Hello everyone! I recently took part in a volunteer veterinary trip through a non-profit organization called “R-VETS” to Guanajuato, Mexico and I just wanted to share a few of my experiences from the trip, in hopes that it might inspire you to participate in a trip like this, or provide some type of support for someone who does!
R-VETS mission is to promote quality and affordable veterinary care in underserved rural areas. Many of these communities have no access to veterinary services which impacts the welfare of both the animals and the people who live there. It leaves clients with no option other than to castrate their own horses without anesthesia, tetanus prevention, or surgical instruments. The stallion mortality rates are high. Improperly gelded horses suffer from infections, behavioral problems, and pose serious danger to the community’s residents, particularly women and children. Additionally, most of these horses subsist on coarse forage and work long hours, so without dental care they quickly lose body condition, are unable to work, and can die.
If you are interested in supporting R-VETS, please visit their website www.r-vets.org and take a look at their “wish-list” or even consider a monetary donation. R-VETS operates entirely off of donations and relies heavily on volunteers. There are numerous organizations out there with the same vision, and these include RAVS, WorldVets, NicaVets, Vets Without Borders, Equitarian Initiative, and World Horse Welfare. I would encourage you just to take a few minutes and visit one of these websites. You would be surprised what a big difference something as small as some old polo-wraps or a refrigerator, or some outdated veterinary equipment can make in rural areas.
Our team consisted of Dr. Eric Davis and his technician Cindy McClinn, who founded R-VETS, Dr. Jose Estrada who operates his mixed animal practice out of San Miguel, Guanajuato and has been working with R-VETS for several years, one vet student from Mexico, two vet students from the U.S., and several locals who have ties to horses and vet medicine, and were a tremendous help in keeping the clinics running smoothly. We (the “gringos”) set up our base-camp in Dr. Estrada’s home, which he so kindly opened up to us, and every morning at the crack of dawn, we packed up our van with all the supplies and water (which is hard to come by) we thought we might need and headed out to the “campos” that lie within a 60 mile radius of San Miguel.
The drive usually entailed rocky dirt roads and gates that we barely fit through and en route it was not uncommon to pass burros on the road that were carrying stacks of rastrojo (dried corn stalks and husks) five times their size. It was also not uncommon to pass horses and burros being ridden up and down the mountain roads. For many of these people, this is their only mode of transportation.
Some days, we would arrive in a campo to find at least fifty horses and burros awaiting us in an open schoolyard, tied to mesquite bushes and soccer goals, while their owners migrated to a scarce patch of shade. Other days, we would arrive to an empty churchyard, only to learn that there was a miscommunication and the community wasn’t aware that we were coming (phones are scarce in the campos). Even still, between word of mouth and the campo P.A. system, it wouldn’t be long before dust-trails of burros and horses would start rolling in!
The variety in the types of horses and owners was fascinating. The owners ranged from kids to farmers to rodeo cowboys, to frail old ladies who had one hand on a cane and the other dragging a trusty old burro behind them. One thing all of these people had in common though, was their willingness to work hard, live off the land, and take care of the things that were important to them. Most of the owners not only have a bond with their horses and burros, but rely on them HEAVILY for transportation, herding, plowing, and hauling crops and supplies. So when it came to the health of their four-legged friends, the people of Guanajuato were incredibly grateful for the free services of deworming, dentistry, castration, wound repairs, sarcoid treatments, etc. that we were able to provide for them.
Dr. Davis, Dr. Estrada, and the vet students flew through the castrations every day without any complications, and Dr. Davis performed at least a couple of cryptorchid surgeries every day, which is something many surgeons wouldn’t even try to do “in the field”. There aren’t really any other options in Guanajuato.
We saw about 100-250 horses each day. Sarcoids were treated with cryotherapy, bad teeth were pulled, wounds were repaired, legs were splinted, eye irritations were treated, and friends were made. The communities were so gracious to us, waiting patiently (sometimes half of a day) until we called their number and tended their horses.
They helped us with our spanish, brought us cool, refreshing pitchers of augua fresca during the hottest hours, and fixed us outstanding lunches usually consisting of homemade tortillas, grilled cactus (which is plentiful there) rice, beans, chorizo. . .YUMMMM! In addition to being excellent hosts, the people were also excellent teachers. Although not always the case, the owners were often very calm and gentle with the young and untrained horses, and kept quite a few “old-fashioned-tricks” up their sleeves.
I came to the conclusion that every boy over five years of age in the campos of Guanajuato carries a lasso with him and they know how to use it!!! Those little boys lassoed the colts, lassoed the burros, lassoed the dogs, lassoed each other, lassoed the chickens, lassoed their dads, and I never got tired of watching them!!
Many of the older men in the communities entertained me with their stories. One of my favorites was during a dental exam: when I asked the owner if his mare had suffered any health problems in the past, he informed me that yes, she had colicked a couple of months earlier. I asked him if he had called a veterinarian out to treat the colic and he looked at me like I had two heads and said that he used his standard protocol of one bottle of tequila in the water bucket, and beer in the water bucket the next day “for the hangover”, and she was good as new! DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!!!!!
Just as there was a variety in types of owners, there was a variety in types of patients. Our patient demographic was about 75% horses, 20% burros, and 5% mules. Most of the farm horses were small, light/thrifty types, maybe closest resemblance would be to what we call “polo ponies” here. There were a signficant amount of “Cuarto de milas” (Quarter horses) that were used for rodeo and herding.
A large number of the horses were well-trained and easy to treat, but there was definitely an equally large number of horses that were scared, barely-handled, and only being controlled by a twenty-foot piece of polypropelene rope tied loosely around their neck. These horses were usually very head-shy and quick to rear, and I felt like I was going through “horse-handling 101” all over again. But I learned that patience pays off with the shy ones, and as the days wore on, I found myself reading the horses’ body language before I even approached them, and mostly just taking my time and doing alot of neck-scratching.
The burros were small but STRONG, averaging about 400 to 500 lbs. I grew quite fond of the little burros during my two weeks in Guanajuato. They are incredibly hardy, thriving off of the desert conditions, and sustaining themselves on weeds, rastrojo, and whatever else they can find to nibble on. They are very level-headed, and rarely required sedation, even for extensive dentistry. They often carry several kids or a full-grown man riding on their rump with his feet dragging the ground. They clamber over rock walls and ravines like mountain-goats, with their hard feet holding up well, and their long, tough frogs giving them traction on the rocks.
The horses also do suprisingly well on the sparse grazing in Guanajuato, but their body condition scores were commonly in the range of 3-4, with 5 being ideal. The main course in the diets of these horses is rastrojo, which is the dried stalks and husks of the corn after it has been harvested. The horses occasionally get to go out on “pastar”, which means that they are let out to graze on the fields, which are NOT full of grass. Guanjuato was in the middle of it’s “dry-season” while I was there, and the horses were scavenging on plowed fields to find corn stalks or little morsels of grass that may have popped up.
Sometimes the communites have a “community pasture” in the lower-lands, where the wetter conditions facilitate the growth of grass, and the families take turns turning their horses out. Families that have a little bit of money to spare might buy hay and feed their horses a few handfuls of alfalfa every day in addition to the rostrojo and sometimes oats. I could definitely see a huge difference in the condition of horses that were supplemented with even a little bit of alfalfa.
One of the communities bought truckloads of carrots and that was the main course for their horses. Suprisingly, there seemed to be a much larger percentage of older and healthier horses in that community, although their teeth seemed to need more work. In some of the poorer communities, I would find myself feeling slightly angry towards an owner whose horse was terribly skinny, but then I would look at the owner and see that he was pretty skinny himself and I would remind myself that some of these people are just barely getting by and we could only be grateful that they had walked for three miles to try to get some help for their horse.
On the flipside, when a family brough their 25 year-old horse and burro in, who were both in good condition and the family told the story of the day the burro was born, and how it got it’s name, and how when they couldn’t afford hay, they used to walk their horse down the mountain to graze on a hidden patch of grass, it made me SO happy. These people barely have anything, and what little they have to spare, they used to keep their horse and burro healthy. Here are a few shots of some of my favorite friends from Mexico.
Finally got a smile! Took all morning. Patiently waiting his turn…burros make great couches!
Oh and I can’t forget about Rosie! The second day in Guanajuato, we heard about an old burro roaming the streets (which is not uncommon), who appeared to have a broken leg. So we went burro hunting and eventually found her in a small pen, with no evidence of daily care or food. . . and yes . . . she had a broken leg. She had fractured her left radius, and judging by the level of the fracture which lines up perfectly with most car bumpers, we decided that this little gal had been a victim of “truck v. burra”. The fracture was obviously old, and her bone had remodeled in a very missaligned fashion . . . just another testament to how tough these burros are.
There was also a grotesquely large and oozing sarcoid on the inside of the front left leg, coincidentally very close to the fracture, and it was so large that it was actually rubbing her right front leg when she walked thus causing a mess. So we decided to take Rosie to a farm owned by a friend of Dr. Davis and Cindy’s, where we could take some radiographs and hopefully debulk the sarcoid.
Dr. Davis and I borrowed a trailer and went back down the skinny streets of San Miguel to steal/rescue our patient. She took some coaxing (AKA every bit of our strength) to get her shoved onto the trailer, but once she was on and I started feeding her fresh alfalfa hay, she thought she had died and gone to heaven. During our trailer ride I decided to name her Rosie, because she was an old red roan. . . and it just seemed appropriate. Here are some shots of her fracture and sarcoid. We banded the sarcoid for a couple of days to debulk it and decrease the vascularity. Then we used the nitrogen gun to (hopefully) kill the cells at the base of the tumor and halt the growth.
Oh yes and she pooped out twine and plastic for a few days . . . probably what she had been living off of before we found her . . .
Another unexpected patient we encountered was a ewe who had been in labor for over twelve hours. The fetus was simply too big to fit through the pelvis, and the ewe was in distress. Dr. Davis and Estrada did an emergency C-section to save the ewe, and when they plopped the (what we expected was dead) fetus on the ground, it didn’t flinch for about 5 seconds and then, all of a sudden . . . a little cough and a shake . . . much to the delight of the crowd of about 40 kids (NO JOKE), who had gathered around our little backyard operating room. The ewe recovered well and was wolfing down alfalfa by the time we headed back down the mountain. The lamb was teetering around, and we tubed him with some colostrum to give him a head-start since he had had a rough go of it!
I could go on and on about the patients we saw, the problems we fixed, the people we met, and the things we learned, but this would be a fifty-page blog. All-in-all, it was an incredible and mind-opening experience. We accomplished so much with so little. I realized that some of the most important things you can do for an animal don’t require any fancy equipment or technology. It’s always good to go “back-to-the basics” every once in a while for a reminder of what veterinary medicine is all about. I learned how to improvise, from making a splint out of cardboard, duct-tape, and a towel (take home message ALWAYS carry duct-tape!), to using a 7-year-old’s electronic magnifying glass, a vase, and a headlamp to look for parasite ova in fecal samples.
Dr. Davis is an excellent surgeon and teacher, and Cindy is an amazing tech. They both keep the horse’s welfare in mind at all times, and in every situation. Every night when we got back to base-camp, we gathered in the kitchen over dinner and records and discussed the cases we had seen that day, brainstorming on diagnoses and treatment plans. We bonded and shared lots of laughs over the two weeks we spent together, and I look forward to working with this organization in the future! Final tally for this trip was 1300 total individual patients: horses 997, burros 261 and 41 mules with 110 castrations, 4 crypts, 194 dental exams, 108 routine dentistry, 1 extensive dentistry and 1095 ivermectin dewormings.
Our autoclave . . . still have to keep surgery packs clean, clean clean!!!!
Awesome vet students from the U.S. who can (now) knock out a castration in less than 8 minutes!
Augustine Gonzales, possibly one of the hotter and more trying days. Over 250 horses seen.
These caballeros had managed to pack 9 horses on that trailer, I didn’t get my camera fast enough!
This is Guanjuato “pasture” . . . never forget how lucky we are to have plenty of rain and green grass!
Day 4 – we worked in the beautiful Jalpa churchyard.
A significant rostral hook on the lower arcade that needed to be reduced. Not very common, but we saw a lot of these in the burros.
Could you castrate our pig while you’re at it?
The police horses were very curious about these crazy caucasian girls!!! They were giants compared to the campos horses!