You know tug-of-war, the sport allowing two teams to measure their strength? In Argentina, people pit two horses against one another in a similar, but much crueller, competition. The horses are both hitched to a wagon and instructed to pull it in opposite directions as people bet on the winner. Several different animal rights groups contacted our newsroom about what they say is a cruel practice that reflects a wider problem of the mistreatment of horses in Argentina.

Some animal rights organisations in Argentina recently spoke out against a video showing a tug-of-war between two horses. The animals are tied to either end of two attached wagons.

After a few seconds, someone shouts "Vamos!" ("Go!"). The two drivers start whipping the horses, who neigh and begin to pull in opposite directions, even though the wagons are attached. Very quickly, one of the two animals gains the upper hand. The weaker horse is pulled backwards until the competition comes to an end.

WARNING: READERS MAY FIND THE VIDEOS BELOW SHOCKING

Several different animal rights organisations contacted our newsroom about this video.

According to one of the associations that raised the alarm, the video was first posted on an Argentinian Facebook group dedicated to stopping cruelty to animals called "Stop Grabois" on September 12, 2017. The caption on the video describes the men running the competition as “marginalised workers”.

When contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the man running this page said that the video (and the others he shared at the same time) had actually been filmed four years prior, in 2012, in the province of Buenos Aires, located to the south of the capital. However, he also said that people still run these kind of competitions even today.

He said that people often bet on the competitions.

"Some people even bet trucks on the winner,” he said.

In this video, which was also published on the "Stop Grabois" Facebook page, you can see the same red wagon that features in the first video.
 

Another video from the Facebook page "Stop Grabois".
 

Aside from the videos posted on this page, other similar images have been shared in the media (for example, here and here) and by other associations for the protection of animals (here).
 

"Tug-of-war with horses is an underground activity”

Eliana Couso is the president of ALUISA (the Association for the Fight for Social Integrity and Animal Rights).

There are several different regions in Argentina where people do tug-of-war with horses. In the province of Buenos Aires, for example, people run these competitions a few kilometres away from the capital, especially in Quilmes.

The people who participate or watch these tug-of-wars think of it as a game. Some people bet on the outcome. It is an underground activity because it involves cruelty to animals. The horses are treated terribly. It is illegal under the law for the protection of animals. That said, this practice isn’t common. I’ve never seen it happen live.

"Most of the horses used in tug-of-war matches are already abused on a daily basis”

Most of the men who participate in these competitions are cart-drivers who collect rubbish for the city using a cart drawn by a horse or a donkey.

They are considered to be in the informal sector, even though they usually have the blessing of city authorities because they can collect rubbish in areas where rubbish trucks can’t go. There are people doing this job all over Argentina. However, the problem is that most of the horses used in this sector are abused on a daily basis.

"Most of the horses finish by dying of exhaustion”

Edgardo Julio Di Salvo is a veterinarian in the province of Buenos Aires. Di Salvo is also a member of ALUISA. He told our team about the problems he sees with these horses.

One thing is that the cart drivers don’t always realise that their horses aren’t well. They see them as a tool of their trade that can be sold and rented. So many of the horses end up collapsing and dying of exhaustion. I see this every day on the job, even if there are no figures on this.

 

The horses are often made to pull extremely heavy carts. (Video filmed in Quilmes, in the province of Buenos Aires.)


A bystander sent this video to a local media outlet, explaining that the horse collapsed in the middle of the street in San Miguel de Tucumán, a town in the north of the country.

Many of these horses aren’t vaccinated, even though there are some obligatory vaccinations. That means that some die of tetanus, for example. Some of the horses that we see are malnourished or dehydrated. Others have ulcers or infections, which sometimes means that we have to put them to sleep. Others have problems with their teeth, muscles or hooves -- because many of them aren’t shod. Some of them are blind. Really, their health is catastrophic.

And that list doesn’t even include the daily abuse and violence that many of these horses endure. In fact, many of the cart drivers come from very poor neighbourhoods where many of them were victims of abuse in the past. So they recreate their own experiences and take it out on their horses.


In May, 27 horses belonging to cart-drivers were confiscated by authorities in Quilmes, in Buenos Aires province. Many of them were in a terrible state and didn’t have any official documentation.


In 2015, Eliana Couso and Edgardo Julio Di Salvo's organisation launched an online petition to demand a ban of using horses to collect rubbish. They also carried out social media campaigns to drum up public support. And it looks like it was successful - a law to ban the practice has been proposed and has been under review by Congress since March 2017.
 

"This issue goes hand-in-hand with other issues, like child labour”

Couso explains why her organisation wants to see this practice banned.

Aside from the mistreatment of the horses, this practice often goes hand-in-hand with other issues. Sometimes the cart drivers are children -- even though child labour is banned -- or pregnant women or people with disabilities. There is also quite a lot of horse theft.


This Facebook post says that a horse has been stolen.

Of course, if we do ban this practice nationwide, then we will need to figure out alternative solutions for these workers. But there are examples that we can follow. In August 2017, Salta [a town located in the north of Argentina] banned horse-drawn carts, even though there were between 200 and 300 in circulation. They set up training workshops for the cart drivers as many of them didn’t even know how to read or write. Others were given delivery tricycles [three-wheeled motorcycles with a cart at the back].


This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).