One of the equine veterinarians who has routinely travelled to the Gili Islands is Charles El-Hage, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. On many of his trips, Charles has taken vet students from his university and Murdoch University to gain valuable experience working with different cultures and medical practices.
“I knew there was a group of Australian vets volunteering, [organised by Animal Aid Abroad], and I just joined them pretty naively,” says Charles. “And then I realised that there’s a real perception with a lot of Western tourists that these horses are maltreated and I sought to address some of those issues. We did pretty in-depth health checks on the horses over the course of four years and we found that there certainly were some issues but, over the years, the body condition of the horses really improved, and the education of their drivers improved. I tell the locals to say to tourists that they have international vets coming over routinely monitoring the horses in addition to local vets and people like Tori.”
Before travelling to Indonesia, Charles had experience working in remote locations when he visited Indigenous communities in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. “We’re doing pretty good in Australia, particularly if we’ve had a tertiary education, and I felt obliged to give back,” says Charles. “Probably the biggest impact it has had on me is seeing the number of goodwilled Australian students and vets willing to help. Sometimes I feel like I let them down because I can’t provide enough opportunities. It’s like it’s snowballed into a huge thing with so many Australians wanting to help. It’s a really special thing.”
Since Covid-19 spread to the southern hemisphere and suspended international travel in March 2020, Charles and the other vets have been unable to return to the islands. There also hasn’t been a clinic since November 2019. However, Tori has been able to organise fundraisers to maintain some form of support for the Horses of Gili and the community. “Unfortunately, Covid has actually helped us because it’s helped establish an even better relationship with the local population,” says Tori. “And now instead of working against the corporation which manages the horse carts, we’re now working directly with them, which is a huge step.”
Since the pandemic, Tori has also started a grassroots program for children, teaching them how to care for horses from a young age. “We’ve started a horsemanship class for the children, which has been overwhelming for us because we expected three or four kids and we have 21 local kids,” says Tori. “And they just love coming along and working with the horses.” Looking ahead, Tori hopes to bring in a mandatory training program for adult horse owners and is in the process of recruiting influential figures in the islands to lend their support.
If you would like to learn more about the Horses of Gili or donate to help continue its important work, check out their website and Facebook page. EQ