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Jess Wilson

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Four-Star Care for Egypt’s Horses, Part Three: An ACE of Hearts in Luxor

Eventing grooms are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, some of the hardest-working people out there. For every six minute dressage test, or moment of glory over the final fence, there have been countless hours of conscientious care behind the scenes to ensure that the sport’s equine heroes are feeling and looking their absolute best. When the season wraps up and the horses’ shoes are pulled for a well-earned break, their #supergrooms finally get a chance to enjoy a much-needed rest (and an alarm that sounds later than 5 a.m. — what a concept!). But one top groom has chosen to spend her time off in a slightly different way this year. 

Meet 24-year-old Jess Wilson, head girl and travelling groom for the legendary Sir Mark Todd. It’s no small task looking after Mark’s formidable string of top-level talent, and she’s on the road almost constantly throughout the season fulfilling her duties as the lynchpin of the team. But her love for horses extends well beyond the four-star competitors she tends to. She’s on a mission to improve the lives of working equids in some of the most underserved communities in the world — and this winter, she’s bringing us with her.

We’re so excited to have Jess on board the EN team, as she shares with us her experiences in Egypt and gives us a first-hand look at what Animal Care Egypt and Egypt Equine Aid are doing to help working horses, ponies and donkeys abroad. Fancy getting involved? Take a look at her JustGiving page, where she’s busy raising vital funds for both charities, and follow her on Instagram, too, for live updates from the field. 

If you missed them, check out part one and part two of Jess’ blog.

I’ve been helping at Animal Care Egypt for a few days now, and wow! What can I say, other than what a fantastic place. The founder and manager, Kim Taylor, and co-manager, Ayman Butros, have been so helpful and generous in welcoming me to Luxor and ensuring I have everything I need for my stay (as well as being on hand for some great restaurant recommendations!)

The facility, in great contrast to the rest of Egypt, is kept immaculate and orderly by an awesome team of local staff, and there’s a large office and education area where local children come to learn about how to better look after their animals. There are two treatment rooms for small animals where Egyptian nationals can get their dogs and cats spayed or neutered for free, and then there’s the equine clinic, where I’ve been spending most of my time.

Immaculately maintained sand turnout paddocks allow the clinic’s residents the chance of a leg-stretch and a roll — commonplace pleasures for our own horses, but a luxury for a working horse in Egypt, who may live his whole life on concrete. Photo by Jess Wilson.

There are two parts to the equine clinic: the inpatients, who are admitted to stay in our hospital, and outpatients, who are treated and sent home with creams that their owners can treat the animals with at home. Alongside this is a large wash-off area, where all owners are asked to hose their horses off before seeking treatments. Here, they’re taught about the importance of keeping their horses cool, clean and hydrated.

ACE’s outpatient clinic and wash-off area, where horse-owners can provide some relief from the sweltering heat as well as essential hygiene for their animals. Photo by Jess Wilson.

I’m lucky to have been joined at ACE by three other volunteers – Dr Billy Fehin and nurse Sam Feighery from Rossdales veterinary clinic in Newmarket, and vet nurse Dianna Wilson. Not only is it a great experience to work alongside these guys, they’re also fun company, and I’ve found it much less stressful getting out and about outside of the centre, compared to my usual solo travel missions, where I’m a massive target for touts and hawkers!

Morning meetings cover every patient’s needs for the day — fortunately, the process is aided by an enormous treatment board, and the diligent team at ACE leave nothing to chance when it comes to offering these horses, ponies and donkeys the very best of care. Photo by Jess Wilson.

Our days start in the inpatients’ clinic, where we go around and check each patient, administer medications, and write notes about the condition of each horse or donkey, before heading back to the treatment room. There, we meet with ACE’s team of fantastic vets and go through a plan for what we need to do with each patient that day. Then I get to work cleaning, flushing, debriding wounds, changing dressings and bandages, helping give the horses fluids, and trying not to get in the way of the pros!

Once all the inpatients are looked after, I head to the outpatients are to lend a hand there. Horses are brought in for a number of reasons — from lameness to wounds to colic. There’s a bit of a language barrier between myself and the owners, but if the issue isn’t obvious, I can normally figure out the gist of the problem, using a bit of pointing and some hand gestures! Then, whilst waiting for one of the vets to be free, I can make some further investigations, checking vital signs, taking temperatures, assessing the cause of lamenesses, cleaning wounds, applying bandages, putting dressings on, and so on.

A deep abdominal wound, like the one seen here, isn’t an uncommon site at ACE. Photo by Jess Wilson.

After a thorough clean and flush, the wound can be dressed. The dressing is secured and then taped over with duct tape, which gives the wound the best chance of healing without infection. Photo by Jess Wilson.

We’ve had quite a few horses come in with really deep wounds and sores on their withers from ill-fitting tack. I find these cases quite hard to deal with, as really, the horses need a long period of time without any tack on the wound to allow it to heal, and for the area to be immobilised so it can close over. Sadly, that’s just not possible in most cases, as the owners need their horses to work every day, so the best we can do is clean the wound, apply a honey-soaked dressing, administer some painkillers, and give the owner a doughnut-shaped cushion, which relieves pressure on the area. The heartbreaking part for me is sending them back out the gate, back to their lives of pain and struggle, not knowing if the owners have listened to and understood what we’ve told them.

Sometimes, a little bit of ingenuity is required — here, a deep wound to a horse’s face is cleaned with a homemade saline flushing system. Though the wound itself was heartbreaking to witness, and the healing process will likely take a long time, this patient’s long-term outlook is bright, thanks to the dedication of the ACE team. Photo by Jess Wilson.

It’s obvious, up close, that these horses have a tough life — not only are they all very skinny, they have scars and open wounds on their knees and hips from lying down in the busy streets or on the concrete patches on which they live. They often have scars between their hind legs and on their rumps from a lifetime of being whipped, and deep gashes on the inside of their fetlocks from poorly-shod hooves, which cause them to brush as they’re hammered along the roads.

Knee injuries like these are common for working equines and, because of their proximity to the delicate structures of the joint, they need to be treated diligently. Photo by Jess Wilson.

This horse’s owner lives 1.5 hours away from the clinic, so he was able to be admitted as an inpatient for ongoing cleaning and treatment. Photo by Jess Wilson.

Often, when they come to the clinic, I don’t know where to start when cleaning them up and making them more comfortable. But thank god they have somewhere to come, where we can, and will, help them, and thank god their owners are seeking help and trying to do the right thing for their horses.

It must be strange for a rural Egyptian man to arrive at the clinic to be greeted by a white girl in a t-shirt, but the local horse owners have been nothing but polite and extremely grateful towards me. What gives me hope and keeps me determined to carry on is that most of the owners I’ve met are genuinely concerned for their horses and they really want us to help them, so I’m starting to think that, if we continue to educate them we might start to see a change — albeit, a slow one — in the way horses are kept and used here.

Until next time!

Support Jess: Instagram|Egypt Equine Aid|Animal Care Egypt|JustGiving

Four-Star Care for Egypt’s Horses, Part Two: An Eye-Opening Layover

Eventing grooms are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, some of the hardest-working people out there. For every six minute dressage test, or moment of glory over the final fence, there have been countless hours of conscientious care behind the scenes to ensure that the sport’s equine heroes are feeling and looking their absolute best. When the season wraps up and the horses’ shoes are pulled for a well-earned break, their #supergrooms finally get a chance to enjoy a much-needed rest (and an alarm that sounds later than 5 a.m. — what a concept!). But one top groom has chosen to spend her time off in a slightly different way this year. 

Meet 24-year-old Jess Wilson, head girl and travelling groom for the legendary Sir Mark Todd. It’s no small task looking after Mark’s formidable string of top-level talent, and she’s on the road almost constantly throughout the season fulfilling her duties as the lynchpin of the team. But her love for horses extends well beyond the four-star competitors she tends to. She’s on a mission to improve the lives of working equids in some of the most underserved communities in the world — and this winter, she’s bringing us with her.

We’re so excited to have Jess on board the EN team, as she shares with us her experiences in Egypt and gives us a first-hand look at what Animal Care Egypt and Egypt Equine Aid are doing to help working horses, ponies and donkeys abroad. Fancy getting involved? Take a look at her JustGiving page, where she’s busy raising vital funds for both charities, and follow her on Instagram, too, for live updates from the field. 

Check out part one of Jess’ blog here!

As every penny donated to my JustGiving page is going straight to my two chosen charities, I’ve self-funded all my expenses on a pretty tight budget. Direct flights were nearing £1000, so I was left with two choices: do an 18-hour trip, or arrive in the middle of the night. I opted for what I thought was the safer option, and booked a flight to my first stop, Animal Care Egypt in Luxor, with an 11-hour layover in Cairo.

After reading multiple travel blog horror stories from solo females in Cairo, ranging from hotel scams to being sexually assaulted by so-called ‘tour guides’ in the pyramid chambers, it did cross my mind to just stay in the safety of the airport for the duration. After all, 11 hours seems like nothing compared to some of the mega-long drives I’ve done across Europe and the USA en route to competitions!

Heading off on the first leg of the long trip to Egypt. Photo courtesy of Jess Wilson.

In the end, I decided staying in the airport would be massively wimping out, and if I had any chance of surviving three weeks on my own in Egypt, I had no choice but to grow a pair. So, as ever, I put my faith in TripAdvisor, and through their recommendations, I arranged a driver to take me on a super-speedy tour of Cairo. The main area I wanted to see was Giza — obviously for the pyramids, but also to really see and experience what’s happening to the horses there.

I landed in Cairo at 4:30 a.m., and after the very easy and efficient process of getting a visa and going through immigration, I left the terminal to be greeted by a wall of men trying to sell me taxi rides. Luckily, I had trusty Ahmed pre-booked and waiting for me, so off we went into the madness of Cairo.

Horses pulling carts are a common sight on the streets of Cairo — and often, they can be spotted working from sun up until sun down, with rare, if any, breaks for food and water. Photo by Jess Wilson.

It really is hard to describe a place so full of contrasts between rich and poor, traditional and modern, filth and beauty. Side by side are five-star hotels and homes made of cardboard boxes. Traffic — six or seven cars wide across a three-lane road — is a mix of brand new Mercedes and the oldest battered Toyotas, spewing black smoke, missing mirrors, and with paintwork patched up in multiple colours. Across the street from beautifully manicured gardens, piles of rubbish and plastic are heaped along the roadside and dotted through the street, and within those piles, skinny and lame stray dogs and cats — and even, sometimes, horses — could be seen scavenging for scraps.

At the Great Pyramids of Giza — the bright and beautiful side to Cairo. Photo courtesy of Jess Wilson.

We arrived at the pyramids at around 7:30 a.m., which turned out to be a great time to go, as it was before the crowds and hawkers appeared. The pyramids really are amazing, and they surpassed all my expectations; I’m so glad I got to see them.

A working horse in the streets of Cairo. Photo by Jess Wilson.

Unfortunately, the experience was slightly ruined by the heart-wrenching sight of the poor pyramid horses and camels tied up — and, in some cases, down — on a rough, rocky plateau with absolutely no shade, and not a drop of water in sight, waiting hour after hour for tourists to come and ride them.

I can understand that their owners have limited money to buy feed, so they’re going to look thin, with protruding ribs and hips. I can understand that lack of knowledge and training is going to result in poor farriery skills, so there are hooves and shoes of all different shapes and angles, resulting in deformed legs and lame steps, and I can understand that animals aren’t just seen as pets or friends in many cultures. They’re a way of transport, or a way to make money so that people can feed their children, but I will never be able to understand how or why people can be cruel and nasty to their animals for absolutely no reason.

The most vivid and spine-chilling memory I have of Cairo is the constant cracking and lashing sounds of horses getting whipped over and over again. How can we put a stop to that? I really have no idea. It takes a lot of time to change that sort of attitude. Will these horse-owners ever see their animals as sentient, loving beings? Or is this attitude too well-ingrained?

Horses and camels wait in the hot sun for hordes of tourists to descend. Photo by Jess Wilson.

It’s a very complex problem with no simple solution, but thank god there are charities and people on the ground working towards a change. I’m on the way to Animal Care Egypt in Luxor now to see what the situation is like for the poor horses there, and hopefully I’ll be able to play a small part in making things better for them. Then, I’ll be going back to Cairo to help out at Egypt Equine Aid for a few days. Stay tuned!

Support Jess: Instagram|Egypt Equine Aid|Animal Care Egypt|JustGiving

Going the Extra Mile: Jess Wilson Brings Four-Star Care to Egypt’s Horses

Eventing grooms are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, some of the hardest-working people out there. For every six minute dressage test, or moment of glory over the final fence, there have been countless hours of conscientious care behind the scenes to ensure that the sport’s equine heroes are feeling and looking their absolute best. When the season wraps up and the horses’ shoes are pulled for a well-earned break, their #supergrooms finally get a chance to enjoy a much-needed rest (and an alarm that sounds later than 5 a.m. — what a concept!). But one top groom has chosen to spend her time off in a slightly different way this year. 

Meet 24-year-old Jess Wilson, head girl and travelling groom for the legendary Sir Mark Todd. It’s no small task looking after Mark’s formidable string of top-level talent, and she’s on the road almost constantly throughout the season fulfilling her duties as the lynchpin of the team. But her love for horses extends well beyond the four-star competitors she tends to. She’s on a mission to improve the lives of working equids in some of the most underserved communities in the world — and this winter, she’s bringing us with her.

We’re so excited to welcome Jess on board the EN soapbox, where she’ll be sharing with us her experiences in Egypt and giving us a first-hand look at what Animal Care Egypt and Egypt Equine Aid are doing to help working horses, ponies and donkeys abroad. Fancy getting involved? Take a look at her JustGiving page, where she’s busy raising vital funds for both charities, and follow her on Instagram, too, for live updates from the field. Take it away, Jess!

As a young child I wanted to be a vet, and I used to cover all my toys in red nail varnish, stolen from my mum’s dresser, to mimic bleeding wounds. Then, I would bandage them up and take them to the makeshift hospital hidden under my bed. When I got older I naively gave up the academic route in pursuit of a career as a rider, but now have a very happy life doing neither — instead, I work as travelling head girl for Sir Mark Todd, looking after the nicest bunch of horses in the world (though I’m not in any way biased!) and travelling to the best and biggest eventing competitions. While it’s hard work, and not always as glamorous as our Instagram posts might lead you to believe, it’s an amazing life offering an unparalleled insight into elite sport, whilst allowing me to maintain that love of horses that I just can’t seem to grow out of!

Jess and NZB Campino, known at home as Kinky, settle in to a sunny Burghley. Photo courtesy of Jess Wilson.

Travel is something that I’ve always been curious about, perhaps because, having always had horses at home to look after, I barely left my home county of Yorkshire until I was 16. In fact, my first time ever leaving the United Kingdom was when I went to Fontainebleau in France as a groom! But I’ve always had the idea that I might be able to use my passion for horses to do some good in the world. Now, a few years down the line and many countries later, it’s great to be in a position where I’m able to fulfil this long-held ambition of helping horses in need, combined with travelling to new places.
I’ve always liked the idea of doing charity work, but it wasn’t until a short holiday to Morocco last year, that I got my first taste — and smell! — of what life is actually like for the majority of people in the outside world that we’re so sheltered from. I found myself walking down sewage-filled streets in 45ºC heat, wrestling my way through the intimidating throng of beggars and traders forced, by their desperation, into aggressive attempts to get money. Seeing a sad picture in the media and having to physically peel crying, starving children off you as they cling onto your clothes, begging for food as you’re walking down the road, are two very different experiences, after all. And, of course, when people are stricken by poverty, their animals undoubtedly suffer, too.

Jess and some of her charges at Animal Aid’s India outpost in 2017. Photos courtesy of Jess Wilson.

So last winter, with Mark’s horses on their holidays and spurred on by my time in Morocco, I put on my brave pants, had a #thisgirlcan moment and spent some time volunteering at Animal Aid, a charity hospital for street animals in India. I had an amazing time learning a lot about myself and life, but came home feeling utterly helpless — my efforts felt wholly insignificant. After travelling well over 1,000 miles on the road sightseeing, and for mile after mile seeing cows and donkeys knee-deep in rubbish rummaging for food, seeing child after child not in school but barefoot in threadbare clothes working in the fields, and passing horse after horse limping along, straining under heavy loads of timber, sand, and marble, I just couldn’t fathom how anyone would — or could — go about making things better on such a large scale for so many needy people and animals. I returned home riddled with guilt and questioning my own conscience that most days, walking to or from my tuk-tuk pick up point, I had been able to step over starving bodies in the street without stopping to help — admittedly partly from a safety point of view — yet was on my way to nurse hopeless cases of run-over stray dogs and cattle through their final hours.

Jess in India. Photo courtesy of Jess Wilson.

With three horses entered for Badminton in the spring, I was soon back into the whirlwind of the event season and, because it was a World Championship year, I was 100% focused on getting the horses prepared for their competitions. But still, the thought of the hundreds of impoverished animals and children struggling on, day after day, niggled away in the back of my mind.
I think the thing that stops a lot of people from trying to help is knowing where to start. There are so many issues facing the working equid population, and so many causes worthy of our time and money — from the brick kilns in Pakistan, the rubbish dumps in Mexican slums, live export through Europe, to the UK’s own abandoned horses crisis — that it’s tough to choose how to help. But things aren’t going to get better if we are overwhelmed into doing nothing. I truly believe, and have seen for myself, that the acts of one person can spiral into so much good, and I can’t justify treating ‘my own’ horses like the loving, intelligent, sentient friends that they are, yet turn a blind eye to the abuse and agony that their foreign counterparts are being subjected to. 

Jess and McLaren, Mark’s WEG mount. Photo courtesy of Jess Wilson.

So I’ve decided to go back out into the big, wide, scary world, outside of my comfort zone, and will be spending my time volunteering at two charity equine hospitals in Egypt. Dorothy Brooke first brought the world’s attention to the plight of horses in this part of the world, and after reading The Lost Warhorses of Cairo at a young age, I’ve always wanted to try and improve things for the working horses there. With the population currently suffering greatly in an economic drought from lack of tourism — due, largely, to political unrest in the Arab world — many families are now living on the brink, and their reliance on working animals is huge. Unfortunately, that reliance is paired with a real lack of knowledge, resources, and, occasionally, compassion with regards to animal welfare in the country. Currently, there are no animal welfare laws, though I believe one is being drafted – but being without this necessary legislation causes unimaginable and unnecessary hardship to the horses there.

A working donkey in Marrakech, where Jess was first inspired to take up charity work. “Whilst there’s no justification for neglect or cruelty, when you see their owners in rags with no shoes perhaps it’s easier to understand why their animals might not be shod or looked after to the standard we find acceptable,” she notes. Photo courtesy of Jess Wilson.

The first leg of my trip will be to Luxor, where I’ll be working with Animal Care Egypt, before heading to the outskirts of Cairo, the base of Egypt Equine Aid. There, they offer temporary relief and medical expertise for the poor horses, with all of the aid provided by the charity’s free equine hospitals. They also provide basic veterinary education and management advice for their owners. Egypt is a difficult climate for horses at the best of times, with heat, sand, and ticks to contend with. That, combined with limited access to veterinary professionals and, in the poorest areas, high rates of illiteracy and a reliance on tradition, means that these hospitals are stretched to their limits every day. They do everything they can for horses who are often walking the fine line between survival and death.
I’m excited to be able to share my experience with you, and I hope I can make some small positive impact on the lives of working horses in Egypt. For anyone in a position to donate, I’ve set up a crowdfunding page, the funds from which will be split between the two charities. In the meantime, I’m in the process of organising the hefty travel insurance I’ll need, a series of vaccinations, and, of course, finding suitable clothes to pack, but I know that the most important things to take with me are an open heart and an open mind!