Where, previously, only the richest members of these mountain communities could afford a mule, today the mule population has exploded as mules are bought in so that the young men of the villages can find work as muleteers. The mules of the Moroccan High Atlas are therefore very much a product of the mountain tourism industry.
Sadly, the lack of training and equipment is also a product of that industry's historical failure to recognise the lack of knowledge and professional proficiency of those who sought work as muleteers. The last few years, however, have seen some significant and very welcome changes as a growing number of companies recognise that they have a duty of care to the muleteers and mules they employ.
These companies are breaking new ground by requesting training for their muleteering teams and by trying to find ways of equipping them with basic muleteering equipment. This represents a significant commitment in terms of time and money for companies whose training budgets are already somewhat stretched.
I have been able to provide these companies with support in terms of training for muleteers. I have also been able to support travel companies in their work to develop and implement animal welfare policies that allow them to better safeguard mule welfare. As part of this, I have been encouraging companies to help their teams by ensuring they have access to suitable, well-made, long lasting, well-designed and well-fitted equipment. Such equipment is not so easy to find in the High Atlas!
One of the companies I have been working with prototyped a solution a few years ago. Far Frontiers Expeditions were determined to have all the mules working on their schools expeditions in Morocco working in head collars. And so they purchased a stock of Shires Topaz head collars. Their core muleteering team received support from The Donkey Sanctuary and, to their credit, had little trouble learning to work their mules in head collars.
Following that highly successful trial, I spoke to those lovely people at Shires Equestrian and they kindly agreed to make these head collars available at cost to companies who were making a commitment to training and equipping the mules and muleteers who work for them. Since then, several other companies have placed orders for their teams and over a hundred head collars are now on their way to Imlil, a village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, for the 2017 trekking season. This is very welcome news indeed and will go a long way to helping change local practice.
The trekking companies involved are all members of the Expedition Providers' Association. They have committed to eliminating the traditional bit from their operations and are insisting that their teams learn to work loaded mules in head collars. This simple change in equipment promises to transform the relationship between man and mule as handlers learn to communicate in ways made possible by the head collar. This means that relationships founded on pain, compulsion and fear of punishment are being actively discouraged, whilst relations based on trust, compassion, understanding and good communication are being encouraged.
The very concept of good muleteering practice is therefore shifting as more attention and emphasis is placed on the human-animal bond. Healthy relationships are founded on respect, fairness and communication. This requires man let go of the practices and ways of thinking that he relied on previously to impose his will for true communication is two-way, not one-way!
A big thank you is therefore owed to our friends at Shires Equestrian and to the trekking companies who have invested in these head collars and are promoting their use. Your support of this initiative will make a very real difference to the mules involved and will help spread awareness of best muleteering practice.