Author: Louise Dando (UK)
The crystal blue ocean sparkles under the hot midday sun. As the boat slowly docks. My excitement builds as I step onto the island of Gili Air for the first time. I swing my backpack over my shoulder and am herded onto the dock with the other tourists. There waiting for us is a line of ponies and carts ready to take us to our hotels. The beautifully coloured carts and cute ponies catch the tourists attention but as I move closer I see that the ponies are tiny, no more than 12hh, each attached to their carts with ill-fitting, sharp straps. They all seem to have their ribs showing, their hooves long and uncared for and many have open wounds. I suddenly feel very ill at ease. Several local men approach me trying to sell me a ride and I struggle through the crowds with my backpack to get away as the tourists begin loading their heavy bags into the carts.
The Gili Islands are a paradise for travellers with beautiful beaches and the clear blue ocean in the shadows of the awesome Mount Rinjani. The 3 small islands consist of Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawagan. These islands pride themselves on being “vehicle-free” and the only way to get around, other than by foot, is by a horse drawn cart known locally as a ‘Cidomo’.
Unfortunately, many tourists unwittingly support the ill-treatment of horses while abroad on holidays. Many of them forgetting to pay attention to details which they would never over-look or forgive back home in their own country. After all, they are on “holiday,” and certainly no foul play could ever occur in a paradise such as this.
Responsible tourism is an important topic, which provides us all with an opportunity and responsibility to contribute to improving animal welfare no matter the place, circumstance or culture. During my stay I chose to carry my own bags as I did not want to participate in any activity that could be harmful to these ponies, but I was shocked how popular they were. It really didn’t seem to bother most tourists that these ponies were expected to pull a large cart, their owner, up to 6 tourists as well as their backpacks and piles of stuff they just “had” to bring on their vacation.
While the islands are a paradise for people, they are not for the ponies that live and work there. There has been a growing, widespread concern about the welfare of the ponies that pull these carts. A reporter from The Telegraph has vowed “never to return to the Gili islands after witnessing thin, dehydrated ponies pulling building supplies, rubbish and tourists from dawn until dusk.” The Dodo has also reported that the ponies are “over-worked,” being forced to pull weights that are far too heavy for them in the full sun all day, without sufficient breaks.
After witnessing some of this firsthand I wanted to try to understand why this is happening. It has been widely reported that there is terribly low standards of animal welfare in Bali, Lombok and the Gili Islands. It seems that the combination of the influx of tourists visiting these countries and an unregulated animal welfare industry are the two main factors. However, I witnessed on the Gili Islands that people are not being cruel intentionally, they simply lacked the knowledge to care for their horses properly. Tourism is their only source of income and if they use an animal to make that income the money is often shared between the owner of the pony, the driver and their family and only then if there is any money left the remainder of the money could be used for the upkeep of the pony. Artefact Magazine claims most of the ponies are owned by a few “affluent people” that encourage the drivers to make the most profit from their Cimodos. For them it is all about profit with little concern about the ponies welfare.
Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) reported due to the owner’s lack of knowledge some ponies on the Gili Islands are only given salt water to drink from local wells which would cause terrible dehydration and kidney failure. Their harnesses are often repaired with nails, that cause horrible injuries to the ponies that are never given veterinary treatment. The ponies are never untacked either, as when they finally get a break (sometimes they work non stop for 18 hours a day) their harnesses are never taken off. It seems there are many out there who are uneducated about caring for their horses, not just in Gili Islands but all over the world. This is largely because of the lack of opportunity or access to education, decent coaches and the lack of funds (or access to a convenient tack shop) to purchase harnesses which fit correctly. An attitude of “use what you have” is very much the way of the island.
World Horse Welfare suggests some simple things we can do to help:
1) Use an ethical company when you travel and do this by doing your research before you go. For example if you choose to visit Bali. BAWA (Bali Animal Welfare Association) has a list of animal encounters that meet their welfare standards.
2) Use your judgement. I was shocked at what I witnessed on the Gili Islands, but without having any prior knowledge of the treatment of these ponies I knew immediately that their treatment was not good enough for me to use their business. I chose not to follow the pack and jump in the horse carriages with the other tourists and instead trusted my intuition.
3) Speak to the owners of badly treated animals to find out why they are treating their animals in a certain way and make the decision to not be part of unacceptable practice by letting other tourists, local travel representatives and the owner know why. Often times simply pointing out that something they are doing with their pony can potentially hurt their business (and cash flow!) is reason enough for them to make a change.
4) Spread the word about responsible tourism. Animal Welfare Charity Brooke have published “Brooke’s Happy Horses Holiday Code” to help people do just that. Share this with non – horsey family and friends to help raise awareness to people genuinely unfamiliar with ethical equine treatment and services.
Much to my relief there are charities out there helping the ponies on the Gili Islands. The “Gili Carriage Horse Support Network” organizes volunteers to help the working ponies on the Gili Islands, with basic things such as medical care, clean water and shelter. This organisation is working to educate tourists on the island about the terrible conditions these ponies are living in.
Charities are also working with hotels on the islands too, as a few of the hotels on the island now offer free bikes for their guests to use to get around the island as an alternative to using the Cimodos. However, this will be a difficult road, as Asian Geographic have reported. Many locals are too frightened to do this as there is a well known “Horse Mafia” that controls the industry and locals that are seen to be boycotting them have been victims of violence.
The road to a better quality of life has been paved for these ponies but it is going to be difficult. Other ways you can help include offering your expertise, alter a badly fitting bridle, or adjust the position of a saddle if you can. Buying the horses a bucket and provide water if you can afford to or any other supplies they lack. Perhaps contact the local charitable organizations prior to your trip and ask if there are any medical supplies or tack you can bring from your home country to donate.
You can also talk and educate owners that are not in the position to get education on how to look after their pony. You’d be surprised how much an afternoon of your time can go a long way! Offer your expertise in a friendly way and help them realize the importance of the tack fitting correctly or the pony’s thirstiness in the hot sun.
If you want to get involved in helping the ponies on the Gili Islands please encourage people not to take these carriage rides. If enough people stop using them then they will be forced to replace them with another means of transport. Please spread the word, leave negative reviews on travel websites that recommend them and share the plight of these poor ponies with others.
Our guest author Louise successfully runs “a horse girl’s lifestyle blog.” Check it out!
For more information, how to donate and volunteering opportunities please visit The Gili Carriage Horse Support Network facebook page or Gili Paradise Eco Trust.