As I fly home from my fourth visit to Morocco, I am taking the time to reflect on my experience. It is mid June 2015 and I am returning, once again, from a little place called Imlil.
This village, in the High Atlas region of Morocco, has come to feel like a second home to me now, full of familiar faces, smiles and handshakes. The hospitality of the mountain people is quite wonderful, although it does tend to hold up your day with repeated doses of compulsory mint tea. At one point, after visits to various people, I actually thought I might start to sweat mint tea. Being involved in this community has opened up opportunities for me that the normal tourist wouldn’t have. The chance to spend time with the locals and to be invited to their houses for Moroccan food is all part of this experience. As a woman, I am often asked how I am treated in this male dominated society, but the truth is remarkably well. I have made friends, had laughs and been intently listened to when giving advice. In fact, the main problem I have with the culture here has been the Moroccan concept of time!
The scenery is something spectacular. The rocky trails and dusty paths are overlooked by cherry trees ripe with fruit, perched upon by the young boys harvesting. The mountains stand proud in various shades of browns and reds, the highest peaks topped with snow, complementing the bright blue sky to create the wonderful back drop. Traditionally built mud houses blend into the mountain sides to make up the villages of the valley. The walnut trees provide shade to those traversing the paths, and underneath these walnut trees pass the working mules and muleteers of the mountains.
Here lies in my interest, my purpose here. I have been continuing my work to improve the welfare of working mules in the mountains, with specific interest to developing good understanding of the mule, focusing closely on behaviour and communication.
Often overlooked and under-rated, the mule is an incredible animal. Their intelligence to be admired, their agility and ability to navigate the most difficult terrain to be respected; they are not appreciated enough in this world.
The relationship between man and mule in the mountains is often dominated by fear. The muleteer fears the mule, afraid of being bitten or kicked, and the mule fears the muleteer, through fear of pain and rough handling. The mule’s fears are often justified, the muleteer’s? Often not. It becomes a vicious circle of distrust, spiralling into a whirl of misunderstanding which leads to negative communication and a poor working relationship. This lack of understanding leads to issues surrounding how mules are handled and the equipment that is then used. Here lies my challenge – To promote communication and understanding, to replace the need of control through fear and pain.
I am keen to see an end to the use of the brutal traditional bit and to provide training in the use of head collars and bitless bridles, as well as developing the production of these in Imlil. The traditional bit is a crude instrument that provides control through force and pain, it has no place in a good working relationship between man and mule.
Providing training in animal behaviour and bitless equipment offers the muleteers the chance to work their mules in a more considerate way. Developing a trusting relationship based on good understanding and clear communication benefits both mule and muleteer.
Moving forward with this project, I am starting to identify individual muleteers who stand out as mule welfare champions. These individuals have taken a keen interest in training and the welfare of mules. It is these ambassadors of the work who will make this project sustainable, as they are figures within the community who will be able to carry on and spread this work further.
This issue of sustainability also occurs regarding equipment. On each trip I carry with me a suitcase full of head collars, and I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of you who have donated head collars to this cause. A lot of these head collars will have been bargained with as a swap for a traditional bit, providing an instant improvement in comfort for the mule in question as they continue their working day. The issue here, however, is that I quickly run out of head collars and to continue bringing more out is not a sustainable option. Therefore, the women of the Association Tamghartenoudrare have been given the task of making bitless bridles. Initially, the women were just making the nosebands which would then be fitted (riveted) into the bridles that are sold in the village. However, following a visit by a harness maker (a consultant for The Donkey Sanctuary), the ladies are now making the entire bridle themselves. Beautifully crafted and hand stitched they are far superior to those previously used. There is a demand already and the women will certainly have their work cut out.
During this most recent visit I had the opportunity to conduct training while on trek. Trekking in the mountains is reliant on the mule, and muleteers will work for trekking agencies to take luggage and supplies for clients. The training treks consisted of two days trekking with muleteers where I could observe and assess the handling skills and communication between man and mule. As well as witnessing some beautiful scenery, these treks proved to be very useful for me. The muleteers and I were able to learn together, while I could offer advice on their mules, they were able to share with me how they work and their own opinions on different aspects of the work. I learnt a lot about what is involved in being a muleteer, and I developed a huge appreciation for how hard they work.
I did two treks with different muleteers and found quite a contrast. The first trek involved mature and very capable muleteers, whereas the second involved younger men with more room for improvement. Both treks were fantastic though and all muleteers were heavily involved in reviewing the video footage, talking through issues and taking on board advice.
During the second trek I had the opportunity to work with, and see a different side to, one particular muleteer who I had met previously on less than good terms. Back in January this year, the muleteer had passed me with blood dripping from his mule’s mouth. On closer inspection, it could be seen that he had caused terrible injury with the use of a traditional bit. The bit was replaced with a head collar, however the next day this mule was back in a traditional bit. He now has a new mule, who he was also working in a traditional bit. However he has been given a bitless bridle and has since been a delight to work with. On trek, he pleasantly surprised me. He showed great affection and care towards the mules, as well as being very attentive while working. He worked so well that I put him in charge of the most difficult mule on the trek, and I was pleased to see how well he was able to keep her calm and how kind he was towards her. It is easy to jump to assumptions about people, but there is a lesson here – Don’t judge, encourage.
The use of video footage in my work is invaluable, and was certainly incredibly useful on trek. It allows me to assess and review in detail and provides an enjoyable visual way of learning for the muleteers. One evening, before the treks, I found myself sat in front of a room full of muleteers, sharing footage, asking questions and offering solutions to problems. They were engaged, focused, listening and learning together. Where there is a desire to learn, there is a potential for change.
The work is full of challenges, and local politics and people can make you feel you are pushing a boulder up a hill. Releasing the full potential of man and mule can be tricky where there is a culture of a “good enough” attitude. The muleteer may think how they work is good enough, he can get his job done, but the challenge is getting him to think about his mule. What would the mule say if she could talk?
Any challenge is a potential success in disguise, and I must not let the enormity of the task in hand shadow the achievements made to date. I have had muleteers on trek with me who were convinced they wouldn’t be able to work their mule without a bit, who not only have changed their opinions but have stated that working in this way should be obligatory. I have worked closely with a muleteer who is now capable of riding the paths without any head gear on his mule at all. I have witnessed changes in people which have warmed my heart and restored my faith. Discussions on behaviour and welfare have been initiated, the community is talking and change is in the air.
As I now descend towards Gatwick airport, I wrap up my thoughts and prepare for my life in England again. I am grateful for the path my life has taken. My life has become rich with experience, my heart filled with pride and compassion, and my mind developed in new ways of thinking. I want to thank everyone that I meet along the way, from that incredible person who first got me involved in the work, to each muleteer with whom I exchange a smile with, to my friends and family who support me from home, and to those taking the time to read this now.
Thank you, one and all. Goodbye Morocco, until next time.. Inshallah.
Ellen Cochrane – Bitless riding and horsemanship instructor.