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Adventures and Hard Work in Samana, Dominican Republic: Project Samana

Posted on: August 7th, 2019

By: Meg Schenk, Veterinarian Technician/Animal Care Technician

I have been honored to join a group of dedicated and passionate veterinarians and other veterinary technicians for an ongoing veterinary outreach project in Samana, Dominican Republic. Project Samana was founded in 1992 and I joined the equine team in 2015. I just returned from my 5th trip and as always, it was inspiring and fulfilling.

Project Samana has two teams, small animal and equine. Working with an intrepid team of locals and expats, the small animal team typically sets up an operative (a temporary veterinary hospital) in buildings that are donated by the local community, wherever we are based that year. The spaces are typically a school, an outdoor pizzeria, and this year, a church. The equine team spends the week traveling to a different community every day, working much like an ambulatory veterinary team back in the States.

Both teams provide a variety of veterinary care to community members at no charge and despite each team caring for different species, the focus is roughly the same; provide rabies vaccines for all animals (rabies is endemic in the DR), spay and neuter dogs and cats and for the equine team, and castrate stallions. There are always eye injuries that need care, saddle sores on the horses, hoof and wound care, as well as dentistry. This year, the small animal team spayed and neutered almost 150 dogs and cats while the equine team castrated 33 horses, removed fractured teeth on 3 horses, attended to a handful of eye injuries, and consulted on some interesting lameness cases. We even put a cast on a mule in the middle of the jungle!

The weather, and its effect on the environment, always plays a part in what we see in the horses each year. Not only does weather have a direct impact on the amount of vegetation available for the horses to eat, it also affects the crops that are grown and harvested. This year, the DR is experiencing a drought and the horses were overall, quite thin. There is a tremendous reliance on bountiful crops and tourism to provide daily sustenance for their families. As the DR is one of the poorest countries in Central America and is considered a developing country, resources are limited and as the saying goes, you can’t expect the lives of the horses to be better than that of the owners. Horses in the DR are used to carry pineapples and mangos down the mountain, provide transportation between communities, and provide entertainment for tourists from around the world by way of beach rides and trips up the mountain to a spectacular waterfall. The terrain is difficult and the horses are quite small; most of them are a Paso Fino-type. Alongside of these hard-working horses, their owners are right there working incredibly hard.

Aside from providing free veterinary care for the horses of Samana, the Founders of Project Samana have worked with the communities to help establish the growing of King Grass, a fast growing and nutritious crop the horses love. Additionally, they have worked with the owners of horses that are provided for tourism to educate them in appropriate matching of horses to the size of their potential rider as well as proper harness fit and load size. They have worked hard to influence the owners about general work load and rest periods. These things alone have had a lasting influence on the daily lives of the horses.

What can you do when you are traveling to these beautiful and popular countries? Supporting the local economy by going on rides to see the natural beauty of the region helps support the local families. Look at the horses and ask yourself, are they at a healthy weight, are there sores on the horses, are they treated kindly, are they careful to match my weight with the size of the horse being presented? Hopefully, this will encourage the horse owners to present a well-cared for horse that is in the best possible condition to perform the job, and represent their country in a positive way.

I find it is so easy from my American perspective to pass judgement on the circumstances of the horses I see. I have learned that a bit of grace, not judgement, goes a long way. The people live in a culture that has to cope with an intense environment, a lack of infrastructure, medical care, corruption and a heavy competition for resources.

I am often asked why is this work so compelling and my answer is this:

This kind of humanitarian effort to provide care for horses, dogs, and cats truly has a positive effect on the families that live in a challenging situation. For the Dominicans, horses are not often used for recreation, they are hard-working and vital members of the family. Some families simply could not thrive without the horse. The communities welcome the opportunity for population control with the cats and dogs and when the animals have an issue that needs veterinary attention, they are so grateful for the help. We are often thanked by an offer of a fresh mango off the tree or a delicious cup of strong coffee. The opportunity to help improve the life of an animal in need and connect with people in a way that transcends different languages and cultures is what brings me back every year.

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