Equine Initiative is changing lives


If your car’s tire went flat, you would replace it. But say you needed the car to go to work, and you didn’t know how to replace the tire. And no one in town can replace it. How would you work? How would you live?

For farmers in much of the world, these questions are not just hypothetical. Many farmers own horses instead of cars, and instead of tires, the horses move on hooves. When a working horse in a developing country is injured, it can affect a whole family’s livelihood for weeks. But with the help of equitarian workers, who combine their humanitarian concern with a love for equine animals like donkeys and horses, some families have learned how to get their animals back up and running.

Rebecca Bott, an assistant professor in SDSU’s animal science department, is working to bring that spirit here.

In addition to a three-way teaching, research and extension appointment at SDSU, Bott has traveled to Veracruz, Mexico, and South Dakota Indian reservations to teach horse owners how to care for their animals. Veterinarians go with her to provide direct medical care to the horses.

Bott said “equitarian” is a term coined by Jay Merriam, an equine veterinarian from Massachusetts.

“Really, it’s finding ways to benefit the lives of both equines and their owners through direct care and owner education,” she said.

Bott began researching and planning for equitarian events in the spring of 2011, after her student Angela Gebhart returned from an equitarian internship in Veracruz, Mexico. Gebhart asked how she and Bott could bring the equitarian movement to S.D.

“We went up into the mountains, the coast, inlands, desert areas,” Bott said. “In some communities it was women who brought the animals in to be cared for while the men were working. In others, it’s men and the young boys.”

Bott said donkeys and horses are a means of earning a living for many families in Mexico. Donkeys outnumber cars in some areas, and heads of families may use them for many of the same tasks.

“In the U.S. we see horses used for pleasure, ranch work, and so on,” Bott said. “In Veracruz, they could be milk trucks, sanitation trucks or carrying kids to school.”

Much of the land Bott visited was pastureland for cattle. In these areas, working horses often stay near their owners’ homes on small pieces of land. Bott compared this to parking cars in a garage. She also noted that some horses carried milk downhill to a village, drank water in the village and then climbed back up the hill. After that, they might not drink water for a day. Bott said though this is not ideal, it is understandable, given the resources and circumstances of the area.

“Some of the homes I saw wouldn’t have had running water,” Bott said. “Resources were limited, period. You have to get in the mind frame of living in an entirely different world.”

Despite the sometimes rough conditions, Bott said she is grateful for the experiences she has had and the people she has met.

“Some things were absolutely the same [as in the U.S.],” she said. “Children played and laughed and hugged their animals. People gravitated to one another and joined in conversation. Hospitality and thanks were generous. People from the communities would bring home-cooked meals to the fields where we worked.”

More recently Bott has worked on South Dakota’s Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge Indian reservations. In 2011 Bott and Gebhart surveyed veterinarians and traveled to Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge to find out what their horses needed. One of the prominent needs was hoof care, so Bott and Gebhart hosted a two-week farrier apprenticeship workshop on the Pine Ridge reservation. Since apprentices would be holding horse hooves during the workshop, Bott and Gebhart chose people who had worked with horses before. They also surveyed possible apprentices to find out which ones wanted to do equitarian work in their own communities.

“They worked with several horses and even had the opportunity to incorporate local business leaders to lead a crash course on business,” Bott said. “We were not interested in dictating whether our apprentices did farrier work as a service to the community or as a business that happened to benefit the community. We did want to equip them with the basic skills.”

In the future, Bott hopes to keep doing equitarian work in S.D. She is trying to coordinate trips to Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River this fall.

When asked how students interested in equitarian work could learn more, Bott recommended the websites for Equine Initiative and SDSU’s iGrow.

“If students are interested in these kinds of opportunities, I really would love to help them learn more about it,” Bott said. “It’s a learning process for myself—not just to learn about equitarian work, but also about the people you work with.”