In northern India, “tongawalla’ refers to the horse carriage people. Horse carriages are still very common in India, from the grand carriages used during wedding ceremonies all the way down to the villager bringing his vegetables to the market or to the labourer transporting bricks from one area to another in a factory. A lot of people also still travel in tongawalla, mainly to do small distances in very congested or narrow roads.
Last month, we were invited by a well-established family in Jodhpur to help them find ways to help improve the lives of the tongawalla in their area. We leapt on the occasion and spent 3 days in Jodhpur with the tongawalla to try and devise ways to initiate change.
The fate of working horses has never been easy anywhere in the world and India is no exception. We often come close to tears when we see the sorry state of equines on the road pulling completely overloaded carriages. The time we spent ‘in the field’ however, has helped us understand better the situation and look at it with very different eyes. Here are some of the lessons we learnt.
The problem is not always what you think. We had assumed that most of these working equines are starved - we were wrong. In fact, the few horses that were skinny were mostly so because of worms. On the contrary, we learnt that their horses often suffer from colics during the heavy working period because they are fed too much and at the wrong times. In the case of Jodhpuri horses, their biggest issue was poor farriership and the terrible state of their feet.
They love their horses. Now, this was a big surprise but in reality, it makes sense as they depend on their horses for their livelihood. It’s not just what the horse owners said, but how well they knew their horses and how they handled them. Yes, they were sometimes rough but this is a rough world they live in and often they don’t know better.
Learn from them before you expect them to learn from you. Listen, listen, and then listen some more. Ask questions. Know why they do what they do. For instance, we have been trying to fight a terrible ‘local medicine’ which involved burning the horse's legs when it has arthritis. The issue is that each and every one of the tongawalla people says this works - they saw it with their own eyes. We still don’t understand why but we did understand that simply telling them it doesn’t work won’t do the job. We also identified that a number of issues come from superstition, such as the belief that having a black horse’s shoes will bring you luck. As a result, the owners of black horses will shoe their horses several times a day. There is no point telling the horse owners not to do it until you convince superstitious people to stop offering so much money for these horseshoes.
Establish a relationship. No one likes a stranger to break through the door and give plenty of unsolicited advice. Whether people take advice depends rarely on how sound the advice is but rather the relationship and image one has of the person giving that advice.
Look at the whole chain, a problem never comes on its own. As countries become richer, horse-driven carriages usually get replaced by tractors or cars which means that, such as is the case in India, those who are still using horses to transport things or people for utilitarian purposes (and not for a wedding or other ceremonies) are usually very poor. If people stay poor, the life of their animals won’t improve. Their fates are intrinsically linked.
Think local. While a lot of the problems are similar from one place to another, you can’t solve them in the same way everywhere. Each place is different, every community has different traditions and a different way of doing things. You need to understand the intricacies of that area and the people involved before you can really identify the issues at hand. In Jodhpur, we found that there was one road that was particularly difficult for horses to climb but we needed to be able to provide a viable alternative route to convince them not to take it.
Find the leader. Every community has a leader, they can’t function without. That person needs to become your ally as changes won’t happen without their support, or at a much slower rate.
Change must come from within. Once you’ve identified issues and how they could possibly be addressed from a local perspective and once you’ve figured out who you can work with, then you have the keys in hand to initiate change from within the community. That way, change that will stay in place long after you are gone.
Eradicate ignorance. Most ills are due to a lack of knowledge, this is even more so when it comes to horses. Although they are big animals, horses are, in fact, very fragile. Their most fragile parts are their guts (a fragile digestive system) and their feet. Many wealthy horse owners are also unaware of these issues, so the challenge at hand is really to educate and spread knowledge. But once again, the knowledge should come from within. In Jodhpur, we realised that the farrier needed to get better training. Most tongawalla go to him so, by training just one person, we knew we could affect the whole community.
Look for a win-win. Any change that only benefits the horse’s welfare are unlikely to stick, especially if it costs their owners more or takes away from their earnings. You need to find something that will benefit all parties involved and usually from a short term perspective. Trying to convince someone that he should work his horse fewer hours so that it lasts longer rarely works in a scenario where people are not sure if they’ll have enough money to feed their families at the end of the day. We had an idea of getting local children from better off families to sponsor a ‘day off’ for a horse. The kids can give a horse owner what he would have earned in a day and, in exchange, the horse (and owner!) gets to rest.
Stay positive. It’s a long term game. You’ll see sad and painful things and these won’t disappear overnight. Try and focus on the positive and accept that meaningful change happens over a long period.
The Jodhpur tongawalla project is only in its infancy and there will be a lot more trial and error. The idea is not to say that all the issues have been successfully solved but rather to share our experience with others out there who are also looking to help the fate of working equines.
Meeting each horse and its owner
Tonga horse eager to get his grass
Tonga owner doing his own shoeing - he got in a fight with the farrier
Farrier doing his job in the middle of the road
We asked that all the tack be taken off so that we could have a good look at every horse
Tonga horse taking a well deserved break - always with the carriage on