario Villalobos

Angela Gebhart is a Spanish teacher in Waconia, Minnesota. As an undergraduate student at South Dakota State University studying Spanish education and pre-veterinary science, she attended several Equitarian workshops in Mexico and Costa Rica before bringing the movement to Native American reservations in South Dakota with the help of her academic advisors. She focuses on using her background in education and cultural studies to help international veterinary work become sustainable and continues to travel with equine veterinarians and professionals throughout Latin America and U.S. reservations.