Thanks to The Donkey Sanctuary consultant Glen Cousquer’s efforts, muleteers in Morocco are abandoning inhumane methods of controlling mules and adopting ethical working practices instead. This represents a quantum leap forward, one that is already delivering significant benefits to both mules and their handlers. This blog is the first in a series about these courageous individuals who, as Mule Welfare Champions, are making a mark in Morocco’s mountain tourism industry.
The communities involved in mountain tourism in the High Atlas of Morocco are remote and materially poor. It is only with the arrival of tourism that they started purchasing mules in order to find work in this new industry. With little or no knowledge as to how to train and work these highly intelligent animals, they resorted to the tools and practices available locally. Some of these, sadly, have barely evolved from medieval times and have hidden but devastating effects on the mule’s well-being. The locally produced bit in particular is a brutal but highly effective instrument that can be relied upon to force the animal to submit and to work. It is hardly surprising therefore that the relationship between man and mule is largely characterised by fear and distrust.
This, however, is changing thanks to men like Mohamed.
The Donkey Sanctuary's project in Morocco first started working with Mohamed at the request of his employer, James Kniffen, of The Mountain People. This company has been pushing for ethical tourism since it started and was keen to support Mohamed in developing his skills and knowledge about mule care and training.
In May last year, we began training Mohamed in how to ride his mule in a bitless bridle by developing a range of communication systems, including hand signals and voice commands, as well as appropriate and gentle use of the reins. He and his mule both learnt fast and made remarkable progress; in fact, Mohamed was eventually able to ride her without a bridle. In doing so, they have developed a positive working relationship based on trust and understanding. It is a joy to see the mule turn towards Mohamed’s voice and look for him when on the mountainside.
After this remarkable work, Mohamed was able to go on to teach his younger brother to handle his mule the same way. James too was given lessons and saw first-hand exactly what was possible. Pretty soon, Mohamed was able to undertake a series of training treks for team members, developing their ability to work their mules in head collars or bitless bridles. The learning was experiential and each problem encountered was videoed and reviewed in order to identify how it might be best addressed. This therefore developed Mohamed's problem-solving abilities, so that he is now operating as much as a coach as a teacher.
Equipped with a tablet of slide shows and other materials developed by our team, Mohamed can explain the hidden problems associated with local practices and the need to move away from them. He is responsible for checking the mules over in his team and ensures that no mule whose owner uses a traditional bit is used. A pay scheme has been introduced by his company that rewards those muleteers who work their mules in head collars with nothing in their mouths and who undertake staff training. Mohamed is also able to measure up mules so that they can be fitted with locally made bitless bridles.
Mohamed's dedication to mule welfare has meant that his own mule is rarely, if ever, tethered now and is never worked with a bit of any sort in her mouth. Her pack saddle is well maintained and she is free from saddle sores. His expert knowledge also means that he can share his understanding of the underlying causes of wounds and other problems with other members of his community.
We are very proud of Mohamed's achievements and congratulate him and The Mountain People for all they have done to promote mule welfare and ensure it is never compromised on one of their treks. They are setting a very high standard for the rest of the industry to emulate.