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close this bookCERES No. 121 (FAO Ceres, 1988, 50 p.)
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Equines pull their weight

by Denis Fielding

Most of the world's domestic equines - that is to say, horses, mules, and donkeys - are now to be found in developing countries, but equines are making a significant contribution to agricultural development in the majority of countries new regarded as developed as well. How many of them are there, and where? And is enough being done to exploit their potential in developing countries?

It can be assumed that the majority of mules and donkeys in the developing world are working animals involved in agriculture and/or rural transport. Many horses are used in military activities, racing, and other sports, so a lower proportion shows up in agricultural uses. The proportion of the different equines actually working effectively is not known, and equine statistics should be interpreted with caution, as, where numbers are low, present statistics are often based on estimates and extrapolations.

With this limitation in mind, let us look at Table 2, which shows the top 12 countries for horses, mules, and donkeys in the developing world and the entire world. The figures for mules and donkeys are the same for the developing and the entire world.

The countries that appear in all of the first three columns of Table 2 are China, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia, Turkey, and India. It is therefore in these countries that any investigation, extension, and promotion of equines for development purposes will have greatest impact.

The literature on equine development in developing countries is limited. For the most part it consists of breeding and veterinary work with horses. Donkeys have received virtually no attention despite the fact that in both Asia and Africa they are the most numerous species. Mules, which contributed so much to the development of American agriculture, have likewise received little or no attention in developing countries.

Any review of the data on equines shows that their numbers are rapidly decreasing. Does that mean that the introduction of mechanical power will be the end of the development of their use? In many areas and countries the answer to this question is presumably yes. But in remote rural areas equine power could have a continuing and perhaps even expanding role.

Equines in developed countries. It may be valuable to look briefly at the evolution of equine use in developed countries to see if there might be any lessons for developing countries. As in many developing countries at present, oxen were widely used in developed countries until they were replaced by horses.

The heavy horses that powered the European agricultural revolution had their origins in the war horses of the Middle Ages which were bred to carry heavily armoured soldiers into battle. This type of horse does not exist in developing countries although there is comparable widespread military use of horses for personnel transport in, for example, Mexico, Pakistan, and India.

In Europe, the ox had certain advantages over the horse. It was cheap and easy to feed. It was easy to train and its harness was cheap. It was less likely to be troubled by disease or physical problems, such as lameness. It had a steadier pull and was less likely to give up. Its meat is widely acceptable. The horse, for its part, offered the advantage that it was a faster and a more flexible source of power for the variety of transport and agricultural needs of the time.

Given the simultaneous development of lighter and more efficient equipment, the factors of speed and flexibility appear to have been sufficient in the then developing world to lead to the replacement of oxen by horses. Also at the same time there was growing interest in the specialization of cattle breeds for milk or beef and away from their traditional multipurpose role.

It could be argued that the same circumstances are increasingly found in many developing countries of today. Certainly specialized milk cattle breeds are increasing, and there is obviously a need for a low-cost flexible power source for both agricultural and transport purposes. In addition, equines have the general advantages of all draught animals they offer independence from foreign exchange requirements, they are self-perpetuating and employment-generating, unlike tractors. Perhaps of greater importance for the long term is that draught animals do not damage soil structure in the way that tractors do.

But there are some obvious reasons why equines are unlikely to have any great impact on the development of agriculture in many developing countries. These include their often very low numbers, susceptibility to disease and physical problems (in the case of horses), and the low socio-economic status associated with donkeys and mules.

However, there must be many situations in which equines could play a larger role, especially since donkeys and mules are so well suited to the tropical climate. Given these animals' past contribution to the development of agriculture in many countries, it would appear that there is a potentially valuable resource in many developing countries that is not getting the attention it deserves.