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I first visited Gili Trawangan island in Indonesia in 2014. When researching things to do on Gili T, I found my way to some posts about the horses and ponies on Gili T that pull the carts around the island because Gili T is a car-free and moped-free island.
I remember reading about how badly they were treated, how skinny they were and that they die much earlier than they should…
As a horse lover and as someone who grew up with horses, I took these negative comments with me to the island in 2014. In all honesty, I can’t remember what the horses actually looked like but I know the situation wasn’t as good as it should have been and I got pretty angry at the drivers because of what I had read.
Fast forward 5.5 years to the end of 2019 and I’m back on Gili Trawangan staying here for the best part of 2 months to catch up with the work I need to do on this travel blog.
When I arrived I hadn’t forgotten about the horses. I saw the horses and their yellow carts (also known as a Cidomo) at the pier waiting for guests to get off the boat to take them to their hotels, and I saw the horse and carts that are used to transport building materials, food, drink and everything else that powers the island, next to the passenger pier.
During my first few days back on Gili T, I was looking around and I was surprised because I couldn’t see the extremely skinny horses that I remember reading about. Yes, I saw some ribs, I saw them being pulled about by the drivers back and forth, in tight circles, and I saw them having their carts pilled up high at the pier.
But I also saw them waiting in the shade, not directly in the sunshine. I saw that their feet were in fairly good condition, not like horses feet in many other countries. I saw them in stables as I cycled around in the inland part of the island showing that they do get a break from work, and within my first week on the island, I found out about Horses of Gili!
Horses of Gili
Horses of Gili is a not for profit organisation for the horses of all 3 islands – Gili T, Gili Air and Gili Meno. They operate beneath Gili Eco Trust an NGO that was initially set up back in 2000 for marine conservation but has now expanded to waste management and the sustainable eco-tourism of the island.
(There’s also a third organisation called Cats of Gili as there are lots of cats on the island that need looking after too.)
The mission of Horses of Gili is to provide a long term project to help improve welfare and provide the best living conditions and standards of care for the horses on all 3 islands.
How do Horses of Gili look after the Horses?
Horses of Gili are working alongside the locals. The biggest thing that tourists to the Gili islands must remember is that this is Indonesia, not their home country. This is an Asian country and there are many cultural differences and differences in education that surround the care and welfare of animals in this country, and not just the horses.
Horses of Gili know that they cannot simply tell the locals that what they are doing is wrong, they need to work with them by teaching them, educating them and leading by example.
The people, and ex-pats in particular, that know a lot about the horses that work on the Gili Islands say that a lot has changed in the last few years, proving that the articles that were written in 2010 may have been correct but are no longer correct. The same goes for the ones I have seen written in 2014, 2015 and even 2017.
On this note, if you have read old articles and heard past stories I really urge you to think about when that was, how much that person knows about horse care and if they spoke to the local organisations or not.
The ways that Horses of Gili are supporting and teaching the locals is by arranging for donated equipment like bits, bridles and boots from around the world to be brought to Gili T so the horses have new equipment that fits them well and will, therefore, cause fewer cuts on their face and body from ill-fitting equipment rubbing them.
They are teaching the locals the basics in terms of diet, for example, that the horses should be drinking freshwater, not saltwater from the sea which can dehydrate them. The reason for them drinking saltwater previously is because freshwater is expensive for the owners to buy and provide. The same goes for their food, many are fed imported fresh grass hay and rice bran mixed with water which is not the best diet for them. To overcome this Horses of Gili are importing pelleted horse feed and a vitamin and mineral supplement which they sell at a low cost to the owners.
Horses need their feet trimming and they need good quality shoes put on regularly. There is a farrier on the island and slowly he is being taught new ways to do this.
In some cases, Horses of Gili will buy a pony that has been mistreated and is in a bad condition off of a driver. They will look after it in their stables and then sell it, in most cases to be a riding pony on East Java to give it a better life.
And then we come onto…
Animal Aid Abroad
When I went to meet Horses of Gili, Tori, who heads up the organisation, told me that next week there will be the twice-annual horse clinic and that they always need extra hands. Keen to be surrounded by horses once again, I turned up not knowing what to expect and what I saw surprised me!
About 20 veterinary students from Australia were there along with 4-5 Indonesian vets. The drivers and horse owners could bring their horses to the clinic for free to be checked over by the vets, have new equipment provided, have cuts checked and treated, have their teeth looked at, have their feet trimmed, be shoed, be wormed and given vitamins.
They spent 3 days on Gili T doing this, 2 days on Lombok and 1 day on Gili Air and Gili Meno.
It was also here that I got to really see the horses.
When the horses are working, whether it’s pulling the carts or standing waiting for work, they have blinkers on so they can only see in front of them (which is common practice all over the world) and they are in work mode. They’re not like horses many of us grew up with or have had experiences with at home. They are not used to human affection and attention and from what I have observed I really recommend tourists do not pet the horses when they are working as it seems to irritate them, which is understandable.
But at the clinic, the horses were coming in with just a halter, they were alert looking around at all of the people and other horses in the area. One of the questions on the form that every horse was recorded on, was whether the horse was alert, responsive and aware. Although some of the horses in the carts on the street appear unresponsive based on what I have said above, I can assure you they all were all responsive when they were at the clinic and out of ‘work mode’.
I also have to commend the drivers, many were there for up to 2 hours waiting for their horse to be fully looked at. This took time out of their day and most likely their working day. Although talking to the drivers was hard due to the language barrier, I got the sense that they do care for their horses. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been there. No one was forcing them.
Other questions that were asked were how many days off do they have and how long do they work? From the answers we got back, most are given one day off and work for a few hours a day.
And here comes another thing that we tourists must remember, these are working horses! They are bred to work and they are bred in the Indonesian heat to work.
If you brought a Welsh Mountain Pony over here to work, that would be cruel, they wouldn’t be used to the heat and the dryness of the island. But these horses were born in Indonesia on the islands on Lombok and Sumba and brought to the Gili islands to work.
Is it all good??
No. No, it’s not.
There is still a long way to go.
Not all of the drivers took their horses to the clinic because there doesn’t seem to be a body that says that they have to.
Many of the horses brought in did have cuts on them due to ill-fitting equipment.
From what I saw, some owners didn’t seem to know how to handle the horse in a sensitive manner when they started messing about and quickly went to hit them.
Every day I see the horses waiting around in their carts, often in the heat and sometimes it seems unnecessary.
It is also known that the horses that carry the building materials around are often pulling more weight than they should. However, instead of that being purely down to the driver, issues like this can stem from the business owners saying that they will only pay for X amount of runs from the pier to the new resort that they’re building for example, which requires the driver and their horse to carry more than they should.
In my opinion, this shows that there is a need for a body to protect these horses more than what there currently is to regulate the businesses on the island using the horses, not just the drivers.
Is Horse Riding on Gili T ethical?
Let’s touch on the other way horses are used on Gili T.
When you visit the sunset side of Gili T you’ll notice tourists horse riding as the sun sets and locals offering horse rides.
The locals that are out on the beach offering horse rides are generally offering a quick ride and a chance to take a few photos of you on the horse and it’s quite unofficial. If this is what you want to do, then that’s ok.
If you want to go out on a sunset horse ride which will last longer, where you’ll start in the stables and you will be provided with a hat and chaps to make it safe and more comfortable, you can go with one of the horse riding stables on Gili Trawangan.
I recommend STUD Horse Riding Adventures. I have spoken to their owners and they are very passionate about providing a responsible and ethical service and the money that they earn goes back into the horses so I can confidently recommend them.
So, how can we help??
Firstly, animal activists coming to the island insulting the locals is not going to help.
Neither are the negative, misinformed, old blog posts about the horses that cause tourists to arrive on Gili T with a negative and judgemental mindset.
When tourists arrive on the island with negative thoughts towards the drivers, this causes issues. From the driver’s point of view, they have Westerns be rude to them about the horses because of what they have read online, but it is also Westerns that are trying to help educate them and provide better facilities for their horses. The drivers need to feel supported, not insulted.
If you want to directly help improve the welfare of the horses, donating money is the best way. You can donate money to Animal Aid Abroad here and donate money via PayPal to Horses of Gili here, or you can visit the Horses of Gili Shop on Gili T.
I also say that the way to help is to use the horse and carts.
Many people will say that tourists do not need to take a horse and cart around Gili T, Gili Air and Gili Meno, and if you’re staying close to the pier, slightly inland or along beach road then no, you do not need to take a horse and cart to your accommodation if you are fit and able, and can carry your luggage. And if you are fit and able to ride a bike around the island you can hire a bike and see the island this way.
But, there are more and more hotels and resorts being built around the Western side of the island. From Gili T pier, the walk to the opposite side of the island is easily 40-60 minutes, I don’t see many tourists doing this with their luggage.
If you need or want to take a horse and cart around the island, in my opinion, you should. And I say this for the simple reason that in order for the horses to become more healthy and strong, for them to be given higher quality water and food, for them to have their feet checked regularly and have correctly fitting equipment, their owners need to be earning an income!!
The Cidomo drivers have families to feed, bills to pay and their horses come at an expense on top of this. If everyone boycotted the horse and carts on Gili T, well, the horses are the ones that are going to suffer first and they are going to suffer much more than they currently are.
An example of this is that horse meat is eaten in many islands in Indonesia, and as it stands, it is still common for drivers to sell their horses to a slaughterhouse when they need money.
Finally, tourists are the reason for the horses. All of the building supplies to build these huge hotels that tourists want, all of the food and drink to feed all of the tourists that come here, is all taken and deposited around the island by these horses. Even if you take the Cidomo’s away, which some people suggest, materials still need to get around this 3km x 2km island.
So if you really have an issue with how the horses are treated on Gili T or that they are used and you want to make a stand against it, honestly, I would tell you that you shouldn’t come to the Gili Islands and contribute to tourism because as soon as you step foot on the island you are contributing to the horses being used whether you use a horse and cart or not. There are plenty of other places in Indonesia you can visit.
For more of my Gili Island blog posts to help you plan your trip see: