Mulas, Mountains, and Machu Picchu
A Two-Week Journey Treating Equids in Rural Peru

by Mary Lindahl

September 17, 2013

HSVMA-RAVS International student volunteer, Mary Lindhal, castrates a working horse in Peru
Veterinary student, Mary Lindhal, castrates a working horse in Peru at one of HSVMA-RAVS International's annual clinics in the country.
Mary Lindhal

In the first days of August 2013, I packed up my backpack, sleeping bag, stethoscope, and hiking boots, and flew south to Lima with a few butterflies in my stomach and a lot of excitement and curiosity. I would be meeting up with a group of veterinarians and veterinary students from across the United States and Canada to embark on a two-week trip to provide medical care to working mules and horses in rural Peru. We were a part of an equine HSVMA-RAVS trip that travels to this part of Peru annually. Being a fourth-year veterinary student, this trip would count as one of my clinical rotations so I had high hopes for the skills and knowledge I would gain.

The group all met with elevated spirits as we got ready to begin our trip, and despite a very long delay in the Lima airport as all of our veterinary supplies were opened and inspected, we finally reached our hostel in Cusco. We met others who would be joining us—vet students and a vet from Peru, and members of a non-profit group who coordinated the logistics of our trip. Following an afternoon of taking inventory and an evening enjoying authentic Andean cuisine, we slept well that night in preparation for our first working day.

For those not familiar with the city, Cusco is a large city (population of about 500,000) that many Machu Picchu tourists initially fly into. On the outskirts are towns where many mule drivers, or arrieros live with their strings of pack mules and horses. On our first work day, we created a system to effectively care for the days’ equids. We split into teams of intake, surgery, anesthesia, dentistry, and farriery. An arriero would arrive, herding a group of anywhere from 5-20 loose horses and mules, and the intake team would perform an initial assessment of the animals: Determine age, sex, body condition score, state of their teeth and feet, probe about any recent problems, and find out if they wanted their animal castrated. Intake would also address any obvious issues, such as saddle sores and vampire bat bites. After numbering each animal with a large crayon to keep straight who was who, we would vaccinate them against tetanus, give them a dose of de-wormer, and send them off to the other stations to perform work as needed.

Working horses in Peru
Arrieros lead their horses to the HSVMA-RAVS International clinic at the base of the mountains for free medical care.
Mary Lindahl

Though we had few language barriers, effective communication could be a whole different story. I was prepared to see a different level of horse care than I was used to the U.S., but the experience was still a bit eye-opening. Most of the horses and mules had to be blind-folded for us to approach them, and they often feared the voices of their owners as much as any needle we would use. The relationship between arriero and mule was one of necessity; these were definitely working animals that families relied on for their income—not pets. Any breakthrough with the arrieros was rewarding, whether it be when they accepted the importance of dental work or proper hoof care, or when I made a point in effective mule handling with calm words and non-threatening movements. Though we didn’t leave a lasting impression on each owner, and I still got kicked by a couple ornery mules who didn’t give a hoot about my thoughts in horse-handling, the strides we made were important.

We spent a couple days driving to worksites outside Cusco during the day and heading back to our hostel at night, until we were ready to move locations to a town called Mollepata. We were promised a busy few days from those who had attended the trip in years past, and the promise did not disappoint. In a day, we could see over 100 animals by our group of 15. Once we set to work in this small town, our surgical, anesthesia, and intake teams had become more efficient and organized. Along with castrations, the veterinarians would undertake surgeries such as tumor removals, enucleations, and correction of castrations that had been performed locally in a non-sterile, less-than-ideal fashion. The intake team also branched beyond the norm as we worked up any lame, colicky, or otherwise ill horses. RAVS has several goals for any trip of this nature: Offer medicine, surgery, and preventive care for the working animals; teach veterinary students; and promote sustainability in each location. We packed several sturdy halters in our supplies to be given away to arrieros who were interested and cooperative, both as a thanks and incentive to return the following year. We also brought extra horse-shoeing equipment to sell to people who seemed interested in trying out the profession. The goal, in theory, is to work ourselves out of business by supporting local veterinarians and farriers. I don’t see that that goal being achieved within the next few years, however, allowing room for other students and me to take advantage of such a wonderful opportunity.

HSVMA-RAVS International volunteer, Mary Lindhal, at Machu Picchu
Toward the end of the trip, Mary and the rest of the team stopped at picturesque Machu Picchu before departing for home.
Mary Lindhal

We took a break from working to make a long hike up to our next worksite, in an extremely isolated region. We split into groups of three or four, then, armed with packs of food and plenty of water,we walked anywhere from six to nine hours to make it over the Salkantay Pass (elevation around 15,500 feet!) to Huayrac. We put veterinary supplies and some personal items on mule back and carried only the essentials with us. Despite the fact that we were camping, with questionable access to showers or toilets and generally roughing it, we ate remarkably well the entire trip. The lovely cooks who traveled with us provided excellent, hearty, native meals.

The final three days were at one site in a small town called Collpapampa. It was with heavy hearts that we woke up on our last work day—we had all gotten to know each other well, enjoyed conversations, jokes, and stories around nightly campfires, and really liked the good work we were doing. However, the trip would end on a visit to some natural hot springs and a trek to Machu Picchu for those who had never been, so we couldn’t be too sad with the upcoming adventures in mind. We soaked in the sites as tourists and took plenty of pictures. The whole group met up one last time in Cusco for a final inventory and a dinner at a lively restaurant with local food, music, and dancing. We parted ways, sad to leave Peru but inspired to get more involved in similar work in the future.

Want to join the adventure? There are spots in a few HSVMA-RAVS International trips in early 2014, and the full 2014 HSVMA-RAVS schedule will be posted soon. Visit the website for the schedule and application information»

Mary Lindahl is a fourth year veterinary student at the University of Illinois. This is her second RAVS trip; she was previously part of a team that provided services for cats and dogs in tribal South Dakota. She eventually plans to pursue private practice with horses and small animals. Her interests include equine reproduction, lameness, and surgery.