For centuries, donkeys and mules have been used all around the world to pull carts, and none more so than in Ethiopia. Donkeys are used to transport a huge amount of goods, including wood, grain, bricks, people, livestock, water and (as we witnessed first-hand) even a pool table!
The Donkey Sanctuary is committed to driving change alongside carting communities across Ethiopia to safeguard the welfare of their hard-working cart donkeys and mules. Problems that our teams in Ethiopia face include ill-fitting tack often made of inappropriate and uncomfortable materials, imbalanced carts that can impact upon the animal’s posture and lead to injury and, a case which we saw very often, using two animals of different heights to pull a cart. Combinations included donkey/mule, horse/mule, mule/cattle, donkey/cattle and, probably the most awkward in height difference, donkey/horse. These combinations meant that not only was the cart fitting incorrectly and imbalanced, one of the two animals was often pulling a disproportionate share of the weight.
Before heading out into the Rift Valley with the team, Heather and I got to see the harness-making facility at the ATVET college, complete with a donkey statue to train animal health professionals on how cart tack, and a cart itself, should be fitted and balanced. The statue means that a real-life donkey with a temperament that will allow numerous cart demonstrations is not required. After this, the team’s aim for the day was to travel around several local villages, helping people to learn more about the fittings and improvements that could be made to bridles, tack and cart design.
Along the way we stopped off at two cart makers’ workshops. We got to see first-hand how the owners have used advice from The Donkey Sanctuary on creating lightweight balanced designs that fit to the animal’s centre of gravity. We even had a go at pulling the carts ourselves and found that, with the correct balance, an unloaded cart can be quite light! One inspiring story came from a cart maker who talked to us about tyre design. In his village he had been replacing the old steel wheels with no tyres for much lighter wheels with tyres for better shock absorption. He explained that the new tyres, although better for the donkeys and mules, were more expensive to buy. However, after explaining to his clients that the new design improved the welfare and working life of their animals, they are now choosing to buy the more expensive ones! This is tangible evidence of the welfare changes that the Sanctuary is instigating in Ethiopia.
For the remainder of the day we travelled from village to village, watching as the team tweaked tack, helped identify the causes of problems, and learning from owners who had followed The Donkey Sanctuary’s designs and spread their message of material, balance and correct pairings when using two animals to pull a cart. It was a long, dusty, hot day for us both but, not only were we rewarded with the amazing proof of lives being changed, but also with a friendly cart donkey with the stripiest legs any of the team had ever seen!
Andrew Perry, Groom
The Donkey Sanctuary, Birmingham