Horse News

The Donkey Ambulance

By as published in Modern Farmer

Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. The country is no longer among the bottom ten countries in Save the Children’s annual rankings of worst places to be a mother, but it remains a dismal 146.

Enter the donkey ambulance.

Testing in Balkh province, Afghanistan. / Courtesy HealthProm.

Testing in Balkh province, Afghanistan. / Courtesy HealthProm.

When the U.K.-based charity HealthProm — an organization that supports health care for women and children — asked women in northern Afghanistan how to improve health services, many said that expectant mothers needed a better way to reach health centers. “If you take it that the average labor after the first child is about five hours,” says Stewart Britten, the group’s project manager for motherhood programs in Afghanistan, “if it’s a three hour journey, women are not going to risk it.”

The donkey ambulance is a low-tech, inexpensive solution to this age-old problem. Beginning early next year, the device will be ready for production, and — we hope — will bring glory to the animals that make them possible.

Northern Afghanistan is a rugged, mountainous landscape, difficult to navigate except by foot or four-hooved animal (or helicopter). HealthProm suggested a number of possible solutions for getting women to treatment centers, including a wheeled cart, but eventually, the women they spoke with decided on a traditional mode of transportation, “which is to put a bag of straw on either side of the donkey, and put the woman in labor in between the two bags,” says Britten.

As of 2006, there were 41 million donkeys spread across the globe, the majority in developing nations. In this region of Afghanistan they are extremely common; Britten guesses that almost every family has one. “In Afghanistan, people say that a horse eats as much as a family, but a donkey eats whatever is around,” says Britten. And they’re perfect for navigating the difficult terrain. However, the heavy, hay-stuffed saddles were uncomfortable and put tremendous strain on the animal.

he first version of the saddle was made of hessian with straw stuffing. / Courtesy SaddleAid.

he first version of the saddle was made of hessian with straw stuffing. / Courtesy SaddleAid.

When Peter Muckle happened upon the project, he thought he could build a better saddle than the awkward, chair-like designs HealthProm was considering. Muckle keeps four donkeys on his farm in the U.K., where they do light work, but, he says, “In the back of my mind I had an idea of learning about them and somehow connecting them with how donkeys work in Africa.” Muckle’s father, a retired agricultural engineer living in Kenya, built a donkey-drawn ambulance for use in less rugged terrain. While a cart wouldn’t work in the mountains, Muckle knew the donkey’s unique skills would still be valuable. “They can walk on very narrow paths because they have this threading walk where they put one foot in front of the other,” he says.

Since first attempting the ambulance design two years ago, he has made about 15 prototypes, testing them on his own donkeys before sending them to Afghanistan for trials. From the beginning, he discovered he could make the saddle much lighter than its traditional predecessor by using inflatable elements. “I ended up first using an inflatable pool lounger,” he says. “We cut the seat out and adapted the shape using a canvas cover,” while foam swim noodles made up other pieces of the design. Previously, maternity saddles weighed roughly 100 pounds; with a pregnant woman on top, it was easily more than a 200-pound load. “A donkey with that amount of weight is carrying virtually its own body weight,” says Muckle, “which is possible for them in short distances but is not safe” for either the animal or the mother-to-be. In contract, the donkey ambulance Muckle designed weighs about 10 pounds.

While beginning his design, Muckle sought the advice of Chris Garrett, an independent consultant for the U.K.’s Donkey Sanctuary who specializes in making harnesses. Garrett takes donkey comfort seriously; he has worked around the globe teaching people how to make effective harnesses from local materials. “If you can put a good harness on it, the animal only has to put in 20 percent effort for 100 percent output,” he says. “That way the animal stays strong. And we prove that time and time again.”

Garrett suggested that Muckle look at Egyptian and Ethiopian saddles for inspiration, which put Muckle on the path to the current design. The saddle is deceptively simple: two inflated arms hold the pregnant woman on the donkey, while another pad sits at her back. The saddle is built to be comfortable for the woman and the donkey. “If [the donkeys] are very skinny or they don’t have any fat over [their backs], it rubs over the area with nothing to protect it. We’re trying to help protect as much as possible these areas,” says Muckle.

Getting ready to test the red saddle. / Courtesy Peter Muckle.

Getting ready to test the red saddle. / Courtesy Peter Muckle.

According to Britten, the response to the prototype in Afghanistan has been positive; “They like it,” he says. “I think a very important aspect of it is that we didn’t have to go and devise something totally new. What the women wanted was just a variation of what they already had.” The testing is now coming to a close and production of the maternity saddles should begin in Afghanistan in March or April; then the group will be able to track the device’s impact on maternal health.

Other opportunities for the heroic donkey to step in are already being planned. Britten hopes to develop a device that will turn the donkey’s motion into electricity, allowing for a light to guide expecting mothers on nighttime journeys. Garrett continues teaching harness making around the world, always startled by the increase in profits reported by improved-harness users (if you happen to have advanced knowledge of pack saddles, his group would love to talk to you!). And Muckle, through the nonprofit he formed this year, SaddleAid, is planning to set up pilot projects in Morocco, Lesotho, Ethiopia and South Africa, and wants to experiment with saddles that could help disabled children reach schools.

Finally, the donkey may receive the respect it so richly deserves. This noble animal will continue to rush in where horses fear to tread. Just ask any donkey enthusiast. As Garrett says, “You hitch them up to something and they’re in the harness and they start to move, and it just makes the hair on your neck stand up sometimes. It’s incredible. It’s a wonderful thing.”

6 replies »

  1. Another story about our four-legged heroes helping people – and as many of us know from other stories posted here and from our own life experiences there are many many many times that horses and burros and other animals help people – it is amazing.


  2. We commemorate World War One hero Jimmy the donkey

    We joined with members of the Royal British Legion and the Cameronian (Scottish Rifles) Regiment to commemorate the extraordinary work of Jimmy the donkey.
    Jimmy (nicknamed ‘The Sergeant’) was a courageous wartime mascot of the First Scottish Rifles Regiment during World War One. He was born in June 1916 after a shell injured his mother and sent her into labour at the Battle of the Somme. Jimmy was then found cowering beside his mother by advancing Scottish troops and was weaned by soldiers using condensed milk before entering into two years of service.
    His efforts transporting injured soldiers boosted wartime morale and Jimmy was injured seven times during his service. Soldiers even taught him to raise his hoof in salute.
    Remembering Jimmy’s courage
    The ceremony to commemorate Jimmy took place on September 25 at Central Park in Peterborough, was also attended by a class of year four pupils from Southfield Primary school. The students are taught about Jimmy’s courageous story each year.
    Prayers of remembrance were given as well as a two-minute silence and readings by the pupils. Wreaths were also laid in memory of animal sacrifices at war and a bugler played.
    RSPCA Inspector Justin Stubbs, who attended the ceremony said:
    “To be invited to attend this memorial and stand with veterans from across the services, to remember Jimmy and his regimental comrades was an honour and a privilege.”
    A more peaceful life
    After the war Jimmy entered into a more peaceful life having been bought by the secretary of the RSPCA in 1919 and adopted by the Peterborough Branch. He then attended events and helped to raise thousands of pounds in funds for us until his death in 1943 at age 26.
    Jimmy was buried in Central Park, Peterborough and a memorial stone was laid on his grave.
    Justin said:
    “The fact that Jimmy was adopted by the RSPCA locally, and remains in the city honoured with this memorial is humbling to those of us working for the RSPCA today. To see our name on Jimmy’s memorial stone gives an enormous sense of pride, and gratitude towards Jimmy for what he did for the RSPCA


  3. VIDEO
    Marines Bring Home Donkey from Iraq
    Posted May 20, 2011

    It took 37 days and a group of determined animal lovers, but a donkey from Iraq is now a U.S. resident. Smoke The Donkey, who became a friend and mascot to a group of U.S. Marines living in Iraq’s Anbar Province nearly three years ago, arrived in New York this week aboard a cargo jet from Turkey. After being quarantined for two days, he was released Saturday and began a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska, where he is destined to become a therapy animal.


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