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Hardcore Healing: Helping The Horses of The Roma Gypsy Community

Fri 21st Aug 2015

WVS sends out an average to 5 teams of skilled and specialist vets every month. Dr Kimm Bakker MRCVS was among the team of vets to support animals in the Roma Gypsy Community in the Algarve. Here is her blog. 

Thanks to the support of the Marching Animal Welfare Trust, we combined forces with ARC Horse welfare, for a week in the Algarve, Portugal, during the 3rd week of April 2015. Temporary headquarters was set up in Albufeira, a well known city for its tourism in the Faro district. There is a small population of Roma Gypsies spread in and around town, in different camps and each with their own (poor) quality of living standards.

The team existed of different members from all over the EU. Two vets; one German, living and practicing in Italy for the past 30 year; one Dutch, living and practicing in the UK for the past 5 years. One British vet nurse from a mixed practice and one British administrator currently living in France. This team was further reinforced by Samantha Birch, head of ARC Horse welfare, and our main translator plus two members of WVS, documenting the event.  

Our equipment mainly consisted of NSAIDs (oral and injectable), antibiotics (oral, tribrissen), Equest worming (moxidectine + praziquentel), ointment and iodine to treat superficial wounds, basic hoof kit (with hoof pliers, a hoof scraper and a DIY nippers to remove hoof nails) and a basic dental set (with a gag and 3 sizes of rasps). We also were equipped with a large amount of new and second hand head collars.

In 4 days we visited 8 different gypsy sites and were presented with a total of 68 horses, mules and donkeys with an average age of 7 years, whom were, with the odd exception, in very good condition. 42 % of them were (brood) mares, 28 % were stallions and only 10% were found to be castrated with one confirmed cryptorch, 18% were under three years of age and of both sexes.

The ones to be found in poor condition were mostly stallions being used as cart horses. The general good condition of all animals could be a result of the continuous work of ARC horse welfare and WVS first visit last year, but could also be attributed to the season. At this time of year the grass was still lush and green with an average temperature of approx 23-25 degrees, with cooler nights and occasional rain saw to this. Both veterinarians expect the condition of the horses to decline over summer, when the grass will die and relentless work on the road will take its toll.

The veterinary healthcare provided was mainly basic preventive healthcare (with an educational background), with dental treatments as and when necessary (mainly for the horses of 12 and older), worming all horses encountered (90% of the horses seen had a good body condition score, but did have a sustainable amount of longer dead hair in flank and croup area), and dealing with superficial wounds, mainly occurred from ill fitted harnesses and head collars. Occasionally basic hoof care was provided in the form of clipping hoofs or removing worn out shoes. 

On account of the Portuguese veterinary order, we were not allowed to vaccinate or provided any other veterinary medicine other then the basics as explained above. Attempts were made to diagnose equine piroplasmose (a tick borne disease), by measuring the PCV of suspected cases. None were found to have an abnormal PCV.

Other common injuries were grass seeds lodged in the buccal mucous membrane or throat region, causing severe irritation and possible secondary infection.  Owners were explained to check and if possible to hose out the horse's mouth on a daily base.

As most cart-horses were controlled by a chain running underneath the chin, skin injuries and chronic hyperplasia of the mandibula were noted. Suggestions of changing this with either a soft cord or a bit were met with resistance, as most owner were insisting they would not be able to control the horse otherwise.

Specific injuries were seen on a horse who incurred a superficial eye injury was provided with autologous serum and oral pain relief.

One mare had just foaled hours before our arrival and both foal and mare received a post foaling check up. Both were found to be in good condition, upon clinical exam.

One stallion that was hobbled (with tethering the only ways the Roma's used to limit the horses in their freedom of grazing), was said to have luxated it's left carpal joint after an attempt to mount a mare. This horse was seen 2-3 days after the initial injury and fracture lame. A metacarpal bandage applied by the owner was in place. Swelling was profound around the carpus. Range of motion was approximate 10 degrees, without pain. Palpating the joint especially around the intermediate carpal bone was extremely painful and resulted in attempt rearing. Crepitus was detected by one veterinarian but could not be repeated. A supportive bandage from hoof till distal of the metacarpus was placed, with the instructions to wet the underlying sofban on a regular basis in an attempt to reduce the swelling. NSAID's were provided IV and orally.

Under no circumstances was the horse allowed to move (this in itself is a problem as these Roma's lived in basic tents and were on a constant move). A revisit was made to 2 days later in which the horse had improved. Pain relief was adequate and the swelling was nil. The range of motion was now 45 degrees without pain or resistance. The stallion took 5 sound steps but was unwilling to bear weight on the leg. Another supportive bandage was placed to be removed by owner in 2 days and 3 weeks of oral pain relief was provided with the note that the patient was not allowed to move during this time. A differential diagnosis of carpal bone fissure and intra-articulair hematoma with a possible tendon rupture was made. The future prognosis of this animal remains poor.

Personally, I think we did a great amount of good work. It is challenging to make a lasting impression in one week, coming from a different country and being female (mainly the men handle horses), but as a long as ARC and WVS keep in contact with regular projects like these, it will create a sustainable bond of trust on which we can further educate owners and prevent further animal abuse. A note most be made that ARC mainly helps the horses, but does not overlook the situation the owners live in. We have seen people who only lived in tents, to Roma's who seemed to have a relatively luxurious "house" built by corrugated sheets, with 2 windows and a door. None of the children seemed to receive education. Healthcare provided for these people seemed to be poor. If one has to live like this, it is another thing to actually take proper care of an animal that is mainly used for pulling carts.

In an ideal world it would be best if Portugal and in particular the Algarve, could provide local equine vets/farriers/harness makers, which could overcome the language barrier and cultural differences and therefore could educate even better. 

WVS will return to support this community and ARC Animal welfare in the future.