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The Gili’s are three tiny islands in Indonesia.  Four islands are clustered together; Lombok (which is large and bustling), supporting the three that I’m talking about, Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air.  (In Sasak, the language spoken in Lombok, Gili means small island). Indonesia is an archipelagic state, made up of approx. 15,000 islands, and all of the waterways that connect them.  Java and Bali may be the two most known, but it’s often the smaller islands that are more interesting.

The three Gili islands seen from Lombok – Gili Trawangan being the biggest and the only one that isn’t flat!

Only Gili Air has a natural, clean water supply (Air meaning water in Indonesian), both Gili Trawangan and Gili Meno having no natural water source.  Because of this, there was no settlement on the three islands. In the late 1980’s, backpackers began stopping off in the Gili’s due to the stunning diving sites in the area, and in the 90’s, people began building there.  

So, why am I starting out with a geography lesson?  Gili T (as it is commonly known) is where I am currently sitting, and it’s a really important place in my world.  The Gili islands have no motorised vehicles on land, if you want something moved, it’ll be by either horse or human power.  Depending on your mindset, it’s heaven or hell. There have always been accusations (and cases) of thin, dehydrated or lame horses working, horrible hand-made wire bits and galls from badly fitting tack. Slowly, a group of very determined people are making things better.

The first bit of information that I think is vital in understanding the situation, is that the area is incredibly poor, but proud.  The people have very little and live a basic life. Many people live without running water and/or electricity, and many of the older generation cannot read or write.  The issues I’m describing are generally not abuse, but ignorance and lack of means. Many things, such as caring for your pony, are passed down generation to generation, so if my grandfather did it this way, why should I change?  The ponies are not only for tradition, but in most cases, they are the only means of earning an income. If you own a couple of ponies and a cart, you can work for a much higher income than someone who doesn’t have this luxury. The ponies are the difference between feeding your family or not, so it’s in the owner’s best interest to keep the ponies as well as possible.  

Horses and humans live together – the pony in his stable, a house in front of him and the other house behind.  They all live with no electricity and minimal running water

There are three types of equine job that a pony could end up doing here on island, and as with human jobs, some are better than others.  The best job is that of being a chidoma pony, or taxi. The chidoma are small yellow carts with seats, pulled by a single pony, that ferry the tourists around the island.  Because they are the most visible and are hand picked by guests, the ponies are generally the fattest, the prettiest and are well taken care of. If you don’t have a clean, round, tidy pony, chances are tourists will not hire you.  There are rules in place to try and protect these ponies, and they would work if you could remove the occasional idiot tourist… The maximum load is four humans or suitcases, plus the driver. But then, you get the group of five who can’t possibly be separated, and manage to persuade the driver to let them all on board – taking 2 chidoma would cost a bit more, and the ride is probably 5 minutes at max, but no, some tourists still insist that it can’t be done and all must go together.  Fortunately, many drivers stand their ground, but they have to earn a living, and some will back down to get the job.

 A pony taxi, or Chidoma

The biggest group of ponies are the goods trucks of the islands.  You have a shop and all your merchandise has just arrived on a boat?  It’s a pony who’ll move it. You are building a new villa and your bricks, stone, cement, rubble need to get shifted?  It’ll be a pony. You live on island and have new furniture coming on the boat? Yup, it’ll be a pony. And, you own a dive centre and all your diver’s tanks and dive gear need to get from the office to the boat?  Pony power. These ponies tend to have a tougher time, as they are generally not hand selected. Their loads can be heavier if it’s things like rubble or bricks, as the drivers want to pack as much into the cart as possible.  And, the visible thing that is a challenge – the port where the ponies stand for loading from the docks is sandy, it is on the actual beach. The ponies may stand there for an hour or more, waiting for a boat and then more time waiting while the cart is loaded.  Once ready, they have to move, the faster the better, to pull the cart forward on a sandy surface, and get up and over the little ramp leading onto the road. The drivers send the ponies at the ramp fast to help them, and a mindless tourist who wanders across the entrance at exactly that moment causes the pony to be hauled to a stop or to the side to avoid hitting the human, which carries massive punishment, even if it is the tourists own fault.  Once rolling, the carts are relatively easy to keep moving.

The “Goods” ponies standing in the harbour waiting for their loads

The final group of ponies are the rubbish collectors, who go out early every morning with the rubbish carts and empty all the bins over the island.  This was for the very bottom level of pony, the ones who’d fallen on hard times and were old, thin or unwanted. Fortunately, help is on hand and things are improving.  Animal Aid Abroad, an international animal welfare organisation, and the Gili Eco Trust have stepped in and dramatically improved the conditions of these rubbish ponies.  

A rubbish cart pony standing in his stable after his morning at work

For many years, all of these ponies on the Gili islands had a tough time, but in the past few years things have dramatically improved.  One of the major issues that have been dealt with, was water. As already mentioned, Gili T and Meno had no clean water. For humans, all the drinking water is brought to the island in bottles, and there are now desalination plants, that collect sea water and purify it, making it safe to use for showers, cleaning etc.  Until the last few years, the horse were given sea water to drink – their local owners saw nothing wrong with this, but, sadly, the vast majority of ponies died within months from kidney failure. Now, with advice flowing into the islands, the owners are understanding that this is a problem and the horses are given fresh, clean drinking water.  Access to better food is also easier, the horses receiving rice bran and a formulated pellet that is brought in from Lombok.

Horses of Gili has been set up, and hold twice yearly vet clinic weeks, where a team of vets and farriers come on island to help with medical checks, geldings, dental care, hoof care, tack fitting and general horse care advise, and there is currently a veterinary clinic being built, where a local vet and farrier will be employed to help take care of the animals on a day to day basis.  

Even now, some activists are called for a boycott of the Gili islands, saying that tourists are encouraging the abuse of these horses.  My views? Boycotting the islands isn’t going to help anyone. The tourists who don’t know or care about the horses will still keep going, so things would get worse if those interested in uplifting the horses, stay away.  The locals need to earn a living too, which is supported by the tourism industry. Last year, tourism declined dramatically due to several earthquakes and this saw a struggle for the horses and their owners. And, if a horse is well cared for, fed, rested and healthy, there is nothing wrong with them having a job to do.  If it is cruel for a pony to pull a cart, could it also be said to be cruel for them to jump, do dressage or be ridden?

A pony cools off in the sea after their day’s work

How can you help?  Help is always needed for these ponies.  Finances are tight, and money is needed to supplement their feed, help with veterinary supplies and currently building the vet clinic.  Donations of tack and equipment is also always necessary as much of the locally produced equipment is not safe, ethical or comfortable. And, support and information.  If you go to the Gili’s, support the drivers who are doing a good job. Volunteer at the Horses of Gili charity, spread the word that good horse management is always possible.  A working horse’s life can be good, with a little care, knowledge and compassion..

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Ashleigh Sanderson
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 25-03-2019
Ashleigh Sanderson is a riding coach who travels internationally full time. Part coach, part nomad, part thrill-seeker, Ashleigh is always looking for new ways to explain the principles of ethical, logical and horse-friendly riding and horse care. Her website name,, comes from the Malay and Indonesian languages and so reflects the amount of time she spends in Asia. Kuda meaning horse, and guru meaning teacher. Although initially this was a nickname given by the local staff, she has turned the meaning around a little, thinking of it as, “Your horse is your teacher, I just translate”.