Animal Aromatherapy in The GambiaWritten by Dena Schwartz
The Gambia Horse & Donkey trust is an incredible charity, working in the heart of The Gambia. Their mission is to make poverty history. Through education and care, compassion and understanding this charity has had a life changing impact on whole communities and their working animals.
I met Heather Armstrong the charities director several years ago; she shared heart wrenching stories of the plight of the working animals. As we talked of the emotional and physical challenges they face it became clear that the use of plant medicine could be of great value.
After much fund raising, plenty of research, and with some generous donations from my suppliers, I set of with my carefully selected collection of English and African essential oils, clays, powders and gels to see how I could help. I travelled with Heather and a group of generous like minded volunteers, all dedicated animal lovers with varying areas of expertise.
After a 6 hour flight and an 8 hour journey by road, ferry and river boat we arrived in the remote village of Sambel Kunda for our first glimpse of the Gambia H&D head quarters.
The intense heat and miles of dusty landscape was to be expected and whilst there was some green foliage there was no grass. It is unsettlingly evident that there is little to live on here.
Headquarters has two main yards, housing res, stallions and many donkeys. Each and every stable is covered in mosquito mesh as insects are a major problem here, responsible for spreading many of the deadly, debilitating diseases.
Whilst I had tried to prepare myself, it was still a shock to see horses in such incredibly poor condition; it is almost crudely miraculous that they can survive this level of emaciation. Residents at HQ have many stories, some sad, some tragic, many inspiring. The energy is day to day here, the focus on survival. Man and beast working towards the same goal.
The compassion and dedication of the staff is obvious as they proudly introduce me to the animals. My first task was to help a distressed donkey. All four legs were bleeding from the knee down, his skin severely bitten by insects; aggravated by the heat and constant irritation. I needed to soothe and cleanse these open wounds. I washed his legs with water and then smothered them with cool Aloe Vera Gel and Yarrow essential oil. Within seconds he became calm. I then patted a generous layer of Green Clay onto his limbs; it dried within seconds leaving a protective coating to prevent further irritation from the flies. The donkey slept, he was exhausted! I prepared more of the remedy to give to the owner and with the help of the Gambian staff my aftercare advice was translated. The donkey was given a head collar and the rope removed from his lower jaw. The owners promised to return for a full health check and blood test the following day.
My next task was to prepare a fly repellent for a grey mare (Tilly) with a very sickly foal at foot; her constant, violent stamping was making it impossible for her youngster to suckle. I used kinesiology to find the most suitable combination of essential oils. The African oils, maybe unsurprisingly, proved more effective than the English. Blending them in water I applied the wash to her legs, the flies disappeared. Unfortunately the relief was only short lived. After a few further changes to the blend we finally settled on a remedy that gave her approximately three hours of peace with no bites or bleeding. Applying this wash regularly gave Tilly the respite she needed to be the best mum she could be to her young colt.
The rest of my stay was so varied; I treated many wounds, some from ill fitting tack, others from accidents, burns or tethering. The animals all responded well to the natural remedies, they were grateful to be treated, well mannered and tolerant; they showed no resentment towards man for their pain or malnourishment. Very few of them selected oils for emotional support. They were clearly keen to look after their physical well-being. The green clay proved so effective, offering 24hrs of protection against the flies. Giving the wounds a chance to heal underneath, drawing out toxins and dramatically reducing the risk of infection.
The owners were keen to learn. Through the dedicated teaching of The Gambia Horse and Donkey Team, owners now fully understand how a healthy animal can be so much more productive. Healthy animals can farm more land, travel greater distances and therefore earn more money for their families. This financial gain gives the Gambian family money to send their children to school, to buy more food, uniforms, books and supplies. These genuine people are so grateful, humble and appreciative.
It was my hope to leave something useful behind, something that would give these animals a fighting chance to beat the odds and survive and thrive in these challenging conditions. I wanted the staff to have something extra for the animals that came in weak, often fighting the most ghastly of African diseases. I experimented daily by offering Seaweed, Barley Grass, Wheat Grass and Spirulina. These wonderful gifts from the plant kingdom boast an endless list of nutritional and medicinal properties. Over the course of my visit every donkey and every horse at HQ was given the chance to self- select and self medicate on one or more of these powders diluted in buckets of water. There was one clear winner; time and time again the Wheat Grass was selected over the others. Even the most poorly took long drinks, often waiting for us to top up the bucket to drink some more. I hope that this will be an effective addition to the incredible care already provided by the staff and veterinary team and the amazing unshakable determination of the animals will to survive. For me this journey has had highs and lows, I have fulfilled a life time dream, been touched so deeply, I have learned, I have laughed and I have cried and I look forward very much to returning.
It is a privilege to be involved with The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust, to see first hand the enormous impact they are having. It is hard to portray how quickly supplies get used up here, and I know that you will be wondering how you can help.
So here’s what you could do…
Please collect any horsey equipment, especially
Small and cob sized head collars
3inch to 5 inch Snaffle Bits
Bandages and any veterinary supplies
And of course money, every penny really does make a difference! You can donate on line and or sponsor these incredible animals at www.gambiahorseanddonkey.org.uk
For further info, or to donate useful items please contact
The Gambia Horse & Donkey trust is a small charity, working in the heart of The Gambia helping to make poverty history. Through education and care this little charity has already made a huge impact. Having become involved with the charity here in the UK we felt it was time to see the reality for ourselves. Privileged to be invited by Heather Armstrong the charities director, we set off to help make a difference!
Day 1 Nov 2008
After 6 hours flying and an 8 hour journey by road, ferry and river boat we arrived in the remote village of Sambel Kunda for our first glimpse of the Gambia H&D head quarters.
The first thing you notice is the heat, plus a surprising amount of dusty green foliage and yet no grass! Weeds, lots of inedible weeds, clearly very little to live on, how do the people and animals survive on this scorched landscape?
Head quarters has two main yards, housing mares, stallions and many donkeys, each and every stable is covered in mosquito mesh, insects really are a major problem here. The hay is unfamiliar to us, thick, hard and stalky, this ground nut hay looks unappealing. It’s a shock to see horses in such incredibly poor condition; we can only wonder how they survive this level of emaciation. Residents at HQ have many stories, some sad, some tragic, many inspiring. The energy is day to day here, the focus on basic survival. Man and beast working towards the same goal.
The Gambian staff proudly introduced us to the current four legged patients, sharing their individual stories. It becomes ever clearer the value of a working animal. The compassion and dedication of the staff to educate and rehabilitate is so evident. Two little mares really tugged at our heart strings. Molly, a young filly who fell into a fire and suffered horrendous unimaginable burns to the face and neck, proved that spirit is everything as she makes an amazing recovery! Welti another emaciated, severely injured young mare battles the odds. These animals hold no resentment to man, they seem to know we are here to help.
It’s like Christmas! A shipment arrives from the UK, one hundred and forty boxes generously donated by a wide variety of supporters back home. Headcollars, Snaffle Bits, Harnesses and a myriad of medical supplies are unpacked.
We set to work organising all the donations as well as preparing for the eagerly anticipated annual Show being held here tomorrow. In the past several hundred animals have come from far and wide to compete, get medical help and comfortable equipment.
All around normal yard duties were taking place, the Gambian staff are each responsible for certain animals. After mucking out, feeding and watering, dressings are changed, ticks removed and the animals are groomed or bathed. Dena sets to work with her plant remedies, making wound gels and healing blends. The animals seemed happy to have these natural products applied; their selections were surprisingly similar to equines back home. Each wound is then covered in a thick layer of green clay to draw out poison and prevent further problems from flies. This works effectively giving the animals respite from these biting horrors!
Excitement builds in the village as show day nears; everyone plays a part in the preparations. Giant water butts are filled, bunting and gazebos erected, competition rings prepared.
Day 3 Show Day!!!
From all around horses and donkeys appear from first light, many have travelled through the night walking endless miles to attend this much anticipated event.
Horses, donkeys, mares with foals at foot and stallions attend. The stallions seem to fare well; maybe the testosterone helps them hold condition. The donkeys generally fare the best, dealing with the extreme temperatures showing greater stamina.
As a group of 14 volunteers we are all assigned a Gambian veterinary student to work alongside us throughout the day. The students are so knowledgeable and invaluable as they translate, helping us to communicate our message compassionately. In between judging we spend our time swapping harsh Senegalese bits and rope from around the lower jaw to gentle English head collars and snaffles. Our advice is welcomed by owners; many have never looked inside their animal’s mouth to see the damage caused by these devices. We talk of the 500% increase in productivity of a healthy animal. We discuss their needs and provide advice. They visit the trained farrier’s on site for much needed foot trimming. They receive help from Suzanne our UK vet with her team of Gambian trainees, the team worked tirelessly all day with emergencies as well as routine procedures, often working with the most limited of supplies. All help was provided without charge.
The show proved to be, as last year, a great success both for the community and animals alike. The charity is essential for spreading the word, education and progress for this developing country.
After each show class, awards, rosettes and prize money were presented by the dignitaries. As well as healthiest mare and stallion classes there was a special class for ‘project donkeys’ these donkeys are donated by the charity to needy families. A ‘donkey club’ class was also held, the club was established to encourage and educate the community children and to make learning fun. Gymkhana donkey games were the highlight of the day drawing the biggest crowd and the most laughter.
As the day drew to a triumphant close, hundreds of animals left the site proudly wearing their rosettes, new head collars and bits, with comfortable feet and teeth, wormed, treated and ready to go back to work. We danced late into the night, celebrating with the locals, knowing that every minute of our day had created a positive, lasting impact for the animals and families of The Gambia.
Market day, every week The Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust attend three weekly markets in different locations. Providing veterinary care, head collars, bits and harness fitting, these days are always hot and hectic. Sick, injured and weak animals are treated; recovering animals come for check ups and the owners receive well deserved praise, encouragement and further guidance.
Back on site normality is restored; concern grows for Molly as she seems off her food. She is blood tested to check for the one of many debilitating diseases. One of the female donkeys loses her battle for life and is found to be carrying a young foetus. The ups and downs of being here is challenging. Sadness and joy are hourly emotions. Lazarus, the charities first rescue, suffers choke - an alarming time for all, thankfully he made it through. Welti’s leg wounds continue to be a worry, this little soldier allows us to lift her to her feet daily, we give her much encouragement and keep our fingers firmly crossed.
Dena spends the day working with the animals, using a combination of English and African plant oils to ease away stress and emotional issues. The donkeys get their daily opportunity to self medicate on Spirulina, Barley or Wheat Grass to boost their weakened immune systems.
Vicky continues to assist wherever needed, from wound dressing to bathing, from organising supplies to hand feeding - so much to do.
We all feel so very privileged to be involved, to see first hand exactly where the money and equipment is being used. It is hard to portray how quickly supplies get used here and how essential is it to keep it coming. This charity may be small but its effects are felt country wide!