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Pacific Passion for Horse power

It is hot, hard, heavy work. Like so many other farmers in Vanuatu - a string of hilly islands in the south west Pacific - husband and wife are working their land by hand. It took them two hours to walk uphill through thick forest and bush for them to get to this plot and, after a full day's labour among their food crops, Titus and Mary will load themselves up with more than 50 kilos of produce and firewood to haul home.

But there is an alternative. Up on the grassy hills behind the capital, Port Vila, is the plantation and training centre belonging to the Montmarte Catholic Mission. Here the views down to town and the ocean beyond are spectacular and the winds blow cool. Beneath the coconut trees a group of chestnut-coloured young horses are grazing: this is the home of horse power.

Horsepower for the hills
The country's most enthusiastic advocate of horse power is Charlie Rogers. After three decades of farming and training farmers in the islands he believes passionately that horses can ease the Horses for leisure and work in Vanuatuheavy burden of working the land and transporting produce from the village gardens to home or to market. "You have to understand that here in Vanuatu people live in villages but follow the traditional pattern of shifting cultivation. Every other year they are clearing new plots to grow their yams, manioc, taro, bananas and so on. Most of the plots - or gardens as they are known here - are a long and often steep walk from where farming families live. Life is a constant routine of carrying heavy loads: firewood, copra and all these heavy roots and tubers. There are very few tracks up into these areas. There are certainly no roads and, even if there were, subsistence farmers could not afford to buy or run a 4x4 pick-up."

There is no long history of horsemanship in the islands of Vanuatu. The first horses arrived with the early settlers - either missionaries or traders - in the mid 1800s. Only on one of the southernmost islands, Tanna, do these spirited horses remain. There, some people still keep a horse to ride bareback but this is for travel or fun rather than work. So how can an interest in horses as working partners be encouraged? Just as important, how can the skills and confidence to work with a horse be nurtured?

Handling the horses
"People come here to stay and watch how we work with horses. We plough, cultivate and weed crops. We have a range of carts that we have made using axles from old vehicles. That is the first step: to see what can be done and to be interested in having a go." The enthusiasm thatCharlie Rogers in the back of the pick-up trying a different form of horsepower. Charlie Rogers feels for draught power is tempered by the fact that horses are unpredictable and need steady, careful handling. "We don't just sell a horse to anyone who turns up with the money and then just wave them off to their island and think that's a good job done. The working partnership between farmer and horse starts right here. They have to live, work and learn together."

Travels in Australia confirmed Charlie's choice of horse for Vanuatu: hardiness, stamina and a compact body shape from the American Quarter Horse crossed with the Clydesdale for strength and pulling power. He shipped in his chosen stock and now breeds from about fifty mares.

After four weeks of tuition and practice work, farmer and horse should be ready to leave. By boat - a two day journey in some cases - the team will head for home. That distance, and the fact that the training centre operates on a shoestring budget, means that there is little chance of follow-up tuition and support. Nevertheless, according to Charlie, the failure rate is low. "If it isn't going to work we can see it here in the early days."

Working the horse is one skill that has to be learned but farmers may also need to learn new techniques of cropping. Methods, styles of planting can be altered. For instance, rows are easier than clusters of crops when working with a horse.

Seeing and admiring what a horse can do to ease - and speed - farm work is what brings other islanders to meet Charlie and his horses. "Most people are happy to carry on as they always have: using hand tools and leg work to do what has to be done. But with a rising population there is more pressure on land and there are more people to feed. The distance farmers walk to reach good land to grow on is increasing and, once you've grown your crops, your next problem is getting them to where you can sell them."

Even a man so passionate about how horses can help on farm realises that change will only come slowly. But Charlie Rogers feels that horses are the answer. He wants to see people released from the back-breaking drudgery of farming in a difficult environment. Horses, he believes, are both affordable and appropriate. Couldn't trucks and tractors be an answer? The reply is emphatic. "Trucks cost a fortune. They can't even get to the gardens. They fall apart. The price of fuel is going up and up. That's why the interest in real horse power will grow!"

Article and pictures by Susie Emmett

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1st July 2003