The Equitarian: Glenwood Springs veterinarian’s pioneering work for horses of the third-world

Jay Merriam is a retired veterinarian who has started traveling to developing countries around the world to give veterinary care to working horses, donkeys and mules.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

One hundred yards from the mass grave in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that CNN’s Anderson Cooper famously reported on, Jay Merriam met a woman and her donkey shortly after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country.

“This woman had her entire life on the back of a donkey, because everything else had been crushed,” Merriam said. “This animal was everything she had, and that’s the story the world over. The animals survive, and can help us survive.”

Merriam, a retired equine veterinarian now living in Glenwood Springs, has dedicated his life to a singular mission: To care for the working animals in the most impoverished countries of the world.

‘We really didn’t know what we were getting into’

“What we’re trying to do is get horse people, and everybody, to lift their vision up a little bit and look at the world. When you do, you’ll find that horses are still a hugely important part of transportation and movement everywhere except here” — Jay Merriam“We can help their animals, and that’s huge for (developing communities). They rely on those animals economically, whether they’re hauling coconuts or bananas, or getting the kids back and forth to school.” — Shelly Merriam

Merriam began his volunteer work caring for the working animals of the world in 1992, after connecting with a local veterinarian in the Samana province of the Dominican Republic.

For more than 25 years, he and other equine veterinarians have traveled twice a year to Samana to train others to better care for their working animals.

His journey began with a vacation. A friend of Merriam’s visited the Dominican Republic, and stayed in a resort owned by the husband of a local veterinarian.

That started a conversation, and Merriam joined two other veterinarians on an inaugural voyage to the Dominican Republic in 1992.

At the time, Merriam had a private equine surgery practice in Massachusetts, and was president of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.

Jay’s wife, Shelly Merriam, wasn’t on that first trip, but later joined the group herself.

“We really didn’t know what we were getting into,” Shelly said.

Now, the Merriams have become part of the community and visit twice a year to provide horse medicine and training to locals.

“We really get to know generations of people. The elderly have passed on, and babies have been born and grown up and now have babies of their own,” she said.

It is charitable work, but mostly limited to veterinary medicine and education.

As more and more veterinarians joined in the work, Merriam’s Samana outreach became a model for a spin on doctors without borders for working horses of the world.

A new word for a new movement

There was no word for what Merriam was doing, so he created one — a talent which seemingly runs in his blood.

“You may have heard of my family. They published a little book years ago, a dictionary,” Merriam said, referring to his distant relatives Charles and George Merriam who in the 19th century published a dictionary that later became Merriam-Webster.

“My immediate family didn’t get any money from it, but we did get the ability to make up a word every now and then,” Merriam joked.

“Equitarian” could simply mean promoting the welfare of equids — horses, donkeys and mules — around the world.

But helping a working horse also means helping their human owners.

“If the animal doesn’t work, the family doesn’t eat,” Merriam said.

In many impoverished places, the only alternative to equine power is human power.

Merriam has seen children carrying loads of water for miles simply because the family’s donkey died.

“Part of our vision is these animals become better cared for, so they in turn can care for their families,” Merriam said.

The animals need care, and in the poorest places of the world likely don’t have access to veterinary services.

Merriam said he has shocked potential donors with pictures of animals who are skin and bones, have split hooves, and still are put to work each day.

In 2008, Merriam and another veterinarian Julie Wilson started the Equitarian Workshop in Texcala, Mexico, to equine doctors wanting start their own overseas missions.

The pair worked within American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) for several years, but formed an independent organization in 2010, calling it the Equitarian Initiative.

“It’s been mind-boggling, life changing,” Wilson said in an interview. She succeeded Merriam as president of the Equitarians, which now serves as a global hub for equine charitable work.

The movement continued to grow, with Merriam being involved in training equine doctors to travel to India, Morocco, and Native American Indian reservations.

Merriam received the AAEP President’s Award in 2012 for his work in advancing which had “enhanced the image of veterinarians around the world,” according to then-president John Mitchell.

redefining cruelty

“What we’re trying to do is get horse people, and everybody, to lift their vision up a little bit and look at the world. When you do, you’ll find that horses are still a hugely important part of transportation and movement everywhere except here,” Merriam said.

Equine aid is not a vibrant part of the global charity network.

“We are among the last to be consulted in disaster situations and are overlooked in the charitable world as unimportant to the recovery of rural populations, yet we can appreciate the importance of working equids to the rural poor throughout the world,” Merriam wrote in a 2012 paper for the AAEP.

While there are many veterinary charities serving developing countries, it’s not a focus of the UN, USAID or other governmental grant-making institutions.

To raise funds, Merriam finds he has to change how people think about animal treatment in third world countries.

“To me, cruelty is beating an animal for no reason,” Merriam said.

“We think, ‘oh, how cruel, this animal is skin and bones.’ But there really isn’t much for him to eat, and the owners care for him as best they can. It’s cruel, but it’s not cruelty,” Merriam said.

With so many problems facing impoverished communities Shelly is glad to help however they can.

“We know we can’t solve all their problems,” Shelly said. “We can help their animals, and that’s huge for them. They rely on those animals economically, whether they’re hauling coconuts or bananas, or getting the kids back and forth to school.”

Donkeys, horses and mules are the pickup trucks of the developing world, and sometimes they’re treated as such, Shelly said.

But after so many years working in Samana, Shelly sees the local animal owners developing more caring relationships with their beasts.

“It’s really changed, partly due to the education. Once they understand their part in the health of the animal, it becomes more of a personal relationship,” she said.

After retiring from his Massachusetts practice, Jay and Shelly moved to the Teller Springs neighborhood between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale to be closer to one of their two children.

It’s a good place for anyone who loves horses, and Merriam rides mules with friends. He doesn’t keep any horses himself because he’s allergic to hay.

Each year, Merriam spends weeks traveling to other countries, getting his veterinary “fix” caring for the working animals overseas.

“I see horses here in this valley that are so well taken care of. Something happens to the horse medically, and they have four veterinarians on scene before they get off the phone. And yet, these animals (in less developed nations) are working every day with no care,” Merriam said.

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