Saving Gili’s Horses

A horse cart, known as cidomo or dongol, hard at work by the docks (Image © Marc Nair)

Protecting the island’s cidomo Taxi horses

Text Carolyn Oei
Photos Marc Nair

It is almost high noon when we step off the fast boat from Bali into the pristine waters of Gili Trawangan, or Gili T for short. It is the largest of the three Gili islands off Lombok; the other two being Gili Meno and Gili Air. By my reckoning, the Gilis are to Lombok what Lombok is to Bali; a more rustic alternative.

And so the tourists “flee” – from Bali to Lombok to the Gili islands – in search of quieter beaches, unpaved roads and more authentic “local-ness”. For Gili T, that local touch is embodied in the cidomo or horse-cart taxi. During the high season, Gili T, which is approximately three kilometres long and two kilometres wide, welcomes up to 5,000 tourists every day. No less staggering is the 2,000 tourists that flock to the island daily in the low season. That translates into far too many people riding on the finite number of cidomo on any given day.

No motorised vehicles, please; cidomo or bicycle only

The island prohibits the use of motorised vehicles. All cargo – people, construction material and rubbish – are transported around the island by horse-cart. While the cidomo are a visible attraction of the island, the horse-carts used for other purposes do not always register on the tourists’ radars.

Sometimes referred to as dongol horses, the cidomo horses are usually standing still when business is slow, while the “rubbish horses” – for want of a more refined term – are constantly on the move. There are no rest days for any of the horses, but the rubbish horses seem to have drawn the short straw; they are worked for at least 12 hours a day hauling overloaded carts to the landfill. Despite regulations that taxis should take no more than three people, including the driver, cidomo horses regularly strain under the heft of five fully-grown adults and luggage. And with new resorts and villas being fervently constructed every hundred metres or so, the rubbish horses run almost on tip-toe as bags of cement and wooden beams weigh their carts down into the dirt roads.

An everyday sight on the paved streets of Gili T, like this overloaded horse cart carrying construction material (Image © Marc Nair)

Gili T’s horses are of a breed indigenous to Indonesia. While not exactly ponies, they are smaller and shorter than the average Western horse. There are about 250 horses on the island and we were in the stables where about 10 of the rubbish horses live. Their coats were dull, ribs too prominent and their eyes sad.

Delphine Robbe, project manager and co-ordinator of Gili Eco Trust, reckons that 20 tonnes of garbage are moved by these horses every day. “These horses are not in great condition and many people who catch sight of them are horrified,” she said. “What they don’t realise is most of them aren’t even given fresh water to drink. Instead, they drink well water, which is salty and dirty. The horses are also not fed enough.”

Faulty and incorrect equipment that look like home improvisations cause a fair bit of damage, too. Typical ailments include cysts and abscesses around the girth, sores on the neck and withers, infected eyes, cuts around the mouth that have been left to fester and poorly-shod hooves.

Saving Gili T’s horses… and cats

It was in 2008 that Robbe initiated a free clinic for the island’s horses. She said, “There was resistance at first because the islanders have their traditional way of doing things. They thought that giving their horses injections would make them sick or that feeding the animals dry hay would give them colic, and many still think that.”

However, things have improved markedly since 2008. Robbe quipped, “At least now they drink desalinated water. It’s better than nothing.”

Riding trail guide and farrier, Serun, whose hometown is Lombok has worked on Gili T for about 12 years now. Pulling out the nails of a poorly-fitted shoe, he said, “You see? Too small.” I crouched next to him as he worked on a horse’s hoof. “But the situation is better now. Before, the horses had sores everywhere,” he added.

Bangketan is Gili T’s rubbish dump and landfill, the stench and squalor a far cry from the island’s beachfront dining and luxury villas (Image © Marc Nair)

The twice-yearly clinics are supported entirely by donations in cash and in kind including tack – equipment such as bridles, bits, harness pads and brushing boots – medicines and medical equipment. The average expense for one clinic is 45 million rupiah (about US$3,200).

Volunteers are also crucial to the success of these clinics, which are held in the mornings in the marketplace, when it becomes a horse clinic by day and food market by night. The most important volunteer resource, however, is the veterinarians. Two of them were Rini from Jakarta who was focused on the cat clinic just down the road from the horses, and Kirsten Jackson, a dental specialist from Perth, Australia.

Jackson said, “I was here last year and decided to help out again because many of these horses need more care. The taxi horses are in relatively better condition – they have to be or the tourists won’t ride in the taxis but the rubbish horses aren’t so well off. Many of them are still too skinny.”

Another volunteer is Ashleigh Sanderson, the founder of a riding school called Kuda Guru. She said, “The typical diet for the island’s horses is a mixture of hay, rice bran and water. It’s really just like soup. That’s all the water and the nutrition that the horses are going to get and it just isn’t enough.”

Both Jackson and Sanderson have plans to not only volunteer but to drive more sponsorship and donation campaigns. Gili T’s horse clinics are held in April and November each year, while the cat clinics happen about four times a year.

A skinny and undernourished horse used for carting rubbish waits at its stable (Image © Marc Nair)

During the one-week clinic between 23 and 27 November 2015, a total of 198 horses out of the estimated 250 were treated. “Many owners and drivers refuse to bring their horses in or allow us to treat them for many reasons. Some are too embarrassed at the bad state of their animals,” Robbe explained.

It can be said that islanders and the world-at-large are generally supportive of these animal welfare efforts. The horses have become such a feature of the island that things would seem odd without them, but questions do remain about their sustainability and efficacy.

Tenaiya Brookfield, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Archipelago International that runs Aston Hotel on Gili T, said, “Are the horses even native to Gili T? I’ve tried to implement the use of bicycle pick-ups for our guests, but ‘the horse-cart mafia’ wouldn’t let me. Even suggestions for the use of electric or solar-powered tuk-tuks have been rejected.”

“I don’t like the way some drivers mistreat their horses, but I like it even less when drivers play the victim card. They charge ridiculous fares for rides and can earn more than a secretary in Jakarta,” Brookfield added. Moreover, it is common that sick, dying or dead horses are sold to slaughterhouses on Lombok and new ones purchased at reasonable prices.

Island politics

It was quite apparent that politics and power wrangling are as much a part of Gili T as its gelato, al fresco movie screenings and Sama-Sama club nights. Many questions and points of contention remain and may never be resolved. And while taxi owners, hotel operators and animal activists argue over bottom lines and morals, the horses of Gili T continue to labour in the heat of the noon day sun. All their hard work is offered in exchange for little more than a sip of desalinated water and antiseptic on their cuts every six months.

For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 116.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here