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
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
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
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